Alex is 14 and lives with his granny, Alison, in a three-bedroom house outside Derby.
Alex’s mum and his twin three-year-old sisters live with his stepfather in Sheffield.
Alex is scared of his stepfather, who has been violent towards him in the past so Alex moved in with Alison.
The arrangement is unofficial, as Alex’s mum doesn’t want him to feel like he’s been abandoned.
He takes the bus back to Sheffield every day to go to school, a three-hour round trip at £4 a day.
Alison has been hit by the spare room subsidy, reducing her £147 a week income by a quarter, and is now in arrears on her rent.
Alison’s 80-year-old mother, Liz, also lived with her until recently, when Liz’s dementia became much worse.
Every day, Alison walks to the nearby care home and brings Liz back to the house for a cup of tea.
Every weekend Alex’s cousins to visit.
The boys are in their 20s and have learning disabilities so Alison helps them with budgeting and applying for jobs.
Alison is putting off having an operation on her foot, because of the effect it would have on the family members she supports.
When we met Alison, she had been referred to us as a single woman living alone with no dependants.
Both the pressure she is under and the support she provides to others are invisible to services.
Alison was involved in the first co-design session we ran and in the second prototype session.
This initial involvement gave Alison the confidence to get involved in the wider development process, over quite a long timescale.
Her ethnography – the study of social interactions, behaviours, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities – was last August, the co-design was in November and the prototyping was last month.
Government estimates indicate there are child protection issues in over a third of families with complex needs.
More than half of all children who are permanently excluded from school in England and a fifth of young offenders come from a family categorised as being at risk.
Families with multiple needs face underlying difficulties which combine to perpetuate disadvantage even further.
Long-term issues around emotional and physical health, poor literacy and numeracy, domestic violence, poverty, insecure housing and isolation make it difficult for families to find stability and start untangling their problems.
The challenge in Derbyshire is acute, with almost 17% of children and young people under 20 living in poverty.
Though estimates put the annual cost of each family with complex needs at £75,000, most of this is spent reacting to crisis.
For many of these children and families, support is often too little, too late.
During the last 18 months, we have been working to identify the needs of these families and design the right support for them.
Running alongside the work of the Troubled Families team, Thriving Families is a multi-partner initiative across four districts.
It includes representatives from county and district councils, children’s and adult services, Troubled Families teams, housing, clinical commissioning groups and public health, probation and youth offending teams, fire and police services and the voluntary and community sector.
Area teams have spent whole days with families to gain valuable insights into their lives – allowing them to tell their stories in their own words.
Co-design workshops with families and professionals have tested ideas for a new model of family support.
And, detailed resource mapping has built a picture of provision which we have compared with what families have told us about their experience of services – the key milestones in families’ journeys where support has, or has not, been given.
Just as children do not exist in isolation from the context of their families, these families do not exist in isolation from their communities.
Families with multiple needs tend to cluster, because of and contributing to communities that themselves have complex needs.
Critically, we have learned that helping individual families relies not just on targeted support, but on building networks, connections and capacity within communities of different types of families.
Thriving families have consistent, longstanding and dependable networks of friends and family who are doing comparatively better and have the capacity to support them.
They contain strong adult relationships, where the adults in the family solve problems together.
In contrast, families who experience regular periods of crisis either lack supportive relationships or have corrosive co-dependent relationships with other families with their own very complex needs.
The responsibility for earning money, providing emotional support and steering the family’s future falls on one individual.
We also found that just below the Troubled Families thresholds a large number of families are ‘just coping’ under huge pressure.
These families have significant resilience and willpower, and clear aspirations for themselves and their children.
Daily pressures prevent them from thriving but their emotional and practical support networks stop them from falling into crisis.
They are surviving but caught in stasis, unable to progress.
The default role of services is detrimental to this.
The limits of time and resources create an operating model that is interactional, not relational; focused on fire-fighting rather than long-term capacity building.
We recognised that reawakening skills and confidence in communities required a shift in the culture of the council and its partners: facilitating and supporting communities to create, deliver and evaluate their own solutions.
We could not help communities to see their own potential unless we truly believed in it ourselves.
We are now prototyping a number of new services alongside families.
A new network built for and by families will give professional advice, help and guidance to existing support families, lessening the pressure on them and helping them use their existing skills to become mentors and supporters of others.
Isolated and struggling families will be connected to support families who can offer advice and the benefit of firsthand experience.
We are also developing a new approach to joint working within the council, co-producing support plans alongside families and a new local research and design capability through which the community can decide what’s important, tell others about it and create rapid change.
We started this project looking through the lens of support for families.
Along the way we have recognised that community-led place shaping is a necessary foundation for better, sustainable outcomes; and, in turn, the best start for our children and young people.
Working in this in way with communities has already dramatically shifted the assumptions and perceptions services have about the pressures families are under.
Together, we are beginning to form a new relationship which is backed up by resource, action and, crucially, respect on both sides.
Published 30th July 2014 - Martha Hampson is Head of Innovation Practice at the Innovation Unit and Sarah Eaton Head of Policy and Research at Derbyshire County Council
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