The Government announced last week that 14,000 families’ lives have been ‘turned around’ in the past 15 months as a result of the ‘Troubled Families’ programme. This is great news. For too long huge numbers of vulnerable families had been left with multiple services – often working in isolation to one another – which had failed to help them overcome the problems they faced. Since its announcement in December 2011, the Troubled Families programme has offered an excellent opportunity to tip the balance away from costly reaction when problems occur towards preventative action.
The Government defines ‘troubled families’ as those who are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour, have children not in school, and have an adult on out-of-work benefits. A fourth, locally-defined criterion – specified very openly as families who cost a lot – enables local authorities to include families who only meet two of the three criteria above, yet satisfy wider criteria. A proportion of the funding is paid on payment-by-results, when families become less involved in crime, have children spend more time in school, and see adults move into work.
Consequently, last week’s numbers are to be welcomed as a sign that people are seeing improvements in their lives.
However, as the CSJ recently argued in Fractured Families: Why stability matters, the success criteria, as they stand, cannot be taken as a sign that families’ lives have been permanently changed. Success can amount to one adult moving from out-of-work benefits into 13 consecutive weeks of employment – an excellent first step, but no guarantee that things have forever improved.
Some families facing massive and multiple problems also struggle to fit the current criteria. A family with alcohol/drug abuse, domestic violence, poor parental mental health, physical disability, child protection issues, child ill-health (e.g. diabetes) and high levels of school truancy would not count as ‘troubled’. Local authorities would not receive a penny in payment-by-results for helping such families overcome these problems. As it looks to expand and develop the Trouble Families programme, the Government needs to be aware of the families who may currently be slipping through the net.
The Troubled Families programme presents a real opportunity to help vulnerable families overcome the problems they face and for changing the way services work. It could see a change so that when a family touches the state, this is not just for the immediate need (employment, truancy, for example), but this is the point at which a genuinely multi-agency approach can support the whole family’s relationships. Its long-term success must be judged on whether it is genuinely giving people the support they need to transform their lives.