Protecting Our Children: Will It Change Attitudes To Social Work?

The excellent Protecting Our Children concluded on Monday evening. The practitioners and programme-makers deserve congratulations for an absorbing, honest and above all human depiction of contemporary social work to sit alongside the two Panorama programmes looking at children in care.

 

In all the meetings I’ve attended over the past three weeks, conversation has turned to the latest programme as soon as a lull in proceedings appeared and often when it didn’t. Generally it’s gone down very well, in sharp contrast to the scant few past series covering our world. I remember one dire effort that I think looked at a social work team in the north. Eminently forgettable, I nevertheless recall it began with a social worker guiltily shovelling down a giant doner kebab whilst at his desk then playing up to the camera in a manner that would have embarrassed David Brent. Gloomily we watched well-intentioned but ill-conceived and executed direct work with a young child and a succession of families unsure about what was happening.
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Troubleshooting Families

Millionaire Cameron is riding in on his moral high horse to save ‘troubled’ families. So the government agenda of blame and simplistic thinking continues. Yesterday, Cameron announced his programme of rolling out ‘troubleshooters’ to help ‘problem’ families.

I don’t know where to start in picking apart this policy initiative which, on a shallow level, seems to be fine (apart from the language which is shocking and couched in prejudice and blame that this government is becoming quite skilled at). Coordinating approaches across different agencies is all well and good, it is when you look at the details, the costs the figures and the language that this proposal shows Cameron up for the sham that we know  he is and his PR background comes to the fore as he believes the public stupid enough to believe his agenda.

Ironic that his proposal to ‘troubleshoot’ comes on the day that Community Care reports that the government is reneging on Munro’s recommendations to support Early Intervention as a statutory duty of Local Authorities.

But let me take it back to Cameron’s ‘Troubleshooting’ plan to look at.
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Support or Social Control?

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ announcement that he’s going to focus on ‘troubled families’ had a slightly familiar ring to it. It smacks of an attempt to co-opt health and social care agencies into getting those who are a nuisance to behave themselves.

In Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) we’ve been here before. Pickles’ ‘troubled families unit’ reminds me of the recent fad for anger management classes.

You all know the scene. The violent husband is confronted on the TV chat show. The audience boos. The host gives him a long spiel about how he needs to change. The wife nods patiently. Then the host offers him the chance to save his marriage by signing up for anger management with the show’s in-house psychologist. The husband gratefully agrees, the audience cheers and the credits roll.

What happens next? Quite possibly he goes along to six sessions of anger management, dutifully completes them…and then goes back to merrily knocking seven bells out of his wife.

In CAMHS we keep getting requests for anger management from parents, GPs, teachers and social workers, because a child “has an anger problem”. Anger management came into vogue a few years ago, and I can see why it’s attractive – especially to policymakers. Disruption in the classroom? Youth offending? Antisocial behaviour? Not to worry, it can all be therapied away in 6 sessions. I’ve no doubt that if I spent a while on Google Scholar I could come up with a few research papers to say that anger management is an effective, evidence-based intervention for children.

But here’s the problem. Of all the kids I’ve seen who’ve been sent for anger management, I’ve been struck by how many of them have actually benefited from it.

None of them.

A lot of anger management classes are, quite frankly, a bit dire. They talk about the causes of anger, the fight-or-flight response, about breathing techniques and distraction. All too often, what they don’t ask is, “Why is this child angry?”

Children usually don’t become automatically angry. More likely, something has made them angry. Abuse, trauma, neglect, being in an environment where anger is a default way of expressing emotion. Labelling the child as having “an anger problem” ignores the wider context.

Worse, it can reinforce child-blaming. Sending the child for anger management can give out the message from services, “Yes, we agree. The child is the problem. He’s the bad one, it’s his fault and he needs to go away and sort out the problem.” I’ve seen kids attend an anger management class, and then be handed back to their parents, who start bellowing and swearing at him before they’ve even left the reception. Those parents are the first to us that we’re rubbish, because we still haven’t sorted out their kids “anger problem”. Often they tell us this while going into a long, loud tirade about what a terrible kid he is, while jabbing an accusing finger in his direction.

Anger management not only ignores the wider context, it also focuses on one particular emotion at the expense of others. An angry child is usually a distressed child. Anger just happens to be the problem that others (parents, teachers etc) want dealt with, because they want the child to behave. Others may say that the kid has an anger problem. The kid might just feel he has a problem. Or indeed, a world of problems.

