Derbyshire's 1,300 troubled families to get their own 'supernanies'
Work to turn around the lives of 1,355 problem families in Derbyshire is under way. Paul Whyatt reports.
THEY are the nemesis of every hard-working taxpayer – unemployed parents who are happy living on benefits, whose children are out of school and causing havoc in the neighbourhood.
Authorities label them as "troubled families" and their critics say they are more interested in television than finding a job or ensuring their children are not skipping lessons.
So Derbyshire's new approach of sending someone like Channel 4 "Supernanny" Jo Frost into their home might just work.
For those unfamiliar with the reality TV show, it is about parents struggling with their children's behaviour.
The show features professional nanny Ms Frost, who devotes each episode to helping a family where the parents are struggling with their child-rearing. Through instruction and observation, she shows the parents alternative ways to discipline their children and regain order in their households.
Derbyshire County Council is now adopting a similar tactic, having been signed up to the Government's family intervention project.
In the programme, trained staff enter the homes of troubled families with the task of turning their lives around.
Mel Meggs, from the council, said: "We don't call our staff supernannies but they do a bit of that. When we talk about intense family support, we mean sending someone into the house over a prolonged period of time.
"A major part of the problem is these families have little or no structure. Children aren't going to bed early enough and their parents are out of work, so they are not getting up in time to make sure the children go to school.
"The model we are trying to instil in these homes is 'bath, book, bed'. Our staff are a kind of supernanny in that respect.
"It is all about routine. It can mean staff going in on a daily basis until that routine is carried out with military precision."
The Family Intervention programme is part-funded by the Government, which says it is more effective than the multi-agency approach of police officers, teachers and social workers.
Ministers say that, under that system, families are continually assessed and it is better to send in a dedicated worker who takes the time to understand their problems.
In Derbyshire, it is a huge challenge. The Government has identified 1,355 such families in the county – "somewhere in the middle of the national ranking", according to Mrs Meggs – and says it costs £10,000, on average, to turn around each family.
To help fund the work, councils will receive up to 40% of the cost – £4,000 per family – from the Government.
Some of the money is up front, with the rest distributed on a payment-by-results basis.
In 2012-13, the Government gave councils 80% of the £4,000 up front. That will fall to 60% in 2013-14 and 40% in 2014-15 – with the Government expecting to see results by then.
Mrs Meggs said Derbyshire County Council plans to work with all 1,355 families between now and 2015.
To coordinate the work, the council is in the process of setting up a troubled families project team consisting of five staff members – three leaders, a data analyst and a training officer. The full-time roles will cost a combined £411,280 through to 2015.
Mrs Meggs said they will have "quite a big workforce" at their disposal.
She said: "We already have multi-agency teams consisting of 300-plus staff and we've got another 150 social workers who are being trained to carry out the troubled families programme."
The workforce will be tasked with implementing a series of "small-scale" and "large-scale" initiatives geared at turning around the lives of troubled families.
Mrs Meggs said some ideas were still being developed.
She said: "Some of the small-scale initiatives are things like introducing extra tuition so kids that have been out of school can catch up.
"It might be that we send a parent on an adult learning course, which will then help them get a job, or provide drug or alcohol counselling if needed.
"It can be simple things like paying for a second-hand dining table so the family can sit and eat dinner together. Some of these children have never eaten around a dining table.
"We haven't made any decisions yet about the large-scale initiatives that we have funding for. That will come next.
"What we have done is split the county into six localities – North East Derbyshire and Bolsover, Chesterfield, Erewash, South Derbyshire, High Peak and Amber Valley. Each of these localities has its own troubled families coordinator who is in charge of running the programme in that area.
"Chesterfield and Erewash have a high number of troubled families and we are doing some work to identify the reasons for that."
Mrs Meggs said the council did not go down the route of rewarding families or punishing them: "We give lots of praise where it is due and encouragement, and often that works.
"It might be that we pay for a star chart or pay for the children to have a treat at the weekend if they've been in school and doing well. Obviously, if the kids aren't in school, we can take the parents to court."
The Government is clear on how it believes councils should tackle problem families.
In December last year, Louise Casey, head of the troubled families programme, said early intervention by a dedicated case worker had been proven to reduce crime among those people involved by 45%.
The method, rolled out in some parts of the UK in 2008, also led to anti-social behaviour falling by an average of 59%, while cases of truancy, exclusion or bad behaviour at school were also cut by 52%.
Ms Casey said the approach worked. She said: "We need one worker for one family so they actually know who they're working with and what actually needs to change in that family. A worker who is honest and direct with them, so it's not faffing around.
"It's saying to the parents, 'Right, your kids do actually have to go to school and I will be there at 7.30am until you get those kids up on your own and get them to school'. It's about teaching them to be parents and helping them bring their children up properly."
Derby City Council is running a scheme to work with what it calls "priority families". The programme was launched last week at an event for a range of agencies and professionals.
A council spokesman said: "The scheme presents a positive opportunity to work intensively with children and parents who are experiencing difficulties for a range of reasons.
"We know that by adopting a supportive and challenging approach our intensive family workers will be able to help families achieve real change in their lives.
"No two families are the same and we will work with each family in a way that is appropriate to their individual circumstances."
WHAT IS TROUBLED?
The Government defines troubled families as those that meet specific criteria in the following areas:
Under-18s involved in crime and/or a family member involved in anti-social behaviour
A child excluded from school or is a regular truant
An adult on benefits
Are a burden on the taxpayer
Where families meet two of the criteria but are "a cause for concern", councils can rule that other factors – including health problems – mean they are troubled families.