In a time of cuts, job insecurity and social isolation, Scotland must step up to provide consistent, relationship-based support for families
Shelagh Young, Home-Start UK Director of Scotland, responds to call 21 of our 25 Calls campaign, which argued that Scotland must invest in relationship-based, whole-family support'.
What sort of parent needs what Clare Simpson calls “holistic, relationship-based family support” in order to do the right thing for their children? The answer is, of course, every parent, because no one is a perfect parent – certainly not from day one – probably not ever. And childhood can’t wait. The good news for Scotland’s children and future generations is that many of us still get what we need from universal services combined with our own well-rooted social connections. But what about those who don’t
Home-Start sparked into being in 1974 because our founder could see that not every parent can get it right for every child without some kind, non-judgemental extra help. Home-Start often works with parents who haven’t had warm, consistent parenting themselves while others are just sideswiped by mental health problems or have become isolated and don’t have reliable, trustworthy friends and family around to support them. Sadly, we also meet destitute parents whose income cannot meet family needs and other parents, so battered by adverse life events, that they cannot even get what they need from the so-called universal services many of us take for granted.
'Talk to most supported parents and they will tell you first about the human being, rather than any scheme or a programme, who helped them transform their lives'.
The Scottish Government knows this and much of its policy looks gold standard. But is it working on the ground? For example, we hear a lot about the Health Visitor Pathway which defines frequency of visits and areas of focus as well as an investment in increasing health visitor numbers.
But talk to any Health Visitor and they are likely to tell you that without Third Sector agencies to take up their referrals we will see more families falling deeper into distress, more children’s lives seriously damaged and even greater strain on overstretched social work teams. Despite this the traditional source of family support funding, local authorities, are making cuts year on year. Talk to most supported parents and they will tell you first about the human being, rather than any scheme or a programme, who helped them transform their lives.
Instead of moving towards Clare’s call for a Supporting Families Strategy that ensures sufficient resources reach local authorities to fund strengths focused and relationship-based family support we are heading in another, altogether more worrying direction. A shift towards national investments in targeted and time-bound interventions is already upon us. For example, the highly targeted Family Nurse Partnership programme – your own special expert friend if you happen to be having your first child aged 24 or under but unavailable if you are 25 plus, pregnant with your third child and, for example, recently bereaved.
Parenting programmes like Triple P – subject to an excoriatingly negative evaluation in Glasgow - do work for some. But if you were feeling pretty hopeless as a parent, or, as one parent said to me recently, unable to think about anything but how frightening and embarrassing it is to not know where your child’s next meal will come from, would you feel up to being plunged into a roomful of strangers? Wouldn’t you want the next best thing to a trusted friend to spend some time with you till you felt secure enough to start working on becoming the better parent you always wanted to be?
As public health expert Sir Harry Burns puts it, consistent parenting, which enables children to grow up feeling safe and loved, reduces sickness and is the key to making Scotland healthier.
'Lost community networks and social structures are creating a crisis of self-worth. And if parents feel worthless what does that tell a child?'
Wellbeing is complex, but Sir Harry makes it clear that it is more than not being ill “it is about being in control of one’s life, one’s own decision making. It means you have a purpose in life, you have an optimistic outlook. You are adaptable and resilient and feel safe and secure.” According to Sir Harry Burns lost community networks and social structures are creating a crisis of self-worth. And if parents feel worthless what does that tell a child?
At Home-Start we see this crisis played out in family homes every day. What Clare calls for is what Home-Start’s staff and trained volunteer support for parents shows can happen - when help is provided in the context of meaningful relationships the future will be brighter for many more children. But to get more parents feeling helped, rather than as I’ve heard it described, under the thumb of “some faceless government department”, the help must be offered in ways which reduce stigma. That’s why universal services matter as well as who is offering them and how.
Time to build trusting relationships with families is becoming harder for the Third Sector to fund as flexible, long-term reliable core funding drains away to be replaced by unreliable incomes derived increasingly from philanthropists, lottery ticket and scratch card sales. Is this really the best Scotland can do?
Shelagh Young is Home-Start UK Director of Scotland.