• Podsoc #76

'Troubled' or 'disadvantaged' families

In conversation with Sue Bond-Taylor

[Transcript available in the tab below]

Troubled Families programs have been introduced in England for those most ‘troubled’ families.. Sue Bond-Taylor discusses an evaluation of one these programs and the differences between political and practice meanings of words like empowerment and troubled.

Sue Bond-Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Lincoln, England, where she teaches on a number of undergraduate and post-graduate programmes. Her research explores the intersection between criminology and social policy, particularly as it relates to disadvantaged children, young people and families. Her research has therefore focused upon the areas of youth crime prevention, anti-social behaviour, and family interventions. More broadly, it has also explored issues of youth participation, empowerment and access to services and this area ties in with her pedagogic research interest in student voice, representation and engagement. Between 2011 and 2013, Sue led the University’s evaluation of Lincolnshire County Council’s Community Budget Pilot for supporting families with complex needs, which provided the foundations for developing their Troubled Families service. She has written a number of publications on the Troubled Families programme in England, considering the politics, discourse and practice of the programme, and continues to analyse the data from this research as part of her doctoral studies. Sue is a member of the Social Policy Association and sits on the editorial board for the journal Social Policy and Society. @SueBondTaylor. Email Sue: [email protected].

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2015, April 28). ‘Troubled’ or ‘disadvantaged’ families?: In conversation with Sue Bond-Taylor [Episode 76]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/troubled-or-disadvantaged-families/.

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  2. References
  3. Transcript

Bond-Taylor, S. (2014). Dimensions of Family Empowerment in Work with So-Called ‘Troubled’ Families. Social Policy and Society, FirstView, 1-14. doi: doi:10.1017/S1474746414000359


Sue Bond-Taylor

Transcript. Podsoc 76 'Troubled' or 'disadvantaged' families. In conversation with Sue Bond-Taylor

Thank you to Darryl Hill for this transcript.

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

Tricia: Troubled Families programs have been introduced in England for those most ‘troubled’ families. Sue Bond-Taylor discusses an evaluation of one these programs and the differences between political and practice meanings of words like empowerment and troubled. This morning on Podsocs we have Sue Bond-Taylor from the U.K. Welcome to Podsocs Sue.

Sue: Thank you Patricia

Tricia: Now Sue would you like to tell us a little about you and the work that you have been doing?

Sue: I am a Senior Lecturer of Criminology at the University of Lincoln in England and, I have been teaching there for about 17 year now, mostly on the criminology program but across the other programs in the school of social and political sciences, so social policy in particular and become really interested in the connections between criminology and social policy. And so my research has tended to be in that sort of area looking at the way in which, social problems affect people… and in the way in which criminal justice strategies might tie in with some of those social crime prevention strategies.

Tricia: Thanks Sue, I recently read a paper of yours that caused me to contact you about the Troubled Families program in England and that’s what we’re going to talk about Today. What would you like to tell us about that program?

Sue: So, we got a coalition government conservative to the liberal democrat conservative coalition government elected in 2010, right from the outset they expressed their interest in supporting families who were living in disadvantaged. We had a Social Exclusion Task Force Report in 2007 the Families at Risk Report which had outlined the number of the large number of families in the U.K. who were living with multiple disadvantages across a range of different characteristics, such as worklessness, overcrowded housing, lack of education, qualifications, mental health problems, disability and low income and families weren’t able to afford for and clothing in particular. So, so there was this real drive to try and tackle families with disadvantages or complex needs.

And so, in 2010 the government announced a program to pilot what they call community budgets which was looking at how local areas worked together more effectively and pulled the funding from different services to provide more sort of holistic ways of supporting families with these complex needs. In summer of 2011, we seen a real shift in focus because there was rioting across the U.K., in particular some of the towns and cities across England and um, the conservative part of that coalition governments in particular focused in on this as the actions of a fellow underclass that talked about a social deficit and so there was a real urge to connect this work with these families to this new agenda about preventing rioting in the future. And we saw this term ‘Troubled Families’ being coined so there was a shift away from being disadvantaged families, and families who were ‘in need of support’ to ‘Troubled Families’.

