5. Working with the Projects: Service User Perspectives
Based on the 67 in-depth interviews undertaken with members of families supported by the Projects, it is clear that families tended to be socially isolated and, in the absence of local support networks, households were particularly vulnerable to stresses and pressures which in other circumstances they might have been able to weather.
Violence within the home was relatively common. While respondents rarely mentioned intimate partner violence - a finding probably related to the fact that most of the adults interviewed were lone parent women - intergenerational violence by teenage children towards their parent(s) was more frequently acknowledged.
Confirming inward referral monitoring data, service user interviews emphasised the wide range of health problems experienced by family members, many of which had not been adequately addressed prior to referral. Drug abuse problems were, in some cases, longstanding.
In some families ASB complaints were largely or entirely triggered by children's conduct. This could be exacerbated by non-attendance at school, leaving children unsupervised and liable to get into trouble. In some instances, a poor attendance record was partly due to bullying by peers or attributable to ADHD which could make it difficult for teachers to tolerate a child's classroom behaviour as well as impacting on their capacity for learning.
Asked to describe behaviour which could be considered 'antisocial', family interviewees tended to refer to their own conduct. While this suggests families had accepted their behaviour as being problematic, it may also reflect the extent to which the household had been labelled - and accepted the label - 'antisocial'. Such views were balanced by the frequent contention that complaints about family behaviour had been somewhat exaggerated and the resulting sense of unfair victimisation.
Project staff emphasized that families were not formally compelled to accept referral for Project support - nor could such an approach be practicable. In practice however, many families recognised that their choice on whether to engage with Project support was constrained, since refusal would place them at severe risk of homelessness an/or family break-up. Others, however, saw referral in more positive terms, seeing this as presenting an opportunity to 'turn their life around'.
Almost without exception, service user interviewees spoke positively about their experience of working with Project and strongly praised Project workers. Progress that had been achieved in tackling family problems was frequently seen as a direct result of Project support. Such views were testament to the hard work and dedication of Project workers. In comparison with other professionals, Project staff tended to be seen as more trustworthy, more sympathetic and less judgemental.
5.1 Chapter scope and structure
5.1 A key element of the research involved profiling families referred to the Projects. While the quantitative data collected from Project records and Support Plans was crucial to the evaluation, such sources were seen as having significant limitations. First, being completed by Project staff inward referral records could not evince first-hand experiences of the families involved. Second, while the inward referral monitoring data was valuable in terms of quantification and comparison (see, especially, Chapter 3), they did not facilitate an in-depth understanding of the impact of Project support on the families referred for help.
5.2 To supplement the statistical data and to give service users a voice within the research, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a selection of families referred to the five Projects. Over the course of the evaluation, two sets of semi-structured interviews 11 were undertaken; the first in summer 2007 and involving families referred to Projects earlier that year, and the second in summer 2008, involving (a) re-interviews of families previously involved, (b) interviews with families referred in the preceding 12 months, and (c) former service users living independently in the community. A copy of the topic guides which consisted mainly of open-ended questions and further details of the study methodology can be found in Annex 2.
5.3 Families participating in the interviews accounted for 51 (64%) of the 80 invited to participate. While this represents a relatively low rate of 'attrition' it is not possible to state categorically that the interviewee sample was perfectly representative of the overall population of families supported by the Projects. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, however, we think it is safe to assume that the former is broadly typical of the latter.
5.4 Over the course of the evaluation 78 in-depth interviews were undertaken with members of 51 families referred to the five Projects (see Tables 1.1 and 1.3) - a small proportion of these being follow-up interviews with the same people. Interviewee testimony provided valuable first-hand evidence of IFSP service user experiences and perceptions. Reflecting the wider demography of service users the majority of people interviewed were lone parent mothers (see Table 1.21) although some interviews were carried out with male adults, and in five cases interviews involved young people aged 12-15.
5.5 As the preceding chapters of the report demonstrate, IFSPs have targeted interventions at some of the most disadvantaged families in the country with anti-social behaviour only one symptom of a wide range of support needs arising as a result of entrenched problems and difficult personal histories. This chapter recounts key findings on service users views and perspectives on IFSP interventions; a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of service users experiences is provided in Annex 1.
