• Public bodies that change family fortunes

    by  • June 7, 2010 • Features, The Guardian • 0 Comments

    A pioneering project in north London shows the value of getting public agencies to work together. But having one person ‘go into bat’ for vulnerable families is just as important.

    Angela, a cute one-year-old with tight pigtails, plays placidly amongst the scattered toys in the Packington Estate’s children’s centre in north London. A year ago she was “crying all the time”, her mother, Evelyne, says.

    Evelyne, isolated from her family and struggling with her English, had no support: “In the beginning, I didn’t know anybody.”

    Help came in the form of the families project run by Hyde, the estate’s housing association. Now in its second year, it brings together 17 public agencies that deal with families, including local schools, health visitors and Islington council.

    Vulnerable families on the estate, which is among the most deprived 5% in the country, sit down with representatives from some or all of the agencies to talk about everything they need from public services. A ‘lead professional’ from one of the agencies then works closely with the family, acting as a bridge to other bodies.

    For Evelyne, the project has opened up services she didn’t even know existed: a children’s support worker to help her with Angela, a trip to the citizens advice bureau to look at fighting an unfair dismissal from work, and help chasing up a lost tax credit application.

    Being able to call up her lead professional, who can “introduce” her to other agencies, has been life changing.

    Cassandra Favager, Hyde’s regeneration manager, says the project is helping 40 families who aren’t being looked after by social services but may have up to a dozen major problems. Closer working by public agencies, a key aim, hasn’t been easily achieved.

    It was “a real struggle convincing housing officers [the project] was worth their time”, she says; even now the culture change has happened “better with some than others”.

    The project’s first year threw up some difficulties. Teachers often wouldn’t show up for daytime meetings, something the project may tackle by meeting more at schools. Some families found the group meetings “overwhelming”, and will need to be better briefed beforehand and have their lead professional on board earlier.

    But overall the project transformed families’ lives, Favager says, and “opened doors between services that knew each other existed but only went to each other in times of crisis”.

    The children’s centre now houses mental health services, while parenting and stop smoking surgeries take place elsewhere on the estate. Workers learn new skills: for example, housing officers are trained to identify potential domestic violence.

    And the cost? Not much, Favager says: one full-time coordinator (funded by central government) and a part-time project manager.

    Nor is it a drain on time. Lead professionals may have to make a few phone calls around other agencies, but the time saved by being able to refer individuals on makes participation “a no-brainer”, she says.

    An independent evaluation of the project’s first year found it had achieved its aims, helping families receive more grants and resolve problems with their children more quickly. Favager admits she can’t yet prove it saves money, but insists the project has “demonstrated its worth” and shouldn’t fear public sector cuts.

    Evelyne, meanwhile, has no doubts. In an era when the government expects individuals to do more, she is clear that, in fact, greater one-to-one support is vital. “If I need help, I just call Mary [her lead professional],” she says. “The project is good for me. It can’t stop.”

    First published in The Guardian

    Max Rashbrooke


    Max is an author, academic and journalist working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he writes about politics, finance and social issues. Sign up to Max's mailing list.

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