Tricia: There is a significance in that isn’t there Sue?

Sue: Absolutely, the work of Ruth Levitas in particular is really interesting in this area. She talks about how we have seen the shift away from the discourses around um.. families as disadvantaged to families who are ‘troubled’, have ‘troubles’ but then also translating that to mean families who are ‘trouble’ – troubled for other people in society. And of course that leads to different sort of responses to those families. It’s very easy to withdraw services to cut financial support for families if we think that they are problem families who are causing trouble for others – rather than vulnerable families who need support themselves.

Tricia: And it sort of shifts that emphasis from structural factors that contribute to family disadvantage to an individual problem doesn’t it, so it is really quite significant.

Sue: Absolutely, yeah and what is really interesting when he launched the troubled families program Prime Minister David Cameron referred to this language as ‘families from hell’. He talked about the shameless culture which is a direct reference from a British TV. show about this stereotypical under-classed family within a sort of run-down housing estate and sort of the problems that go with that family for the rest of the community. So, really kind of pulling on that popular media imagery to re-enforce the idea that this was about tackling families who are not just in need but who are anti-social and in response form as well

Tricia: Mmm… it is really setting up dichotomous positions isn’t it? In Australia we have the language that’s been that has been created by this government about lifters and leaners, and I know the U.K. has strivers and shrivers I think so it’s really sort of separating the population and attributing blame in some ways

Sue: Definitively, and what we saw that was interesting with this new troubled families program was the terms of the criteria by which families would be identified for support and inclusion in the program so rather than those those characteristics around vulnerability, need, disadvantage and poverty – the four new criteria where around crime and anti-social behaviour um, children who excluded from school, adults who were out of work and there was some local discretion available. But it was definitively a shift away from neediness to this idea of irresponsible families really – families who are not being good families in the way that is sort of being expected of them.

Tricia: Yeah, and the way it is expected of them is interesting.

Sue: Yeah, and part of that is about the cost and there is this real focus in the government on putting down costs because these are high cost families. They have multiple service interventions and have had for many years. They cost a lot of money in the criminal justice system chasing children who are not attending school in the education system and of course the big focus on out of work benefits so there is certainly a very strong focus on trying to reduce the costs to the public purse of these so called ‘troubled families’.

Tricia: So, you evaluated this project didn’t you? So, how did that come out?

Sue: So, we were asked to evaluate a local variation of the project that actually started life as one of the sixteen community budget pilots. So, there focus was on families with complex needs, however, during the course of the ‘pilot’ the government introduced the ‘troubled families’ program so they sort of had to kind of morph into this new version of the program. So the program that we evaluated conducted was during that program of transition so we saw a bit about what they were doing before but also about some of the challenges of meeting the new troubled family’s program criteria and expectations as well and how they worked with that payment by results process too. So, so the project that we evaluated had fourteen key workers who were assigned to families so each key worker would probably have about 4 or 5 families and they would work with them holistically and supporting them in a holistic manner to look at all the problems that the families experienced with,each member of the family working together rather than providing a service for individual members of the family.

They also acted to almost like a conductor to an orchestra kind of trying to coordinate the services that were sort of circulating around them, and to bring them together to ensure that they were sort of singing from the same hymn sheets that they were working in a way which was that was effective in terms of having a single coherent strategy rather than pulling the family in different directions. So, we were able to able to view not only the 14 key workers but also twelve of the families who were working with them, and of course with these families being really vulnerable, very chaotic and being very difficult backgrounds we had a lot of ethical issues that we had to consider thinking about how to engage them with that research process, but they were really very welcoming, some of them had some very difficult issues that they were dealing with, very stressful lives, very worrying, lack of confidence and yet they welcomed us in their homes sometimes.

Some of them we interviewed them within their homes, and offered us a cup of tea, gave us a tour of the property, and were really quite willing to talk to us about the service that they have been involved with, and one of the things we were really interested in was the way in which when the ‘troubled families’ program was launched, the government was using this term empowerment – it would be empowering for families - it would help them reclaim control of their lives and yet when we when we took the interviews with the key workers and with the families, it became quite unclear what we meant by empowerment, and they seem to talk about it in quite different ways than the sort of central policy and strategy might use that term empowerment.