5.6 The remainder of the chapter is structured as follows. First, in Section 5.2, we examine families' housing circumstances and histories. Next we look at families' social networks and at service user perspectives on the ways that Project staff attempted to counter their typically socially isolated situation. Family problems are further explored in Section 5.4 which discusses health, family cohesion and intra-household violence. We then recount family views about the behaviour which led to their original referral for Project support. The final two sections focus on relationships between families and Project staff, and on families' aspirations for the future.
5.7 Additional material from interviews with current service users is included in Annex 1. Here, we look at family perspectives on the referral process, on the role of Support Plans, on working with the Projects, and on support outcomes.
5.2 Housing histories
5.8 Most families referred to the IFSPs had troubled housing histories commonly involving frequent moves within the local authority sector, although stays in temporary accommodation were also mentioned. The reasons for moving were often complex. Some mothers had moved their families away from violent partners, while others had abandoned tenancies to escape ASB complaints. Previous evictions were also acknowledged, either because of rent arrears or ASB. One family with four sons had moved five times over a period of ten years as a result of neighbour complaints.
5.9 A history of successive moves tended to be associated with generally low levels of satisfaction with properties allocated by social landlords. This was variously related to the internal condition of the home, the size of the property or relationships with neighbours. Interviewees reported problems getting repairs completed as a result of their involvement in ASB:
"they would nae put it on because I got an ASBO, they refused to put it [kitchen] in. They're talking about putting it in in April but they are trying to put a temporary kitchen till then. They are saying no, they are not spending a grand on it, to fix it. So they are leaving us with no kitchen".
5.10 Undertaking repeat interviews with families 12 months after they had been referred to the project revealed that changes in living arrangements were not uncommon, with a number having moved homes in the intervening period. In some cases this was the result of moving into Project Core accommodation (Aberdeen and Dundee), while for others Project staff had been instrumental in arranging a managed move in order to enable the family to have a new start.
5.3 Social connectedness
5.11 Circumstances leading to referrals are further discussed in Section 5.5. At this stage, however, it is relevant to stress that - as a rule - no single incident led to the complaints about ASB. Instead, family accounts of events running up to a referral depicted unpredictability, complexity and chaos. All families experience ups and downs. One of the factors that distinguished families referred to the projects was the absence of support networks to help them cope with difficulties.
5.12 While a few interviewees described strong friendships and access to informal support networks within their local community, many lacked access to trustworthy friends or extended family members. Even where family members lived in the local area relationships were frequently conflictual, or non-existent.
5.13 Project workers recognised that for many families the absence of local support networks had resulted in isolation. In the absence of such support, everyday problems rapidly escalated to crisis proportions. Support strategies aimed at helping to address social isolation (see Section 4.2) were reported as working very successfully for some families with a number of people reporting that they had extended their social network or had built better relationships with wider family members.
5.14 Conversely, for a number of respondents working with the Project enabled them to break away from damaging relationships; however, this could result in a sense of loss, potentially exacerbating feelings of isolation as one mother explained:
'I have to say I try to keep apart. At one point I was staying down the road from, well I was staying up in [town] and my sister stayed in [town] So it was like, just a clan. So now I am up at the centre at [town] and I don't see anybody'.
5.15 For families who had moved house or who had stopped seeing old friends in an effort to deal with drug and alcohol dependency, establishing new friendship networks often remained difficult:
'I. Have you made friends here during the project?'
R: I wouldn't really say friends. But, yeah, I just talk to some people, you know what I mean but I wouldn't really go out anywhere with them or like, clubbing or things like that. I wouldn't do that with them. I'm very particular on friends because I've been backstabbed quite a lot of times so…'
5.16 One young tenant who recognised that in the past neighbour complaints had been prompted by the behaviour of visitors to her flat had become so apprehensive of further complaints that she hid in her flat with the lights off:
"In the end I ended up in the house, with no lights on or nothing, so that they [friends wanting to party] wouldn't come into the house".
