Holistic support helps families through parental separation…
According to separating parents interviewed in a recent study, pilot services using a holistic approach to offer a wide range of support and information – such as emotional, legal, financial, housing and relationship support – were most effective. Parents often needed help on a range of issues, so this made it easier for them to access different types of services simultaneously, gave them more time with a member of staff, and prevented them getting lost amongst multiple providers.
Parental conflict and the break down of parental relationships frequently have a negative impact on the well-being of children and seriously increase their chances of living in poverty. In the current economic climate, where financial pressures on families bring added stress to couple relationships, conflict and separation are likely to be on the rise.
The recently completed evaluation of the Government’s Child Poverty Pilots, which aimed to improve support for separating families so that the negative impact of separation on children was minimised, found that the circumstances and well-being of families improved in the short time the Pilots were running. Those that offered a wide range of services in a one-stop stop or through multi-skilled case-workers were the most effective for parents and their children. A further interesting finding from the study was that parents found counselling the most helpful type of service in the short and potentially longer term – even though many parents had not actively sought counselling support.
Information about the evaluation of the Child Poverty Pilots
When the Child Poverty Pilots were launched in 2009, 350,000 children each year were affected by their parents’ separation and a quarter of all children had experienced their parents splitting up (1). There is well-documented evidence of the far-reaching emotional, social and financial problems that result from family breakdown (2). Children’s psychological well-being, self-esteem, behaviour, friendships, and schooling can be negatively affected (3) especially if the separation and its aftermath are acrimonious. Parental separation also typically comes at a financial cost to the state, estimated recently at £37 billion per year (4). Family crisis and breakdown can also lead to economic disadvantage for children, given the increased risk of parents dropping out of the labour market, difficulties finding affordable housing with only one income, and problems getting a job that is able to accommodate childcare arrangements.
The Child Poverty Pilots were set up with the aim of testing how best to co-ordinate local services for separating parents and their children so that access to financial, practical, legal and emotional help is speeded up and parental conflict and the negative impact of separation are minimised. Research carried out by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) and partners BPSR and TNS-BMRB, found that in the brief time these Pilots were running (October 2009- March 2011), the circumstances and well-being improved for a substantial proportion of the separated families using them (5). Parents felt that the Pilots were particularly important in improving child well-being and family relationships- either with their ex-partner or between parents and their children. Seven in ten parents surveyed reported improvements in well-being, one in five reported improvements in contact, and housing stability improved in well over a third of cases.
The service most valued by parents was emotional support such as counselling. Even though many parents did not ask for counselling, when it was offered they found it the most beneficial service in the short and potentially longer term. Mediation, which relies on mutual co-operation, was less helpful to the separating parents interviewed, as one partner often refused to attend or to participate.
Pilots which offered a wide range of services in a one-stop stop or through multi-skilled case-workers were the most effective for parents and their children. For example:
- providing multiple services in one geographic location;
- having a central ‘hub’ as a single point of contact for parents to access different services;
- having a single key case-worker to guide parents through multiple services.
Separating families often needed help on a range of issues such as finances, relationships, emotional support, legal support and housing. Many parents did not know where to go for help, or were embarrassed to speak openly about their separation. A holistic one-stop shop avoided parents having to contact providers themselves, repeatedly explain sensitive problems to different staff or have referrals to the wrong services.
However, while a holistic service was more effective in improving outcomes for vulnerable parents and their children, it did come at a much greater cost. Each staff member spent much more time with each family, visiting them at home, accompanying parents to appointments, helping them fill in forms, and being flexible to work around parents’ child-care responsibilities. Having long term contact with a single case-worker was important for parents, particularly as the study found that it was common for new problems related to the separation to arise over time- as family circumstances and attitudes changed, even parents who had lived apart for some time could experience new difficulties.
There is a risk that services of this kind will be seen as too expensive to fund, notwithstanding the latest predictions that absolute poverty will rise in 2012-13, affecting another 600,000 children and 800,000 adults (6). Furthermore, the TIHR study found that parents who might not conventionally be described as ‘disadvantaged’ (who own their homes and are in employment) are also vulnerable: where employment is low-paid and there are debts the ending of a relationship can easily send one or both parents into poverty. The current economic climate already brings financial hardships to many families and this is likely to be exacerbated further. The pressures imposed by low income, unemployment or social deprivation can magnify family problems and bring added stress to couples.
However, the issue of couple relationships is of interest to the Coalition Government, which has recently announced funding for an evaluation of a range of relationship support interventions, including counselling (7). Supporting relationships is also a priority of the current government’s first national Child Poverty Strategy, stemming from the belief that ‘children who grow up in strong, stable families with quality relationships in the home stand the best chance of a positive future’ (8). This approach is underpinned by the premise that reducing poverty by fiscal means is not the whole solution to preventing poor children from becoming poor adults- parenting, the home environment and relationships, especially in the early years of children’s development are just as important (9).
For further information on the content of this article please contact Laura Stock firstname.lastname@example.org
To read the case study about this project and see the final report please see here.
1. DCSF. (2009). Invitation to Tender: Child Poverty Pilots, Delivering Improved Services for Separating Parents. Department for Children Schools and Families: London.
2. Mooney A., Oliver C. and Smith M. (2009). The Impact of Family breakdown on Children’s Wellbeing. Thomas Coram Research Unit for Department for Children School and Families. Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education for Department for Children Schools and Families: London.
3. Amato P.R. (2005). ‘The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation’. In The Future of Children 15 (2). Washington, D.C. and Princeton, N.J: Brookings Institution and Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
4. Lynas P., Trend M., Ashcroft J. and Caroe P. (2008). When Relationships Go Wrong- Counting the cost of family failure. Relationships Foundation: Cambridge.
5. TIHR. (2011). Evaluation of the Child Poverty Pilots: Delivering Improved Services for Separating Parents. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, Bryson-Purdon Social Research and TNS-BMRB for the Department for Education: London. Available at: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/RSG/publicationDetail/Page1/DFE-RR175.6. Brewer M., Browne J. and Joyce R. (2011). Child and Working Age-Poverty from 2010 to 2020. Institute of Fiscal Studies: London. Available at: http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/5710.7. DfE. (2011). Grant Funded Projects – Families and Relationships. Department for Education: London. Available at: http://www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/families/a0077698/grant-funded-projects-families-and-relationships.8. DWP and DfE. (2011). A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tacking the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives. Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Education: London. p.36. Available at: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/CM-8061.pdf.
9. Field F. (2010). The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults. The Report of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances. HM Government: London. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110120090128/http:/povertyreview.independent.gov.uk/media/20254/poverty-report.pdf.