Family intervention projects 'parenting the parents'
The recent riots which broke out across England prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to say he wanted "rocket boosters" under efforts to turn round the lives of thousands of troubled families.
One of the methods under scrutiny is the existing Family Intervention Project, which sees people receiving one-to-one guidance on how to raise their children, run their lives and stay out of trouble.
"You wouldn't believe how many parents don't know how to cook even a simple meal."
Rachel Ruto is on her way to visit a woman who, despite being the mother of nine, has struggled with basic parenting skills.
She's a key worker with a Family Intervention Project (FIP) in Sandwell in the West Midlands, run by the Action for Children charity since 2007.
"Some of these parents, you ask them when was the last time that they cooked, and they say 'I think it was in April'," she adds. "You have to take them to the shops and tell them what to buy because they just live on takeaways."
These projects are run in many areas around the country, implemented by various charities, and funded by local authorities. Action for Children have more than 31.
The scheme's staff have a hands-on approach to the people they are involved with, who have usually fallen foul of the authorities in some way - they can be in trouble with the council for anti-social behaviour, for example, or be tracked by social services over child welfare and education concerns, and are often on the brink of being evicted.
When at their lowest ebb, they are referred by various welfare agencies to a FIP, a last resort before the children may be taken into care and the parents made to find alternative accommodation.
The project's key workers spend time in these homes, guiding families towards better behaviour, advising them on how to bring structure, order and calm into their chaotic lives.
Significantly, they become the single, main point of contact for families, who previously dealt with dozens of people across a number of agencies, which can create confusion for all concerned.
It is difficult to measure the effect FIPs have on people's behaviour, as the issues behind the need for such interventions are complex. However, the Sandwell project says it has worked with 73 families since November 2007, many of whom have seen dramatic improvements in their behaviour.
Action for Children says that this change in behaviour has saved bodies such as Sandwell's local authority and its police significant sums of money. Sandwell FIP also says that the families it is involved with have not incurred any complaints regarding anti-social behaviour this year, and that the young people it is currently working with have not been charged with any criminal activity during this period.
"When we go to visit them, after a while, they stop seeing us as a visitor and just as a part of them," Rachel, who is originally from Kenya, says. "At the start we visit them five or six times a week.
"We work across seven days a week, and can visit them unannounced, at 7am or 10pm. We drop in and see what they're doing, are they getting the children to bed on time, have they kept the house clean, are they eating properly, are the kids getting to school?"
The borough of Sandwell borders the city of Birmingham and is one of the poorest in the country.
It is here that Rachel's client lives, a 34-year-old unemployed woman who had so many problems in her previous neighbourhood that she was eventually moved by the Sandwell FIP to another house elsewhere in the borough.
Claire, not her real name, is clear on the impact that the Family Intervention Project has had. "It taught me how to cope. I didn't know how to parent my kids at all."
Clutching her toddler, she invites us into her home, which has a torn sofa lying sadly in the long-grassed garden, but is clean inside. It's a simply decorated, orderly house. Claire, who has some learning difficulties, insists this is a big improvement on how she used to live.
"Eighteen months ago I was a disgrace. I was depressed and not myself. The house was a pigsty, the kids weren't even being dressed and their behaviour wasn't appropriate. They were involved in anti-social behaviour, being racist, breaking windows.
"They were in education but weren't going. They had no bedtime routine, they were running riot all night and wouldn't do what I said."
She was also in an abusive relationship when she first became involved in an intervention project in 2008. This guidance initially sorted her life out, getting her away from her partner, and bringing normality to her children's lives.
As part of the FIP, Rachel took Claire to a Positive Parenting Program, where she learnt simple tips like sitting on the stairs after she puts her younger children to bed at 7pm. "If they come out I tell them to get back into bed, and it's worked."
But although her family life improved, her children stopped menacing their neighbourhood, and her FIP ended, she has recently been referred back to it, because she began a relationship with another man, became pregnant by him - and he too became abusive towards her. This raised concerns about her children's welfare.
Claire seems determined to get over her latest setback and speaks with conviction about the future, saying how she needs to stay away from men, because "they start off very nice but you don't know someone until you live with them".
There is a real rapport between her and Rachel, a warmth and something of a bond between the two.
"Me and Rachel are friends, she's not just my key worker," Claire says. "I did have some support from social services, but it wasn't ongoing like the intervention project is. I wouldn't be able to do anything without this involvement. I'd be back to square one."
A short distance away, in Oldbury, lies the West Midlands office of Action for Children, where the Sandwell FIP is run. It's in a quiet, industrial-looking area, housed in a collection of ugly, grey buildings which the wind whistles around under a dull sky.
Inside, the charity's offices are more welcoming, a hive of activity busily populated by women with broad Black Country accents, talking tactics for the day or soothing the needy phones.
Among them is service manager Dorine Rai, who says she would "walk over hot coals" for the families she works with.
"While I'm very passionate about helping them, I'm not soft on them," she says. "They laugh when the police knock on their door, but they're worried when I tear strips off them. I can be their fairy godmother or their worst nightmare."
She explains how when a family enter a FIP that they have to sign a contract, committing to good behaviour. The agencies that they deal with also sign the agreement, which is not a legal document, but a commitment for both parties to achieve results.
If the families break the terms, sanctions can be taken against them, which can include restrictions on movement around their neighbourhood, with the ultimate one being eviction.
"We can't cure everything, but you make people stronger to deal with things in the future," Dorine says. "If someone becomes a parent and their support network is their own parents, who were abusive and showed no warmth, who's going to offer support?"
A newly-published Department for Education report into family intervention services says its three year study "presents a compelling case for local authorities and their partners to develop and implement intensive family support for families with multiple and complex needs".
It says the evidence suggests that intensive, family focused support resulted in a significant improvement in outcomes for 46% of families.
Action for Children says that, while it costs £173,692 to run Sandwell FIP for a year, £3.8m has been saved since the project began through the work carried out with families.
This saving, it says, was achieved by an improvement in behaviour which has negated the need for future interventions by bodies like the police, welfare and social services.
David Derbyshire, of Action for Children, said that five of its FIP services have closed since May 2010.
He said: "We know that some of our projects have had a decrease in their overall budget, or budget for certain services.
"Where services haven't been closed, they have often been asked to continue under temporary contract extensions of 12 months or less and often with reduced funding levels, meaning there is reduced capacity to support families in local areas.
"There must be an end to short-term commissioning of intensive family support services, with concentration on running services in line with improved outcomes for children, young people, families and communities."
Back out in the borough we meet Simon, not his real name. He was subject to an interim Asbo (Anti-social Behaviour Order) for criminal behaviour that included harassment, intimidation and breaking and entering. He recently breached this by visiting an area he was banned from, invoking a full Asbo.
The 17-year-old says he is trying to improve, with Rachel's help, and has left the gang he was once in. But because he left, the members now beat him severely whenever he is spotted. "They show him a gun and tell them that if he goes to the police they'll kill him," Rachel explains.
She takes on a noticeably maternal air when sat next to her charge, insisting how his full Asbo was not imposed for any new criminal activity.
Simon, one of five siblings, explains how he took maths exams a year early, and says he hopes to become a probation officer one day, because he understands what it's like to get into trouble.
"I feel optimistic about the future," he says. "I'm going to college. Rachel gave me boundaries, she taught me how my behaviour would impact on my future, and on my family.
"She can talk to me on my level, and doesn't shout, like other adults do. I listen to her."