5.17 Helping families establish civil and non-confrontational relations with neighbours may contribute to the creation of more stable communities. Although difficult to measure, in this regard there was some evidence that Projects had contributed indirectly by giving families the tools and strategies to deal with the day-to-day interactions that they and their children needed to have with their neighbours. Several families commented that they were now 'getting on well with the neighbours', and in some cases this was a new experience after years of having confrontational encounters in the locality (see, also, comments of former service users in Section 6.3). One mother recounted how strategies learnt from Project staff had enabled her to deal, in a measured way, with being a victim of anti-social behaviour.
5.4 Ill health, family breakdown and family violence
5.18 As illustrated in Chapter 3, families referred to the Projects were usually battling against multiple social, economic and health problems. The high incidence of ill-health was reflected in the interviews. For example, depression impacted on parents' ability to handle stressful situations as illustrated in the following excerpt from an interview with a lone parent woman who described her emotional fragility when trying to control her children's behaviour:
"But at times, I crumble inside. At the moment I'm really not right, I'm extremely emotional and cry at anything. I really am. Cos just the thought of not being in constant control"
5.19 For other households depression was directly related to the antisocial behaviour prompting the referral. In one household, ASB complaints were prompted almost exclusively by loud music and young people congregating in the close. The interviewee's depression often resulted in excessive drinking which, in turn, resulted in further neighbour complaints:
"Like before, when I was going through depression, I'd always get drunk. I always had to be going out all the time"
5.20 Linked to the high incidence of depression, the misuse of drugs was also prevalent among service users as recorded through support plans and case file reviews. This most commonly involved heroin abuse (either injected or smoked) although a number of adults said they were now stabilised on a methadone programme. Often family members had a long history of drug use within their extended family and peer groups and users described the difficulty they had in trying to 'get clean':
"Ken, I just get dead, dead depressed. And when somebody says are you coming for a hit, I'll just say, aye nae bother. I'll do anything to that … it was ken, £150 I was getting … I was spending every single piece of that on heroin".
5.21 Drug use was often associated with complaints about the volume and type of visitors coming to a property and disturbances associated with that. The example provided in the box below illustrates the way in which projects can help change entrenched drug related behaviour.
5.22 Alcohol misuse was also prevalent across the sample of interviewees. In these cases, alcohol was often described as 'fuelling' specific types of ASB such as loud parties, shouting and swearing and intimidating behaviour. At least eight interviewees mentioned alcohol misuse as a factor in the referral:
"the complaints were about the loud noise initially, but increased to include things like the number of visitors, broken windows. Things would quiet down a bit but flair up again. It [frequency of complaints] was related to the alcohol and the partying".
A family of mother, step-father, and four children were referred to an IFSP as a result of allegations that the parents were dealing in illegal drugs. Neighbours complained of the numerous visitors to the family home who were causing annoyance and alarm to residents in the area. All four children were on the child protection register as a result of concerns about drug related paraphernalia, graffiti and the poor diet of the children. Two of the children were living in local authority accommodation at the time of the referral. It took a number of weeks for the project workers to gain the mother's trust and confidence. Support was given regarding anger management, tenancy management, parenting skills and joint work with the local family centre.
Over 18 months the mother made significant changes to her lifestyle and behaviour and successfully completed the parenting programme. The police were satisfied that drug dealing at the property had ceased, neighbour complaints also ceased and all four children were returned to the family home. The children were now 'doing really well at school' and the mother reported 'getting on brilliantly with the neighbours now'. The mother's partner had embarked on a Methadone programme and the mother was making strenuous efforts to get employment as she does not want to be dependent on benefits. The mother has demonstrated that she has turned her life around and is grateful to the project for their valuable contribution to her new life. In her own words: 'It was great for me - especially the anger management. I always used to scream and shout at case conferences. They told me to keep calm. It worked'.
Children's health and vulnerability
5.23 In some families, ASB complaints had been largely or entirely triggered by children's conduct. This could be exacerbated by non-attendance at school, leaving children unsupervised and liable to get into trouble. For a number of children, reluctance to attend school was related to bullying by peers. For some, bullying impacted on self esteem and confidence rather than affecting only school attendance. For others, the reasons school absence were more complex and related to health or support needs such as ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities:
'We were at our wits end, we don't know how to control Tracey. We didn't know what was wrong, this was before ADHD and learning difficulties were ever diagnosed. And you're at a stage where, you kind of, you don't care less whether somebody comes to the door and makes a complaint and charges you. You just like, do what you want. And we are kind of losing the battle…"
5.24 Some parents were dismayed by the failure of the authorities to recognise their children's behaviour as arising from a medical condition, and hence to attribute the problems to poor parenting. Concerns were expressed about the impact of labeling young people as 'bad' or 'problem children' alongside a perceived official failure to commit dedicated resources to help address the root causes. As in the examples below, parents started to worry about their own parenting skills and abilities:
"And the neighbours were just constantly classing him as a bad behaved child. I got it into my head that he was just a bad behaved child and what have you. And then I started thinking Oh no, its no him, I'm the failure …".
