The UK government has announced its plan to roll out a scheme to tackle 'troubled families' to all councils in England. According to the hype, it is aimed at cutting truancy, crime and anti-social behaviour and benefit dependency among 120,000 families who are to blame for significant social problems and who cost the taxpayer billions of pounds a year.
There is indeed a need for intensive work with some parents and children who are struggling to cope because of deep-seated emotional problems or who harm and exploit their neighbours. Yet the government is set on further stigmatising a wider group, including some chronically or terminally ill or disabled people and their families who are not involved in criminal activity.
"These families are ruining their own lives, they're ruining their children's lives and they're ruining the lives of their neighbours and I think it's a laudable attempt to deal with that to get their kids back into school, to get them on the road to work and to cut down anti-social behaviour", Community Secretary Eric Pickles told BBC’s Today programme. But this is not always true.
The government’s news release points to a Framework Document for Troubled Families Funding, which sets out the criteria for pinpointing these 'troubled families' where (i) young people have been involved in crime or families in anti-social behaviour in the past year, and/or (ii) young people have been excluded from school or had “persistent absence” from lessons, and (iii) there is an adult on a benefit such as Employment and Support Allowance, Carer’s Allowance or Jobseekers Allowance, local authorities can act, and should do so if all three apply.
There is also “local discretion”, so if a family meets two of the above criteria and is also “high cost” or has health problems (e.g. a member has mental health problems or a long term health condition), they can be included in the list too.
The Framework document states that the Department for Education July 2011 definition of persistent absence will be used: when pupils are absent for 15 per cent of lessons. (In some schools, ‘absence’ may include lateness.)
The DfE explains, in response to the question “What if some pupils are absent from school with long term illness?”, “Of course there are pupils who are off school for long periods of time for medical reasons and it is important that the government is not being seen to be heavy handed with these families going through difficult times”. But it appears that such families may also now be in the firing line, as well as young carers who are sometimes late or absent because of their responsibilities and whose teachers do not always understand.
So, it would appear, an unemployed single mother bringing up a child with severe epilepsy might end up on the list. So might a household where the father had been forced to give up work because his multiple sclerosis had worsened, the mother had become his full-time carer and the elder daughter sometimes took her younger brother to school so that she arrived late herself.
Eric Pickles told the Independent on Sunday, politicians of all parties have "run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame": a tougher approach will now be taken. So some families struggling to cope with illness, or facing prejudice because of disability, will have their lives made even more unpleasant.
The government’s news release can be found on http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/2158691 , the Framework Document for Troubled Families Funding on http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/2117840.pdf , the government definition of persistent absence on http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a00192057/government-cha...  and FAQs on absence on http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/pupilsupport/behaviour/attendance/a0... .
See Savi Hensman's blog: Cameron says poor families with disabled parent make life 'misery' http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16301 
(c) Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. An Ekklesia associate, she is a regular Christian commentator on politics, society and religion.