Rethinking the ‘Crisis’ in ‘Troubled Families’: Relationships and the ethics of care

Rethinking the ‘Crisis’ in ‘Troubled Families’: Relationships and the ethics of care

Sue Bond-Taylor

It looked for a while like October 2016 may have heralded the end for the Troubled Families Programme (TFP). The final report of the national evaluation of the programme was released with the headline grabbing conclusion that the government’s flagship families programme had had no significant impact. This in spite of £448m of funding being fed into work with the 120,000 families in the first phase of the programme from 2012 to 2015, and a further £920m allocated for work with an additional 400,000 families between 2015 and 2020. Worse still, it was evident that critics of the programme had pointed out these failings over a significant period of time, but ministers had forged ahead regardless. Jonathan Portes, one of the authors of the report, described this as the “perfect case study of how the manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants – from the Prime Minister downwards – led directly to bad policy and, frankly, to the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money”.

This could be seen as something of an open and shut case. Yet Prime Minister Theresa May announced in February 2017 that the programme would not be going away, and instead would be relaunched as part of a social justice green paper. Such strong conviction in the programme might suggest that ministers are still avoiding uncomfortable truths about its ineffectiveness. However, this apparent ‘failure’ of the TFP to address the ‘troubled families crisis’ facing England today may not be all that it seems, and may mask the potential for services to support the most vulnerable families in meaningful ways. This article considers the way in which the crisis has been framed, with ‘troubled’ and ‘troublesome’ families positioned as the cause of the crisis, rather than reflecting on family troubles as the response to a wider social and economic crisis in the UK today. Drawing upon research within one so called ‘troubled families’ service, and the experiences of family members supported by the service, enables us to rethink the ‘crisis’ as driven by neoliberal social relations and the retrenchment of welfare support. By reframing the ‘crisis’ in this way, we can reconsider the future of ‘troubled families’ services, so that we don’t risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The TFP in England was launched in 2011 in the wake of the ‘rioting’ which had spread across England, amidst a Conservative-driven ‘crisis’ narrative of ‘Broken Britain’. Conservative Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke blamed the riots on the actions of ‘a feral underclass’ and identified ‘an appalling social deficit’ which needed to be tackled head-on. At the centre of the political rhetoric surrounding the riots were arguments about ineffective and irresponsible parenting within families characterised by severe dysfunction. This justified intensive surveillance and interventions in the family home so as to ‘grip’ families who had previously proved ‘hard to reach’ or ‘unwilling to engage’ in order to responsibilise parents for the care of their children, as outlined in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (2012) report, Working with Troubled Families: A Guide to the Evidence and Good Practice.

This depiction of the ‘troubled family’ seems, however, to be little more than a caricature, and a number of commentators (such as Stephen Crossley and Ruth Levitas) have identified as problematic the gap between the criteria for including families in the first phase of the programme and the realities of family vulnerability. It is clear that the families included in the TFP are ‘troubled’ in the sense of having extremely complex lives. They face multiple social disadvantages, which result in families experiencing inequalities and considerable discrimination. Stephen Crossley’s analysis of the TFP data has revealed that the only characteristics common across the majority of troubled families are that they are white, not in work, live in social housing and in poor health or disabled. Neoliberal austerity politics have had dramatic impact upon relationships within such families as individuals struggle to deal with the additional layers of adversity heaped upon them. Benefit sanctions, changes to disability benefits, the introduction of the bedroom tax, and universal credit all threaten family stability, and make it more difficult for parents to feel able to cope. Families’ capacity for resilience in such circumstances is also impacted by neoliberalism since resilience requires not just a psychological capacity to overcome adversity, but the resources to do so. Central to this is the family’s location within wider social support networks. The closure of children’s centres and cuts to youth services thus add further challenges for young people and their families.

I was fortunate to be able to talk with some families whilst conducting an evaluation of a local family intervention service. This service had been running prior to the TFP launch, and had then adapted to the new TFP focus so as to make use of the payment by results opportunities. What came into sharp relief was the ways in which these families lacked social support networks and frequently suffered from considerable social isolation, as the following examples illustrate.

A single mum of two primary age children whose father had died some years earlier had moved to the area to be with a new partner she had met online. The relationship had not worked out, and she was financially unable to return to her home town. She had no family in the area, and when trying to make friends had been subject to exploitation by others. Her trust in other people had been considerably eroded and as a result she isolated herself and her children.

A pensioner who was a single dad of three teenagers had won legal custody of the children, but was now struggling to cope with their sometimes challenging behaviour. He had no other family nearby to help with the children, for example when he was taken into hospital, and the fact that he was a significantly older father made it difficult for him to make friends with other parents as sources of informal social support.

A young couple with two pre-school children, who had themselves already experienced difficult childhoods, substance misuse and homelessness, were housed by the local authority in an isolated rural area, which was several miles from any shops or bus routes. Neither of them could drive, and their capacity to engage with services and develop informal local support networks were undermined.

The support provided by the service to all of these families centred around the need to generate more effective networks of mutual support in which families felt valued. Sometimes this work included challenging the decisions taken by other agencies which exacerbated their isolation, e.g. by advocating for the family to be rehoused. At the outset, however, such support came from the key worker allocated to the family. By stretching professional boundaries so as to generate meaningful relationships with parents, they could provide practical, as well as emotional support which parents were unable to access elsewhere. Families talked about their key worker as if she were a member of the family or close family friend. They described a relationship based in mutual trust and respect, and most importantly they were clear that “she cared”. Parents’ apparent failures in responsibility must therefore be reconsidered not as a failure to care for their children, but a response to complex personal, social and relational conditions which inhibit access to care.

As I have argued elsewhere, this approach clearly resonates with ethics of care theories, as they are underpinned by a recognition of the universal experience of vulnerability across the life course. We are all vulnerable, and we all receive practical care from others at some point, in particular during infancy, older age, and periods of illness. But more than that, we experience being ‘cared for’ in an emotional sense throughout our lives, with our own perceived sense of self-worth, value and capacity being derived through our relationships with others. The ethics of care therefore has a strong political dimension which demands more democratic distribution of care responsibilities, such that the powerful and wealthy in society do not evade responsibility for the care needs of those most vulnerable, and in which the intrinsic value of every human being is respected.

By rethinking the families ‘crisis’ as the neoliberal failure to adequately and democratically distribute responsibilities for care, as illustrated particularly sharply by the recent retrenchment of state support services, we can reconsider the value of family ‘interventions’. Support for families based in relationships of trust and empathy, and which focuses on reconstructing networks of support and inclusion in deprived communities has an important role to play in readdressing these inequalities. Some local services which have made use of the funding opportunities under the umbrella of the TFP have been highly effective in offering this support. But that may be in spite of the payments-by-results structures, and due in part to the considerable efforts of professionals to subvert and resist both the dubious managerialist regimes and the responsibilising rhetoric imposed upon them. The challenge for Theresa May’s government will be to reform the TFP so that it not only facilitates relationship-based practice with vulnerable families but also addresses the real ‘crisis’ in access to care, support and material resources which is at the heart of the problem.

Bond-Taylor, S. (2016) ‘Tracing an Ethic of Care in the Policy & Practice of the Troubled Families Programme’ Social Policy and Society, 16(1): 131-141.

Sue Bond-Taylor is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln. Her research explores the intersection between criminology and social policy, particularly as it relates to disadvantaged children, young people and families, with a focus upon the areas of youth crime prevention, anti-social behaviour, and family interventions. Between 2011 and 2013, she 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.