First published in 10th August 2016 in The MJ.
Let's start with the evidence.
High-quality relationships are foundational to individual and social wellbeing.
Specifically, the higher the quality of the relationship between parents and co-parents, between parents and children or, indeed, with other members of a family or a community, the more likely a child or a young person is to thrive in the longer-term.
To take it one step further, the importance of the couple or co-parental relationship is grounded in the close association between family breakdown or poorly managed conflict – including, but not limited to, domestic violence – and a whole raft of negative outcomes for children, from mental ill-health to low academic attainment.
Strong relationships can also improve a family’s resilience in the face of those everyday stressors which so often do such damage: from economic insecurity to poor health.
Talk to any professional working with kids or families and they will recognise the importance of relationships.
From the teacher who has uncovered the most disruptive kid in her class is at his worst after a night of arguing between his parents, to the foster carer who is struggling to build trust with a young person who has only known relationships to break down, public service professionals deal with the implications of poor-quality relationships every day.
This evidence has been around for a long time and the intuition has been around for even longer. But only recently have we started to consider its implications for family policy. This is partly due to the growing recognition it is no longer acceptable or affordable to let so many of our young people suffer the long-term effects of disrupted childhoods, and partly it is due to the groundbreaking work of Professor Gordon Harold and the Early Intervention Foundation who have finally proved beyond doubt what we all know to be true.
The Local Family Offer programme
Over the last year, the Department for Work and Pensions has given 12 local authorities across the UK access to expert support from Innovation Unit and One Plus One, as well as funding in the development of local family offers.
These new offers specifically focus on improving the quality of couple or co-parenting relationships, leading to better outcomes for children.
For each of the 12 local authorities, we collected a wide range of publicly available data, comparing it to the national average via visual representation.
This meant the individual authorities were able to the see stark differences in their local priorities, and in how their families fare compared with other local authorities.
Through visualising this data, local authorities identified which factor was most significant for them, and subsequently presented the biggest opportunity to intervene early with those families at risk of poor-quality relationships.
Newcastle City Council’s newly developed offer will work with families who live in the most deprived wards in the city, are going through a significant transition – in this instance, the birth of a new child – and for whom there is a history of social and emotional difficulties . These are all significant risk factors that affect the quality and stability of relationships.
Through identifying these families early and providing a range of interventions aimed at increasing the resilience of the relationship in the face of stress, the team hope to reduce the likelihood of those family members experiencing mental ill health, violence or break-down further along the line.
Croydon LBC has identified its most significant relationship risk factor: the high numbers of families who are in danger of experiencing financial instability.
Their hypothesis is that by working with those families at the point at which they come forward for help; they can help build the resilience of the couple relationship, protecting the family against the stress associated with financial instability.
Their plans are based on working with staff in the council’s Gateway service, to help them ask potentially sensitive questions about the quality of a family’s relationships and to make sure the family is signposted to relevant early-help services.
Implications for family policy
The Local Family Offer programme has only started to scratch the surface of what might be achieved through embracing and working with the evidence about relationships.
For Newcastle and Croydon, the job is now to think about how they work with those families they identified to build the quality of their relationships. While there are a number of existing evidence based interventions, this will require significant innovation.
It will also require both central and local government to recognise some of the barriers in existing family support systems that make it so hard for professionals and others to focus on relationships. For example:
Family stability and the quality of adult relationships are rarely recognised as significant in service outcomes and objectives, or at least the ones local authorities are held accountable for. Where they are present, resource constraints, capacity issues, a cultural aversion to risk and practical barriers to joined-up working mean services tend to fall back on a more narrow set of priority outcomes.
Solving inherently relational problems in families requires relational interventions which rely on high-quality relationships. In other words, the quality of the relationship between a professional and a family is key to driving change. Despite their best efforts, it is difficult for professionals to build meaningful relationships with families when their time is so squeezed.
The signs of relationship difficulties are most likely to manifest in universal services. For example, GPs, teachers, health visitors, midwives or indeed the police are often the first port of call for people who are having relationship issues. But in too many cases, these professionals are neither willing nor able to spot the signs, or ask the difficult questions that might uncover them. At the same time, if they did identify a risk factor, the organisational and departmental silos in which many professionals operate make it very difficult for them to use this intelligence productively.
The depth and the quality of the evidence base in terms of interventions that support the quality of parenting relationships is limited. By demanding that all commissioned interventions demonstrate high levels of robust evidence, commissioners make it more difficult for themselves to commission relationship support and risk undermining the huge potential for development.
What can local authorities do? They can:
Be brave in confronting the evidence around the importance of relationships, and use it to invest strategically in early intervention and prevention with families.
Work with families to build their social and support networks, recognising their importance to the long term resilience of relationships.
Organise services such that professionals have the time and support they need to build trusted relationships with families.
Lead partners – including health and the police – in defining a set of shared outcomes that recognise the importance of relationships to child outcomes.
This is everyone’s opportunity.