How a parents-first approach to child services in north-west England is getting results

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Almost a year ago, Clare Western wrote a letter to her two teenage children. She opened up about her regrets and how she should have listened when they urged her to leave an abusive ex-partner.

It was a “monumental moment”, she said. “They both broke down and hugged me. Our relationships now have moved forward and evolved and got to the point where we can move on.”

Western, 38, who has been involved with social services for 13 years, was encouraged to write the letter as part of a new approach to child services being trialled in Stockport, Greater Manchester.

The programme, called New Beginnings, is radically different from the traditional model of child social services. Each week, parents are required to take part in intensive one-on-one counselling sessions and two-hour group therapy, as well as lessons on self-care, cooking, welfare rights and housing. There are classes for yoga, art therapy and boxing.

Crucially, social workers are given the time to develop relationships with the families they help. Parents are helped to address and overcome the trauma experienced in their own lives, as this is often what lies behind the trouble that has led them to social services.

Jadwiga Leigh, the chief executive of New Beginnings, said the programme aims to address the needs of the parents first, so they can then meet the needs of their child. And it appears to be working.

Of the 60 families who have completed the programme so far, 40 had reduced or ended their involvement with social services by the end of the 24-week programme. Fifty families had stayed together; nearly half of parents had moved into employment or further education.

A review published by the Department for Education in July 2020 endorsed the approach. It said New Beginnings had “brought about improved parenting skills and strategies” and that parents had “made changes in safe care in their homes”.

It was hailed as an example of best practice by Josh MacAlister, the chair of the government-commissioned independent review of children’s social care, whose report was published on Monday.

It may also be cost-effective. Stockport council, which helped develop the pilot, said the scheme had saved it about £670,000 on services such as housing, drugs and alcohol treatment, and foster care, where each placement costs about £51,000 a year.

Leigh said the model could be replicated across the UK, with proper funding. “I think the system is broken,” she said. “Sometimes when I was a statutory social worker I knew that I hadn’t done everything I possibly could [to stop a child from being taken into care]. How can you? You make a judgment when you don’t really know the family.”

She said children were being removed from families unnecessarily because of a failure to tackle issues such as past trauma or other underlying issues.

Of the 79 families referred to New Beginnings to date, only eight parents had previously been diagnosed with additional needs. Yet Leigh’s team found that 68% of the parents in fact had additional needs, including dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The diagnosis of underlying issues is vitally important, said Leigh, because it not only affects parenting, it also affects their ability to communicate in a system that can be intimidating and bafflingly complex.

Social workers are buckling under the strain of tackling an increased workload with fewer resources. Central government funding for children’s services has fallen 24% since 2010-11, according to estimates, while caseloads have jumped by 23% in the past year.

These pressures have created a culture where social workers often have to look for a quick fix, said Matthew Purves, a project coordinator at New Beginnings. “My experience of social work is that it’s a revolving door,” he said. “But that doesn’t get to the heart of why people are struggling in the way they are.”

Western said she had felt “unintentionally professionally gaslighted” when raising issues with social workers in the past. But she added: “This is a system that is very underfunded. I never want to point my finger at social workers and say ‘you’re the villain’, because I don’t think they are. The system needs a magnifying glass put on it. It’s not fit for purpose.”

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