5.25 Conversely other parents were concerned at the rapidity with which medical 'labels' were placed on children. One believed that such labeling had stigmatised her son and made it difficult for him to re-engage with education. At the point of interview he had been out of education for several years:
"… he has been out of an education establishment for so long ... the [the school] psycho analysed him and said it was me to blame [for his behaviour]. They referred him to psychologists because they thought he had ADHD and physically put him out of school. But we've got to the stage now where it's actually, because I mean it was causing so much anxiety. And it's not healthy is it? I mean a 16 year old, he needs to get involved with things like a college …"
5.26 Others were concerned about social labeling of young people as 'bad' or 'problem children' alongside a perceived official failure to commit dedicated resources to help address the root causes. As in the examples below, parents started to worry about their own parenting skills and abilities:
"And the neighbours were just constantly classing him as a bad behaved child. I got it into my head that he was just a bad behaved child and what have you. And then I started thinking Oh no, its no him, I'm the failure …".
5.27 Due to the often chaotic and embedded nature of the problems faced by families changes in family composition in the course of Project support were not uncommon. In some cases such changes resulted from the breakdown of family relations, either through intra-family violence leading to parental separation, through the imposition of custodial sentences or, in a number of cases, through bereavement. In one family the children's behaviour deteriorated following the exclusion of one parent from the family home. The remaining parent who suffered from depression was unable to cope - " there was no control, it was total bedlam" - and the complaints from neighbours quickly mounted, including reports of intimidation and serious assaults. In another case, the death of a parent had impacted on the behaviour of children in the household. While the remaining parent struggled to cope alone with ill health, complaints about the children - both in the local community and at school - escalated.
5.28 Inevitably, the problems experienced by adults in the family significantly affected the lives of younger household members. At the point of referral many families in the interview sample included children classed as at a high risk of needing to be looked after and accommodated. Some were already under voluntary or compulsory supervision orders. In most cases the primary concern was about the general welfare of the child; for example, where the housing conditions had deteriorated, where there was known parental substance misuse or where the parent was struggling to cope and not providing adequate supervision.
5.29 As acknowledged in Section 4.3, the additional scrutiny resulting from Project support could lead to the identification of child protection concerns leading to young people needing to be looked after and accommodated. Equally, it should be recognised that the provision of support to families in their own homes often impacted positively to prevent the need for the local authority to accommodate children. While recognising that in most families the situation was fluid there were a number of examples where project interventions had helped avert children needing to be looked after and accommodated where they might otherwise have been, or enabled children to be returned home when parents were able to evidence progress in parenting, with the support of the project. In other cases, even when children continued to be accommodated, parents had increased contact with their children, a scenario that would have been difficult to envisage without the input of the project.
5.30 As indicated in Section 3.4, violence within the home was relatively common. Intimate partner violence was rarely mentioned by respondents - a finding probably related to the fact that most of the adults interviewed were lone parent women . However, at least two women stated that domestic violence by a previous partner was the primary reason for their Project referral. One mother had moved to escape a long-term violent relationship and had been referred to the Project by Women's Aid. For those affected, family violence clearly had a lasting effect. One single mother commented on the effects on her self confidence:
"He was really violent, I was getting battered all the time. And dead possessive, I was nae allowed to go and see my mum. If I went to see my mum, I could nae see my mum with my face and everything, and my mum and I, we're like, like we are really, really close. Ken, I used to be a really confident person and that".
