Features: October 24th, 2014

Phil Neal examines how local authorities can overcome some of the challenges they face as they prepare for phase two of the Troubled Families scheme.

The work already underway to improve outcomes for troubled families is set to move up a gear, with the family focused approach remaining firmly at the heart of the government’s flagship programme.

The Troubled Families scheme has reportedly succeeded in turning around the lives of 53,000 vulnerable families so far, and authorities are now preparing for phase two. This next stage aims to help as many as 40,000 additional families and will be rolled out across England between 2015 and 2020. In some areas of the country, work has already started.

Based on their success in working with troubled families in the first phase, the 51 areas identified as ‘early starters’ are leading the way. These authorities have received initial funding to locate and help more of their most vulnerable families and put support in place to get their lives back on track. The role of these councils is an important one, as their experience will help shape the future expansion of the programme.

But who are the families being targeted in the next phase of the scheme? And what do authorities need to do to achieve the ultimate goal of transforming their lives?

Supporting families with multiple problems

To ensure success in the next stage of the Troubled Families initiative, it is important to look at what has been learnt from the initial phase of the scheme. One of the key findings of the work that has already taken place is that the families the government wants to target are facing a whole raft of difficulties.

According to the Understanding Troubled Families report published in July, many of the families classed as “troubled” are burdened by an average of nine different serious problems. These include such deeply entrenched issues as truancy, youth crime, anti-social behaviour and unemployment.

But along with this, the report revealed that 71% of families are struggling with health problems, 46% are dealing with mental health concerns and 29% of families are also experiencing domestic violence or abuse.

The findings are feeding into the work being planned for phase two, with the aim of addressing the multitude of complex problems faced by troubled families in a more targeted way. Authorities eligible for the additional funding available will need to plan effective strategies for identifying and addressing these specific issues.

Delivering targeted support

While the key areas under the spotlight are domestic violence, mental health and other health problems, local authorities must continue to ensure they are providing the right support to the family as a whole. In many cases problems are intertwined in these families. Providing a carer for a parent who is sick or disabled, for example, may well encourage their children to attend school more regularly. But addressing other difficulties within the family, such as poverty or substance abuse, is critical to making a real difference to their lives in the long term.

The challenge here is twofold. Authorities will need to be able to identify the families they need to help as part of phase two. But also ensure that all those involved with a family get a broad picture of their needs so that they can ensure that the range of help being provided has a positive impact. This will require information to be available to teams from a range of places, such as the child’s school, the health service, mental health trusts and the police.

Pulling this information together into one place is the fundamental objective. Teams need to create a coherent picture of families’ needs in their area so that the right help is put in
place sooner.

A holistic view of the family

The focus on the entire family unit rather than just the needs of its individual members has become a blueprint for the way services for vulnerable families are planned and delivered.

To achieve a holistic view of a family in crisis requires a joined-up approach to the way information from multiple sources is accessed and shared. When data on families is recorded and stored centrally, it can be accessed easily, and if there is a development that affects the family, such as a child being excluded from school, this information is recorded once and is available to all practitioners involved who are authorised to see it.

In this way, technology helps local authorities to keep a closer track of troubled families, enabling them to offer day-to-day support as their circumstances change and nip problems in the bud early.

Complex family set-ups

Another challenge for authorities is keeping track of the often complex relationships within families. This can include step families, short term relationships and family members living at different addresses. Knowing which adults form the support network for the children in a family is key to getting the right help in place, particularly if these support networks break down, or are over-burdened or dysfunctional.

Managing this complexity is not always straightforward, and it is one of the priority areas for developments in technology. Encouragingly, IT systems are being developed that make it easier for authorities to establish links automatically between individuals in a family. Most recently, technological advances mean that we are approaching a time when it will be possible to connect the information of the relevant people in one family record, regardless of whether they have different names or addresses.

Technology needs to keep up with the requirements of initiatives such as the Troubled Families programme, as well as enabling authority staff and practitioners working on the front line to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.

Authorities are increasingly calling for a system that will help them deliver a single view of a family. This means being able to see details of the support being provided to a family, alongside information about individual interventions put in place. Having this more holistic view is essential to helping teams unravel the tangled threads of difficult lives.

With the right support, delivered in a timely way, not only will each individual family member get help to overcome their own particular difficulties, the family unit will also be strengthened as a whole. The knock-on effect of this is happier, better functioning families providing stronger support networks for adults to re-enter the workforce and children to thrive at school.

Expectations will be high for the success of phase two of the Troubled Families programme. As a result, demand will increase for systems that offer a more complete picture of need and support teams in helping to drive positive change for the families in their care.

As the pace of technological advancement quickens, we can look ahead with confidence to a time when authorities can ensure this family-centred approach has a widespread and sustained impact on the lives of struggling families.

Phil Neal is the managing director of Capita One, whose management information solution is used by 120 local authorities to manage data on children and families.