No doubt the ‘troubled families’ that Pickles wants to target will also have a world of problems. He’s even kind enough to list them.

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

So, does Pickles envisage these families getting a comprehensive package of support, or some politically-attractive non-solution like anger management? Here’s a clue.

Pickles revealed a single problem, or troubled, family can cost the state up to £300,000 a year and predicted this figure can be cut by £70,000 annually simply by reducing the number of agencies involved.

Some of these families can be involved with the local authority, schools bodies, drug and alcohol services, the police and an array of social service departments. Pickles claimed less than 1% of the population can cost the economy over £8m a year.

Well, I’ve certainly come across cases of “agency overload” where too many professionals have become involved with a family, but are we supposed to say that if a child goes to CAMHS they can’t also go to, say, a young carer service? If not, what on earth is multi-agency working for?

So, to summarise, the message from Pickles is, “We’re cutting back the support you guys offer. Oh, and at the same time, we also expect you to sort out the stuff that gets voters irate.”

Pickles and ‘Troubled Families’

An article that appeared in the Guardian on Monday has been playing on my mind for a couple of days. Eric Pickles the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (who incidentally seems dead set on destroying both) wants to tackle what he calls ‘troubled families’ or more importantly perhaps, he wants to streamline the amount they ‘cost’ the state.

Louise Casey has been appointed as a ‘Tsar’ to oversee a ‘troubled families’ unit which sounds like some kind of Stalinist initiative.

Not that I don’t want people who need help to get help in the most cost effective and streamlined way but there are a few issues on which I would challenge Pickles and the government. Firstly the direct correlation that they seem to draw between the riots in the summer and particular familial issues.

The government really need to make their mind up about what they perceive to be the reasons for the riots. Personally I think they are oversimplifying to the nth degree and trying to ostracise and target particular social groups. Yes, gangs may have been an element but the reasons the riots spread has to be taken much more broadly than that. The subsequent arrests show the age ranges were not necessarily concentrated around ‘youth’ and the class base of those pillaging the country is much broader than these ‘troubled’ families if you include the political classes who continue to twist rules (re: Liam Fox) and virtually ravage public services (NHS) just as those on the street looted the electronics stores.

There are broader issues which have created a ‘must have’ society and it is not only the so-called ‘troubled families’ and ‘gangs’ that need to be tackled but the corruptions at the heart of the political elite that create an ‘us versus them’ attitude to rule and one which is not helped by highlighting those who are ‘troubled’ and targetting them.

Back to Pickles though, the article quotes him as saying

“the common refrain was where are the parents? Why aren’t they keeping their kids indoors? Why weren’t they with them in court? The whole country got a sudden, unwelcome insight into our problem families. The ones that make misery in their communities and cause misery to themselves.”

What Pickles fails to appreciate is that ‘the country’ got in welcome insight in the summer to far more than these ‘problem families’. We got an insight into the way that our society has developed a materialistic and opportunist streak that is by no means confined to the ‘less than 1% of the population’.

Indeed, it was the willingness of those who are  not in this particular group of ‘troubled families’ to join the general lawlessness and looting that was the real social issue evidence in the aftermath of the rioting.

So what is a ‘troubled family’?

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

Let’s see. Unemployment, poor housing, poor education.. oh look, mental health has been thrown in there too to add to the stigma as well as disability and low income. Hmm. That is a ‘problem’ family. Well, has it ever occured to the government that removing access to a comprehensive and supportive benefit system and social housing and decent education might actually cause some of these compounded ‘troubles’  rather than tackling the so-called ‘troubled’ families that arise from these social and financial circumstances.

Surely the proverbial ‘prevention is better than cure’ maxim applies? In which case, why doesn’t the government tackle the issues behind poverty rather than exacerbating them and marginalising and stigmatising poverty and the effects of poverty by dismissing families who grow up with these issues as ‘troubled’.

Labelling hurts. Labelling by a government is pure discrimination and playing politics with peoples’ lives is worse yet.

Troubled maybe, but troubled to whom?

I don’t say these families should not receive further help. Of course they should but they should on the basis of the poor housing, low incomes and ill-health rather than because they are ‘problems’.

Who created these problems and how can they be solved? That should be what the government is asking. How can we build a society with a sufficient and appropriate safety net than creates real community and doesn’t destroy localities and local services. The government cannot absolve itself from all social projects and social services by laying the blame on the ‘troubled families’ line without accepting responsibility.

Or maybe they can but we shouldn’t allow their narrative to become the predominant one.