5.31 More prevalent than intimate partner violence was violent behaviour by teenage children towards their parent(s) or guardians. A number of mothers described how their sons had 'learnt' to be violent having been exposed to such behaviour with one mother stating for example that: ' Angus was doing what his Dad used to do'. In similar circumstances one mother described in emotionally charged detail the impact of her oldest son's behaviour who had been brought up in a violent household:
"Well Willie's just, like the same [as her violent partner], I'd had bad relationships, violence, and its like, I'm getting it from a young boy. And its, its hard but sometimes it actually makes me sick … See when he starts arguing, oh, its like my legs are like jelly [for fear of violence] … And I should nae, the way I look at it, I should nae be sitting in my own house, scared of my 14 year old boy. I says, I'm sorry it's a bad day when your son, your own family, steal off you. You know what I mean? And he was sitting, just finished taking the soup up, I had heat it in the microwave and we both sat down. And I says it's a bad day when your own family steal off you. He went oh F*** you and he flung it in my face" [Note: names have been changed].
5.32 For many of these mothers it was very hard for them to know how to deal with the situation and to protect other members of the family:
'I just couldn't control it and he was putting it on me. To myself I can look after it, if I know what danger to myself but the two wee ones, with him turning on me in front of the two bits of wee ones and the wee ones seeing that kind of, I was a wee bit, I couldn't cope. It just came to it, I just couldn't cope with it.'
' ….. It's hard for me to sit and turn around and say, at some points if my older boys have got alcohol drink in their system, at some points kind of way, they scare me'
Interviewer: "So his behaviour was getting violent?"
Respondent: "Violent. Well he's assaulted me a couple of times. Yeah. When I've had the baby in my arms".
Interviewer: "Right. And I take it, if he's 14 now, he's big or he's getting big?"
Respondent: "He's massive. Skinny and massive".
5.33 In a further case a mother described how her relationship with her son had been so deeply damaged that she now wanted him placed in care:
"Because we were edging and I mean, totally edging that I was wanting to put David into care. Like pushing totally the boundaries, you know, and he was pushing it far too far, he was being domestic violence, he was actually being violent towards me… this was a situation that was bringing back too much memories for me that I wasn't liking it. I was thinking he was too like his dad … Do you understand what I mean?".
5.34 IFSP interventions designed to tackle this type of violent inter-generational behaviour tended to focus on helping parents to establish routines and boundaries.
"I've been referred to quite a lot of people for Andrew's behaviour because he was physically violent towards me. And he's now on an anger management course …"
5.35 However putting in place parenting boundaries was far easier with younger children. Controlling the behaviour of older children - especially males - was often difficult for single mothers. As one mother stated: "I've just gave up on him now. I tell him to do something and he just tells you to effing do it back. Do it yourself".
5.5 Behaviour leading to referrals
5.36 Most interviewees accepted that the behaviour triggering their referral to the project was problematic and 'antisocial'. There was evidence of family members' awareness of the impact of their behaviour developing as a result of caseworker action. The change in family members' attitudes is illustrated in the following comments:
"Now that I'm off the drugs and that I see it from somebody else's point of view, it does look terrible. I didn't then, well I do see it now".
"I would come home and there would be about 40 people outside my door. Ken, people hanging about the street. I did nae think it was really that bad, then, I did nae think it. Now I can see it was bad"
5.37 When asked to describe their understandings of what behaviour could be considered 'antisocial', interviewees freely acknowledged that their own behaviour had been on occasions distressing and disturbing for neighbours. While this could suggest an acceptance of their conduct as problematic, it may also reflect the extent to which the household had been labelled - and accepted the label - 'antisocial'.
5.38 Further analysis of the interview data revealed that families' perceptions of ASB were not one-dimensional. Interviewees were aware that the types of behaviour considered as 'antisocial' vary according to tolerance levels and the local context. Indeed, one family noted that in their previous home where they had lived for seven years they had received no complaints, but as soon as they moved into a new property complaints started almost immediately. Thus, while most families accepted that their behaviour had been antisocial, many also asserted that they had been subject to complaints which were either unfounded or exaggerated and to this extent they too had been victimised. This was especially the case in relation to the behaviour of young people within the wider community. While parents often accepted that their children had been involved in some misconduct affecting others, they felt that this resulted in their children being labelled as 'trouble makers' and subsequently unfairly held responsible for all the problems in the area:
"Because if their names are black the noo, and it came to a point that if anything happened up in the village, the police would chap my door and say it was my ones that done it. Cos they get the rap for it, do you know what I mean?"
