It is estimated that over two million children in the UK today are living in difficult family circumstances. These include children whose family lives are affected by parental drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse and poor mental health.
It is crucial that these children and their families benefit from the best quality professional help at the earliest opportunity. For some families, without early help difficulties escalate, family circumstances deteriorate and children are more at risk of suffering significant harm.
Independent reviews and research have long championed approaches that provide early help for these children and their families. As Professor Eileen Munro highlighted in her review of child protection, ‘preventative services can do more to reduce abuse and neglect than reactive services’.
Ofsted’s definition of early help is:
“Those children and young people at risk of harm (but who have not yet reached the “significant harm” threshold and for whom a preventative service would reduce the likelihood of that risk or harm escalating) identified by local authorities youth offending teams, probation trusts, police, adult social care, schools, primary, mental and acute health services, children’s centres and all local safeguarding Children Board partners including the voluntary sector where services are provided or commissioned”.
Early help requires pathways from universal services such as schools to support services. There should also be step-down arrangements from acute services such as Social Care to community support with the aim of full reintegration into mainstream, or universal services.
Early help plans should have focused outcomes for children and families, and should be actively planned with them. Plans should deliver evidence based interventions using single agency or common assessment frameworks, and clear thresholds for specific agency intervention e.g. social care, housing, mental health services.
Many professionals believe that this is probably the right approach to helping vulnerable children, young people and families, the creation of Early Help services has involved integrating professionals from a wide range of different roles and backgrounds into new teams.
Universal services such as schools welcomed additional support for children and families they often struggled with under the last Labour government’s Every Child Matters policies, These services were usually called Early Intervention and Prevention.
However, under the current Government’s austerity measures we have seen reductions in services and greater focus on the most needy families, and a refocussing on those most in need. This means that school and other universal services staff may find themselves left struggling with children and families who fall beneath the higher thresholds to access these services.
Despite a recognition by professionals that a more integrated approach is needed there are significant dangers of loss of expertise, professional identity, continuing professional development and support as new ways of working and are being developed and services are merged together; particularly in an atmosphere where the need to make savings has the highest priority.
As many professionals who identified as Children’s Trust professionals have been absorbed into new Early Help services, the ECS Group of Prospect believes there needs to be a voice for professional staff in this position to protect you in this new and challenging environment.