How intervention is keeping children out of care

Intensive family intervention programmes are helping parents and children to enjoy life at home together

For professionals determined to prevent teenagers deemed “on the edge of care” being removed from often initially unco-operative families, a dogged persistence is key. “I kept telling them to fuck off,” one young person explained to Ofsted inspectors looking at successful intervention work, “but they wouldn’t.”

Being straight with parents about what will happen if things do not improve, while working alongside them, rather than doing things “to them” or for them, is also critical, a report by the watchdog concludes. “They give you a kick up the backside but don’t judge you,” as one parent put it.

Practical support to improve living conditions often makes a big difference: one teenager expressed happiness at being able to go into a back garden thanks to a worker’s help that was previously “like a jungle”.

The report, Edging Away from Care, looks at good practice in 11 local authorities to keep young people at risk of entering care living at home, using methods that include family intervention programmes (FIP), family group conferencing or multisystemic therapy. Many of the young people were, or had been, subject to child protection plans.

In North Yorkshire, one of the councils visited by Ofsted, six family intervention staff worked with 79 families between January 2010 and May this year, at a cost of £200,000 a year, with 80% covered by the local authority and the rest by other local agencies. All 445 children involved were “absolutely on the edge of care”, says the council’s county residential services manager, Martin Kelly. But just five – from two families – ended up in care.

Vicky Smith (not her real name), 35, received help from family intervention worker Wendy Atkinson after her depression led to social services being alerted and her children, aged 14, 12 and five, being put on child protection plans.

“I was really depressed,” Smith says. “I was sleeping a lot and I couldn’t get up in the mornings, so the kids started having time off school.

“The house was a mess, the kids weren’t clean. Everything had gone from bad to worse. I wasn’t looking after anybody, especially myself. I was in a state.”

Atkinson’s involvement, coming round two or three times a week to give practical and emotional support, and always being available on the phone, turned the situation around, Smith says. “She started tidying the house up with me, started to get me motivated. If I didn’t get up for school she’d come round and get me up. We talked about stuff, she helped me with doctors’ appointments, reminded me about things I needed to do.”

Atkinson arranged for the family to go on an activity weekend, bringing them closer together and enabling them to meet new people, and on a Prince’s Trust-funded week in a caravan in Blackpool. Smith says she has learned how to use boundaries with her children, imposing consequences such as confiscating computer equipment when one of her sons refused to go to school.

The fact that the FIP worker is separate from social workers means parents are less suspicious of them – and they can be more hands on. In North Yorkshire, where savings made in back office and management posts are being used to increase the number of FIP staff to 22, workers only deal with four to six families at any one time. “Obviously, you have your social worker too – and mine was really good – but I got to know Wendy as somebody that I could just ring up and say, ‘Everything’s going wrong’ and she’d either come round, or give me a bit of advice,” Smith says. “It was brilliant just to know I wasn’t sat there in the house on my own: I had somebody there.” After 12 months on the scheme, the children are off the protection plans and the family is much happier.

Ofsted found that in all areas visited, the potential cost benefits of intervention were significant. Although the areas visited could not yet demonstrate that successful services had reduced overall care numbers, for “complex” reasons; in at least three there were early signs of a reduction in the number entering care.

But while families were very positive about the impact of the work, the report says, it was often accompanied by a sense of sadness that effective help hadn’t been offered at an earlier stage.

North Yorkshire council, Kelly says, is “very pleased” with the programme’s results, both in benefiting families and saving money. It estimates the FIP cost for a family of five at £6,400 a year. The cost of having one child alone in care over the same period would be nearly £13,000 in-house, and up to £50,000 externally. The legal costs of taking a child into care would probably come to another £5,300.

The system is safer than pure social work, Kelly believes, because it provides “eyes and ears”. Workers are available on the phone 24 hours a day, and can visit out of normal working hours – on a Sunday night to check everything is organised for the start of the school week, for instance. But as much as anything, the work is about encouraging people to spend time as a family: “When you’re in crisis it’s very hard to see that you can have some fun and enjoy your children,” says Kelly.

“Life is much better,” one participant told Ofsted. “I have a new home, carpet, furniture, walls. I’m happy now and want to open the door and invite people in.”