5.39 One parent who had been the subject of a number of 'excessive noise' complaints reported that she too had been victimised, with neighbours unfairly blaming other problems in the stair on her family (for example, dumping rubbish and vandalism). These allegations had an enormous affect on the mother making her scared about putting rubbish out and restricting the movement of her children:
"Oh I would put my hands up to it [responsibility for ASB]. Things, you know, if I think that we're causing them, definitely. But I was always getting the blame for other things. It didn't matter what it was, I was getting the blame ... I was just the single parent target kind of thing. And it's bound to be her and her kids. I was feared to put anything down, you know, at the garbage or anything because of complaints and that…"
5.40 Such experiences led some families to believe that, it was impossible for them to stay in the same area. Despite making attempts to change their behaviour and ' fit in' they felt they could not get away from the negative and demonizing 'antisocial' label and that they would forever be seen as a 'bad' family.
Choosing to work with the Project
5.41 Formally, all the IFSPs clearly state that a family has free choice on whether to accept being referred for Project support; Project workers emphasise that they can only work with families who accept responsibility for their behaviour and wish to change. In practice however, for many families the choice on whether to work with an IFSP was directly influenced by the perceived risk of eviction from the home and/or social work intervention in relation to children.
5.42 All the families in the interview sample were either at risk of becoming homeless as a result of ASB or were already homeless at the point of referral. Ten of the 25 families in the initial interview sample had already lost their tenancy at the point of referral and were living in unstable housing, including hostels, bed & breakfast hotels or with friends or family. One family had simply walked away from their tenancy as their children's behaviour had become uncontrollable:
Interviewer: So what happened to that house? Did you get evicted from there?
Respondent: I just walked away because the way he [son] was carrying on with the neighbours. I could not cope with it any more"
5.43 A further constraining factor experienced by families was the impact of other forms of enforcement action. Three households included individuals subject to an ASBO prior to referral to an IFSP. In none of these instances, however, had the Order led to improved behaviour. One interviewee commented that she had thrown the ASBO into the back of the cupboard, and another stated that they had simply not read it: " I did nae read it, I just gave it to my social worker". It was normally the consequences of ignoring the ASBO conditions - for example, the threat of supervision or the allocation of a social worker or the risk of losing their home - that prompted the households to reflect on their behaviour:
"I mean, I got a scare when she said I would end up losing my house, and if I lose my house, I lose my kids. And then I had the anti social behaviour order and it was scary then".
5.44 One interviewee was critical about the lack of support associated with ASBOs stating: "Ken what I mean, just handed an ASBO and they just like leave you". Another parent reflected on the ineffectiveness of enforcement measures to address the behaviour of his step-daughter (subsequently diagnosed with ADHD). He had no confidence that such measures would help:
'I don't know how far it would have went... I mean, the term of eviction was banded around. ASBO's was banded around, although that never actually took place … Because enforcement wasn't working, it would have just been one enforcement measure on top of another. The ASBO would have come into play. The ASBO would have been breached. Our family would have been, who knows, it might have been broken up. I haven't got a clue. I hate to think what would have happened [without the project]'.
5.45 For this group of families, then, it would appear that issuing an ASBO generally had little restraining effect; the desire to work with the Project and change behaviour was instead influenced by two main factors: (a) the threat of losing their home, and (b) the threat of children being looked after and accommodated. Thus, although IFSPs state that each family is required to make a positive choice on whether to work with the Project, the extent to which this choice is a 'free' choice is open to question.
5.46 For another group of families, however, referral to a Project was seen in more positive terms, with interviewees framing the decision as to work with the project in terms of a desire to change and improve the quality of their lives. A small minority of families had self- referred to the project and for these families the desire for change was a clear motivating factor. For other families too the referral to the project represented a 'new start' and an opportunity to deal with long-standing problems.
"No. It was for me and I wanted to take a chance because I've never had the chance to get the support and what help that you's can do that you's are doing as well for us, kind of thing. And I'm not like, I was on the last straw kind of thing, and right well, I'll go for it".
