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Does ‘tough love’ for ‘troubled’ families work?

Posted on 13 September 2011 .
Tags: family intervention projects, children and young people, family, poverty

As Westminster debates whether the riots were the work of a ‘feral underclass’, new evidence is published of an intervention that is effective in helping ‘troubled’ families. Family Intervention Projects as they were originally known, were set up to work with challenging and anti-social families. The Department for Education (DfE) subsequently extended their remit to target youth crime, women offenders and families experiencing inter-generational unemployment. About 8,500 families either completed an intervention or were in the process of doing so between January 2006 and the end of March 2011– making a small dent in the estimated 120,000 ‘troubled’ families that the Prime Minister is committed to supporting.

I manage NatCen’s ongoing evaluation. The findings published today by the DfE show that family intervention services reduce crime, anti-social behaviour, address parenting and family functioning problems and reduce truancy, exclusion and bad behaviour amongst children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the average length of an intervention is 13 months - they are much less successful in addressing mental and physical health conditions, alcohol and drug misuse, or reducing the number of adults who are unemployed. More will need to be done to further address these problems if the intervention is to have lasting impact.

Critical to the success of these services is the role of a key worker who works intensively with about six families at any one time. They provide practical, emotional and parenting support, as well as co-ordinating the delivery of other specialist services. Their ‘tough love’ approach involves being persistent and assertive so as to ensure families live up to an agreed contract, which sets out the actions and behaviour change they will enact, in return for the focused support provided by the service.

The evidence of effectiveness will help in developing local solutions to working with ‘troubled’ families. Given the current focus on prevention and early intervention, local authorities will want to assess how they can adapt this service to work with families before they reach crisis point and require such remedial action. They will also want to be sure that the promising outcomes we are reporting today are as a result of the family intervention service and that the outcomes are sustained after families exit. I will have more to say about these issues when the DfE publishes our full report in the next few months.

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