Cameron's 'Troubled Families' Initiative: A Good Start But No Quick Fixes

18/12/2011 22:57 GMT | Updated 17/02/2012 10:12 GMT

As an organisation working with 50,000 of England's most deprived and marginalised children and young people, it is always welcome when policies are introduced to tackle some of the more difficult issues affecting them and their families. So we watched with interest on Thursday as prime minister David Cameron unveiled his latest plans to deal with parents and children who so often feel they have been failed by local agencies.

It is positive that the government recognises that families with multiple needs are those who require a far better response to help them over come their difficulties. We know from our own work that it is enormously beneficial for a chaotic family to have intensive support coordinated by a dedicated skilled worker. By developing a trusting relationship, that person can not only challenge but also support and advocate on behalf of parents and children.

But it is important to recognise that there are no quick fixes for those whose problems are often linked with challenging mental health needs, alcohol misuse and poverty. Turning around these families' lives can be a long term process that on the way involves success and failure, and depends a great deal on accessing good quality specialist support as well as achieving financial security.

There are significant lingering questions, particularly around the financing of such an initiative. The prime minister has promised to devote a substantial sum of money to this, through budget reallocations from several government departments. However, as generous as this is, it is not new money, and amounts to just 40% of the total. Individual local authorities, already cash-strapped and cutting services will be forced to contribute the remaining 60%. Where will this money come from? Will it be taken away from other, equally crucial services? For this initiative to work, it has to be within a context of prevention. It is as important that services for the many disadvantaged children and their families who are currently not classed as 'troubled' are sustained as it is to introduce new ones to deal with those who are deemed to be the most problematic.

There are also many families and children that move in and out of crisis following sudden change in their lives who may not be identified as being the most troubled but must be able to access intensive support when they need it. Any new services should work for them as well as being made to work for those currently identified as being in greatest need. It would be a disastrous unintended outcome if support was diminished from one group of families deemed to be less of a priority in order to channel money to those considered to be more deserving.

Will it ultimately deliver the outcome the prime minister is demanding? The four outcomes, of school attendance, 'road back to work', reduce crime and anti-social behaviour and cost savings to public sector, have been generated from a four year evaluation published by the Department for Education today of intensive family intervention programmes which were established by the last Labour government. The evaluation shows no significant improvement on health or family functioning, in other words family relationships and conflict in the home. It demonstrates that tackling complex family problems takes time and delivers mixed results.

Given the wider economic and social pressures in the current era of austerity the task now is even harder than when Labour tried to tackle the same problem. And at the same time there will be more families falling into crisis who have yet to be identified by government. So while the renewed focus on those in greatest need is welcome, it will take far more than a new army of family trouble shooters to address the fundamental causes faced by families with multiple problems.