"I wasn't forced to come. It was something that needed to be done. It was a new start".
5.47 Regardless of the extent to which families felt their views had been taken into account in the referral process a common reaction when first meeting the family project worker was one of nervousness and anxiety:
'My first meeting I was quite shaky and I was scared because I didn't know what they were going to say to me and I was in a room full of people, you know? So it was quite frightening on its own. But, John was the actual one that held my meeting and said that they wouldn't have a problem with helping me do what is needed to stay in a tenancy and things like that. So hearing that from somebody else that says we don't have a problem, we think we could help you. Which is a good thing on its own. You know, because before nobody offered any help like that before or it could have been nipped in the bud a lot of years ago'.
5.6 Relationships between service user families and the Projects
5.48 Without exception, members of families who had worked with IFSPs were positive in their views about at least some aspects of the Project interventions. All could identify some benefits and progress that had occurred in their family circumstances as a direct result of their involvement with the Project. Project staff were frequently referred to in glowing terms (see Section 6.4 - 'service user testimony'). It was not just parents who felt Project help had enabled them make changes; children also held positive views on the Project impacts.
5.49 A finding consistently reported by service users across all five projects was the very strong relationship often established between Project workers and families. Commonly, families singled out the personal attributes and attitudes of Project staff as important factors in helping them achieve their goals. Project workers were praised for being non-judgemental and for spending a lot of time simply getting to know and understand family members' problems and circumstances; something that had not previously happened with any other agencies. Many of the activities undertaken by Project workers involved support to enable family members to undertake 'normal' activities together such as going to the cinema, ten pin bowling etc as a family. Here the emphasis was on supporting individuals to take part in everyday activities as a family.
5.50 Interviewees repeatedly spoke about the high levels of trust established with Project workers. Indeed, this was even the case for families who had worked with a Project only for a matter of weeks. Service users frequently referred to Project workers as being like family. One interviewee's remark that " She's been like a mammy to me" was not uncommon. Such comments speak volumes about the hard work and dedication offered by Project staff. Indeed, researcher observation at Project offices frequently revealed Project workers going to great lengths to help families. Indeed, many service users stated that they felt that their Project worker was " on their side" and did not judge them:
"I feel she's on my side, yeah. Whereas the other ones [assumed to be a reference to social workers] that don't. Yeah, I feel that she's out to help me".
"Carol is really helpful and understanding. They don't judge you. See they try to get you the skills that help you. I'd say they were good. Like they don't talk down to you".
5.51 While Project workers were clearly skilled in developing a rapport with families, there is no evidence to suggest this influenced their judgement when faced with sensitive decisions. For example, Project workers were often called to provide evidence to Children's Panels or social work meetings. Case file reviews suggested that workers would always act in the best interests of the child and make difficult decisions if required. Indeed, interviewees commented that although Project workers were like a friend, they would always be honest and critical when appropriate:
"It's just like one of your pals ... She was dead laidback and you kent with Louise, she'll tell you what she thinks, ken. If she thought you were up to no good, she would no be happy with that".
5.52 For most service users being able to contact their Project worker as and when the need arose was critical to building a relationship of trust. Another important factor was the confidentiality of shared conversations and the knowledge that information would not be inappropriately shared with other agencies. Families were also reassured by the 'open file' approach of Project workers, which meant that they were very clear about what was happening with their case, who would be privy to information and what the next steps would be. The way that the Project linked in with other services was also important to service users as it meant that families could work with just one or two Project workers who would advocate and liaise with other services on their behalf. This contrasted with having to deal with a number of different agencies potentially providing conflicting information and each dealing only with one small aspect of a family's problems.
5.53 Many interviewees made comparisons between the Project workers and other agencies, primarily social workers and housing officers. The attitude of Project workers was thought to be different in that they were less judgemental, more honest and more trustworthy. As a result service users felt that there were able to be more open with staff:
"And I was never open with social workers or anything. I would only tell them what I wanted to tell them. Whereas Gemma [Project worker], she came through the door and it was like, right out. This is how I feel. I could really sit and speak to her, to Irene [Project worker], yeah".