It was interesting but the word empowerment was very loose, subjective it means different things to different people, but it’s incredibly powerful, useful as a word, because it sounds very positive, , and so working out exactly what kind of empowerment we are talking about – what we mean by empowerment, is really important. And if you look across the literature we can see a lot of different, typologies of empowerment which have been useful for us in determining that research. So, on the one hand we have got the view of empowerment that comes out of crisscross social theory, which is sort of the zero sum idea that, that we have power held by some social groups, through the oppression of other social groups, and therefore empowerment processes are about restructuring that hierarchy – taking power from some people and passing it down to others, who are the oppressed. And so it is that zero sum idea that in order to empower somebody you have to dis-empower someone else, so we got this on the one hand - that is one idea about social theory, sorry one idea from social theory about what empowerment might look like.

By contrast if you look at the literature on organisational theories of empowerment, it tends to talk about how we can empower people within organisational contexts to fulfil the kind of agendas within that organisation - through the provision of opportunities, information and support, and resources. So whilst this is often within a sort of a business organisation context - we can still see how this might relate to this kind of project as well because critical commentators tend to see this as a form of ideology, really, that it is maintaining power within the hands of the professionals and really sort of looking in the ways in which we can persuade people or give them the resources to fulfil the aims of those professionals to do what they are supposed to be doing if you like therefore kind of to stick to the rules that is shaped by those people who genuinely have the power to sit at the top of the hierarchy. So, there is two kind of very contrasting approaches to empowerment there.

If you look at social, psychological approaches to empowerment this takes a very different stance again, and this is much more about empowerment as a psychological development thinking about how we can improve and individual self-belief, their attitudes, their motivations, and so we are not really doing anything again to kind of shift the hierarchy to kind of divert economic resources or anything like that. It is about making changes to the individual, and the way that they feel about themselves and their confidence and their aspirations. And then finally, the really other important aspect of empowerment which we often see in the literature, is what’s known as the post-structuralist approach and the work of Michel Foucault, in particular, which is more about networks of power.

So, rejecting that idea of zero-sum approach and thinking about how everybody is both subject to power and has power over others at every point in time. So, there is not a finite quantity of power to be distributed, but we can expand power networks through processes of governance, so we need to think about this in a more complex way about in which way power might operate differently upon families, within families and within the wider communities as well.

Tricia: Did the term empowerment come down as political, as, political language or was it driven therapeutically by the work that was being done?

Sue: I think there is very different ways in using the term empowerment depending on who’s, who’s language you’re looking at, yes. So in terms of government discourse, I think it was quite clear to see then empowerment was very much used, equated to responsibilisation, so holding families more responsible for looking after themselves – economically, going out to work, rather than living off benefits, looking after their families, providing for them, and so we got this focus on empowering families to be good citizens, to be good parents, and to be effective in the running of the sort of traditional family home, and so, the sort of economic issues again about reducing the costs to the state, which really have aligned themselves with much of what the coalition government has been about in their term of office with the austerity measures, and the considerable cuts to the welfare state benefit system. So, so, yes it has been very interesting to see the way, the political use of the term empowerment as a term of responsibilisation has come through from that government discourse.

In sharp contrast to that we see much more of the interpretation of the term empowerment in relation to sort of psychological empowerment when it comes to talk about families and the way that the key workers talk about families as well, that these are very vulnerable people that they have come through some horrendous personal circumstances, many of the families that we have spoken to were headed by a lone female parent, who had a history of being a victim of being a victim of domestic abuse. The children had often witnessed that there was further victimisation issues, perhaps bullying at school. They had potentially been in care. And in the community as well sort of victimisation by the wider community sort of see them as rather off kind of family that doesn’t fit in and so trying to tackle those issues require more than anything giving that parent the confidence that she, usually she could take control, could manage the family and that sort of self- belief that that that person didn’t have before. And the families themselves you know they talked about this a lot, the fact that a key worker gave them the will to carry on - ‘a boot up the bum’ was the phrase that one family used. And they came really attached to the key worker, saw her as being like a family friend and there was a genuine relationship between them and the key worker, and that was absolutely essential to the work that was being done there.

