Last month the Care Inquiry representing eight charities working with children in or on the edge of care published a report called ‘ Making not Breaking- Building relationships for our most vulnerable children‘. The report is rallying for a relational welfare approach to family support and the care system. Relationships are the ‘golden thread’ in the lives of vulnerable children. It argues “what has been missing is the determination to view relationships – their extent, their quality and the likelihood of their lasting – as the cornerstone of planning and practice”.
Reading it I was struck by how many of the recommendations echo those of our Life Programme. The Life Programmes purposefully work with families experiencing the most chronic crisis. This could mean continuing to work with a family who are ‘closed’ to other services such as social care and anti-social behaviour teams, but who still need help building their social and support networks in the community. Eventually this could just be the occasional phone call if that is what the family feel they need. At the other end of the scale it could mean supporting families in which children who have been taken into care through the transition to long-term foster care placements and contact arrangements.
As the report says, maintaining relationships across transitions makes a huge difference to children and families. Time and again we see that ‘closing’ a family after short-term changes can actually lead to setbacks as the relationships that helped to nurture these changes ends too prematurely. All too often this leads to a ‘revolving door’ of multiple and repeated service intervention for children and families, forcing them to repeatedly re-build relationships with new workers and leaving them fearful of opening up again to someone new, should they also move on. In this vein, the report recommends that more care is taken to ‘match’ children and workers.
In Life Programmes, families meet everyone in the Life Team and take part in activities to get to know each other before they choose who they would like to work with one to one. Families tell us that this contrasts sharply with their previous experiences of being ‘allocated’ a worker and having to start their relationship by being assessed and ‘filling out forms’. Families are encouraged to stay in touch with workers who matter to them, echoing the reports recommendation for effort to be made to sustain positive relationships between children and workers even when the latter have moved on; “the test for policy and practice should be whether they make or break relationships for vulnerable children”. Another recommendation is to the need to involve children and families more closely in the planning and making of decisions.
Our finding in Life, is that families become overwhelmed and alienated by the many plans and orders enforced on them, resulting withdrawal from engagement and a pervasive sense of helplessness and fear. The Life Programme has developed a series of simple tools to involve families in making their own plans and tracking their own progress. Families can complete these on Lifeboard, a technology platform for case recording that aims to drastically reduce the administrative burden on workers, and promote more collaboration and transparency between teams and family members.
Finally, the report notes that spending cuts have reduced frontline family support services, putting even more pressure on vulnerable children and families and over-stretched teams. It concludes “we need a renewed focus on using resources and approaches that will nurture positive relationships for children who cannot live with their parents. This must drive practice in the future – moving away from the focus on process and on administrative requirements that have come to dominate practice in recent year”. Here at Life HQ, we can only concur and hope that more people join this movement for change, which puts relationships front- and- centre in these services.
Life HQ Programme Lead