5.54 Service users also commented that Project staff were different because of the amount of time and the intensity of their support. Often families were being contacted on a daily basis, with every member of the family receiving individual support. Indeed, interviewees commented that they were able to ' pick up the phone anytime' to speak with their Project worker. Reflecting the special basis on which the Projects were set up, this level of contact could not compare to other services and was consequently valued:
"They are doing a lot more work with me, more than the other ones … Like its more intense, its more like, come on, we're away to try and get you sorted out".
5.55 While valuing aspects of Project working practices this did not mean that families were entirely uncritical. Concerns were, for example, voiced about the impact of staff turnover. Building relationships of trust with Project workers was very important to service users and where family members had spent a lot of time with an individual Project worker they could be daunted by the prospect of working with a new member of staff:
'Because of the change from [Project worker A] to [Project worker B] I felt really hurt. I just thought, right we have got to deal with another staff and then having to deal with somebody else moving on'
5.56 Here, again, was a respect in which Project effectiveness was compromised by staff retention difficulties.
5.57 Respondents also criticised certain rules imposed on core block residents. In particular, one core block interviewee singled out as detrimental the rules regarding visitors to the block, the time allocated for being away from the core block and the ban on family pets.
5.58 The constraints of living in core block accommodation were not always described in negative terms, however, with some service users welcoming the structure and discipline that such accommodation afforded. For example, a lone parent mother with two children described how she found the 24 hour support valuable in dealing with her son's violent behaviour:
'At the beginning I was needing them to come up and help me make sure he stops banging and things like that. I'm trying to do it myself now and it's a wee bit easier now. Before I couldn't do it, I needed the workers to help me quite a lot……There was a bit of problems there, on it's own cos he thought he was boss and I wasn't. Now, we do talk as a family, we do sit and we could watch the telly together without animosity and that. So that's a progress from what it was in September, it was a nightmare'.
5.59 The benefits of project core residential accommodation were also singled out by one young person in terms of the value of the quietness of the accommodation and the fact that it provided him with an opportunity to get together with his family.
'It's got more better cos before we used to argue a lot, but since we moved in here we now know how to get along a lot better, it is our family and that. And there was all this arguing with the family and that. So we are better off here'
5.60 Few families could identify any changes or improvements that they would wish Projects to make and stated that they would recommend the Project referral to families in similar situations. Clearly for many service users Project intervention was seen as life changing:
'Basically I've changed my life. A lifetime of habit which was quite hard for me to do, do know what I mean? .. The support that Ann's been giving, honestly if it hadn't been for them, I don't know, I think I had probably just ended my whole life, the way things were, because I get into a rut that way. …. I've changed my life. It just turned my whole life right round again'
'It's improved dramatically…..Well I think personally, being referred here has been the best thing for us as a family. We can communicate with each other better'.
5.61 While not detracting from the very positive views most service users held about the Project interventions (as cited above) it should be noted that this research has not been able to ascertain the views of families who failed to engage with Project support - these families are likely to have presented a very different account of the appropriateness and efficacy of Project intervention.
5.7 Aspirations for the future
5.62 Service users tended to have quite modest aspirations for the future. Most simply wanted to improve their family's quality of life:
"I would like to be sitting, next year at this time, not having to constantly worry. I would like to see him hanging about with guys his own age. And stuff like that".
"Living in my own place, being more of a family, being close together".
"To get my son back"
5.63 Very revealing was the frequency with which parents referred to their desire to be a 'normal' family - the implication being that they viewed themselves as 'outside' normal society:
"Well a nice house, a bit more room. A little bit spare cash to take the odd holiday or whatever. Get these social workers and that away. And everything back to normal".
"Doing things together and things like that. Be a normal family, basically".
5.64 A unique and key contribution made by IFSPs has been their ability to work in an integrated way with partners to achieve better outcomes for families and children. Projects capacity to work with families in an intensive way, over a sustained period was seen by family members as being significant in explaining the success of the interventions.
5.65 Some current service users expressed concerns and fears about the sustainability of progress and the more positive family circumstances after case closure - see further the case example above. The problems with most of the families were multi-generational and deeply embedded. Despite the excellent work of the Project staff and the positive outcomes frequently resulting, it should be recognised that the Projects are not a 'magic bullet' and that there will always be a limit to what may be achieved over a time limited period with limited resources.