Tricia: So, Sue how did the program fair in your evaluation?

Sue: I think if you want to look at it in terms of whether the program was value for money, whether it was made genuine efficiency savings that was very difficult to see, simply because of the complexity of where the funding was coming from and not really sort of being able to gather the evidence to say what the family lives would have gone on to be like had the workers had not been there, or for that matter looking at it long term, and looking at the sustainability changes that had been made. However, we could definitively see for the period of time that the period of time that the families were working with those key workers they made huge changes in their lives, and particularly important to make for the children, I think, that their home life was much more stable, that their parents were able to take control, that they were on top of their problems that they were facing and that they were engaging with services. These were families that had very difficult relationships with services in the past and especially with social services, children services team – many of these families had children who were on the edge of care who were being on the edge of risk of being taken to the local authority care system, and so the families had managed to get on top of those problems. The children were no longer at risk of going into care. The families were no longer at risk, for example, of being evicted from their homes. So it had dramatic effects in that respect, and you could see the potential for, these, especially the young people in the families, to develop much more positive outcomes in their lives. And partly that was about rebuilding these relationships with services so that they could support them more effectively in the future – rather than sort of burying their head in the sand, and trying to avoid engagement with services because of the very negative experiences that they have had with them in the past.

Tricia: And there is so many paths to that isn’t there. It’s actually given all the public rhetoric at times, it’s people are going to be naturally be fearful of engaging so it’s wonderful to have this intensive service that can engage people and work so deeply with them. And those outcomes that there might not be a cost benefit in the short-term but surely there is a huge cost benefit over time. But ironically these are the very services that are being cut in austerity often.

Sue: I mean in England certainly we’re seeing an expansion of this program. Of course the community budget pilot that we looked as was very much in the position that it could set its own criteria for inclusion of the families but the with Troubled Families Program it’s much more restrictive in terms of who are they supposed to be working with and how you claim those payments – in that payments by results process. So, there was certainly a shift from the project we were looking at to the potential of this project in the future, and how it actually might pan out in practice. I mean the project was initially designed to support 120,000 troubled families, and they have announced that this will be expanded from 2015 – 2020 to address another 400,000 of them. So, you can start to see this that it is not just focusing anymore on the most complex families than most disadvantages, but actually its being expanded to cover a much wider group of families who then get attached to that label ‘troubled family’, and sort of all the issues that come with that in terms of this widening net of social control and greater interventions into the lives of families. So on the one hand it is really valuable that families that have been lost to services in the past perhaps are actually now being supported, but at the same time expanding it too widely may actually serve to actually draw in more families than the service really needs to address and to exert even greater level of control and power and oppression on them.

Tricia: It is interesting isn’t it. What sort of things did the families say about their experiences?

Sue:They were very much against, very much against the service when they first heard about it, and they were referred to the service because they thought this is just another do-gooder, another service intervening in their lives to add to the long list of others. We had one family saying that they had 11 services coming into their home at one point. And, yeah, so you get this very contradictory and chaotic approach, which doesn’t seem to be very helpful and of course a lot of services don’t have the time to get to know individuals or families in any kind of meaningful way. So they are popping in and out – doing a formal assessment – telling the families what needs to change and then disappearing without actually supporting them to see how that change might happen or looking to what the obstacles to change might be. So the families found the referral process to be quite stressful and they thought this was something that they might not want to engage in, but they felt that they didn’t really have a choice in the matter and yet this question about empowerment. I mean this is quite an important issue here because if you are trying to empower people but then you are actually pushing them into a program that they don’t really want to consent to but they fell they have to and that sounds like it goes quite counter to notions of empowerment. However, once they did consent to the program they all agreed that it was not what they were expecting it to be – they were all really glad that they agreed to it and that they key worker they were working with was nothing like the social workers that they were talking about that they had very poor relationships with before.. that they actually got to know the family, that they saw things from their perspective, that they took time to work with them and to see things in sort of the daily lives that they lived, and to understand family as it was structured within the context of their household, rather than some sort of arbitrary notion of what families should look like.
So, they really appreciated the advocacy dimensions of the key worker and the fact that they often acted as a buffer standing between the families and the services to prevent them from taking the children into care, for example. They could accompany them to meetings where they could speak on behalf of the families where they didn’t really feel confident or didn’t have the capacity to express themselves in the way that was really in their best interests to do, um, so that sort of buffer advocacy role gave the family some breathing space because the pressure was taken off them a little bit and have to manage everything on their own, and so all though for the families the goal was still, you know, a bit like the government they wanted to be able to get by and live without services. They wanted to be responsible for their own live and they didn’t want people to be coming in telling what to do and taking control, so they were still looking to that in the future, but they appreciated that helping hand and that step up from the key worker that showed them how they might have been able to achieve that at some point.

Tricia: And I think that is a really important point because we are hearing that more in political rhetoric that people somehow have messy lives because that is the way they want it, but when actual fact they usually want the same things as everyone else and they are no different – just in a different place where they have less opportunity and don’t know how to go about things so I think that thing is a really important issue never to assume what the rhetoric tells us at times, I suppose.

Sue: No and naturally for many of the families the economic resources of lack of them was really very key to their inability to meet the requirements of some of those services, so their being told by their landlord that you are going to have to mow the grass in the garden.. you’ve.. you’ve.. let it get too long. The reason why they can’t mow the grass in the garden is because their lawnmower got stolen and they haven’t got the money to replace it…. Or the reason why the children are not getting fed properly, or their clothes washed when they are going to school is because the cooker’s broken or the washing machine is broken. And again, they don’t have the resources to replace these things. So, there are usually quite practical reasons why families might not be meeting the kind of standards that social services might expect them to, rather than it just being out of laziness or irresponsibility.

Tricia: And it is really important to explore all of those and you know see the person in environment and all those factors in one’s assessment.

Sue: And they you know have a real knock on effect with each other so that the family with the washing machine that had broken down meant that they couldn’t wash the school uniforms and the children were going to school in dirty and smelly and which meant that they were bullied at school and so they were truanting, so they didn’t want to go to school because of the bullying. So, if you kind of only look at the actions of the family in terms of this child is not in school, and you don’t back track and find the underlying causes which are quite hidden and can be very complex then you are never really going to deal with that issue you get into this kind of blaming process. So, the complexity of these families of these families means that it takes time to unravel all these kind of different issues and see how they relate to each other. You know in other families we saw how children weren’t going to school because they were worried about leaving their mother on their own because of her mental health problems, or parents who were worried about their children within the local community. You know so you have these different fears and concerns going on, but they may not…. be openly discussed in that first meeting. You know you sit down and do a formal assessment in an hour, that is not going to drag out these issues. It is getting to know the families, working with them, talking with them, getting stuck in and being part of their lives for a period of time.

Tricia: It is relationships and trust isn’t it?

Sue: Absolutely, definitively, definitively and the families really talk about the fact that they trusted their key worker more than they have every trusted anybody, that they can tell them anything, that they have nothing to hide. We gave the families the option to have the key worker present for the interview, um if they wanted her to be, and most them said yes please because there is nothing I can’t say in front of her, so they shared their lives very intimately at that point.

Tricia: It shows how important it is. Sue, look we have actually run out of time. Is there any important issues that we have not talked about?

Sue: I mean, I mean, the gender issues in this are very important as well as I said most of the families were headed by lone mothers, and the history of domestic violence was very prevalent in those families. So, there are real issues here about the way in which families are perceived as being ‘troubled’ and ‘trouble’ for society and these interventions are being pushed on a very gendered basis. So, it is mothers who are being perceived as being poor parents but it is actually mothering which is being judged through this process. So, much of the power strategies in which the key workers employed were very much about supporting the mothers to take control – to feel more confident – to get rid of the abusive partner who was controlling that home environment, and that really resonates with some of the more feminist depictions of empowerment that the gendered issue is very important indeed.

Tricia: Wonderful, thank you very much for being on Podsocs Sue.

Sue: Thank you very much for having me

Tricia: Thanks

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Interview ENDS: 23.01