ANNE LONGFIELD, the Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, and former Children’s Commissioner for England has published A New Partnership with Families: Supporting families to keep teenagers safe from gangs, exploitation and abuse”, the Commission’s second report in a year-long series of reports into teenagers at risk.

The report calls for a new partnership with families to safeguard vulnerable teenagers and divert them away from serious violence, county lines and exploitation. It warns that thousands of teenagers are being put at risk as services, stretched even further by Covid, are unable to help them. The report highlights a decade of cuts in services and falling support for those families living in poverty and/or homes where there is domestic violence, serious mental health illness or addiction issues.

While the report sets out the many examples of good practice, it warns that there remains a dearth of effective joined up family-focused support for teens at risk of extrafamilial harm and argues many families in need of help to avert or deal with crisis are instead facing a blizzard of bureaucracy and assessment or, in some cases, just a brick wall.

Although these problems are most often found in the most disadvantaged communities, the Commission on Young Lives has heard repeatedly from what appears to be a growing number of parents from middle class families struggling to get help when crises occur, such as when they find a burner phone, unexplained amounts of money or knives in their children’s bedrooms.

Parents have told the Commission how sometimes they have called the police and social services desperate for help, only to be told that no help exists, or they have been given ineffective responses. Some parents described having to become ‘instant experts’, trying to navigate issues around grooming, exploitation and county lines and to access services new to them. Some have told the Commission they had to find the money to pay off their child’s ‘debt bond’ to a gang, to free them. For families already struggling, this is even more difficult as many have fewer resources and lower levels of confidence and trust in statutory services.

The report says many of these stresses are felt particularly acutely by Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic children, and re-emphasises the importance of early intervention and the long-term damage done by reduced public spending in these areas, combined with a rise in child poverty and a continued lack of affordable housing.

It welcomes the Government’s pledge to spend £492 miliion on early help services over the next three years, although it notes spending on early intervention support in areas of England with the highest levels of child poverty fell by 53 per cent between 2010 and 2019. Between 2010 and 2020, local government spending on early intervention fell 48 per cent while money spent on later, costlier and higher-intensity interventions increased by 34 per cent.

The report also describes the massive reduction in funding for Sure Start centres as “a huge historic mistake” – one that not only resulted in many children and families paying a heavy price, but which also proved to be a false economy. It warns the current plans for Family Hubs are nowhere near ambitious enough to reverse this trend and the government needs to take a more determined and ambitious approach to funding.

The Commission’s report shows why long-term – and sometimes intense – support is vital and that this is being delivered successfully in some areas. It makes recommendations around early intervention and family support for children of all ages, focusing on what is needed by families when the problems that place teenagers at risk of extrafamilial harm emerge, as well as interventions at crisis point.

The report’s main recommendations include:

  • A legal duty for local agencies to deliver early intervention, backed by data-led early identification, to support children and families as a central aspect of a new strategic approach to support throughout childhood. This should include a specific strategy for supporting Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic families.
  • A call on the Government to roll out of Family Hubs in every disadvantaged area as a first step, with a longer-term ambition to extend coverage to the 3,000 communities who formerly had a Sure Start centre. Local authorities should also establish a coherent and joined-up ‘teenager at risk’ offer as a requirement in every Family Hub, explaining clearly to parents and teenagers what services they are entitled to and how they can access them.
  • Charities and community groups should be embedded as a core partner in delivering support for children and families, including the provision of Family Hubs.
  • A new focus on practical, long-term help for families to prevent children from being taken into care with a new entitlement for families to help shape the solution. The Department for Education should work with local authorities and other partners to develop and trial new models of intense family support for those with teenagers at risk as part of a Teenager in Need programme. These programmes would provide intensive interventions for teenagers on the edge of care to enable them to remain safe and with their families and must also be culturally attuned to support families from Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic communities.
  • A national support programme to extend kinship care for teenagers at risk, including the replication of programmes such as Family Rights Group Lifelong Links programme.
  • Government should reintroduce the Family Test promised by David Cameron in 2014 as a requirement to assess impact of all Government policies.
  • The Supporting Families Programme should be funded to develop a five-year extended programme of family support for older children at risk as a specialist programme to be run with every local authority and in conjunction with the Youth Endowment Foundation and Violence Reduction Units.
  • A proportion of Government’s unspent tutoring funding is reallocated to recruit 2000 Attendance Practitioners and 2000 Family Workers to support absent children to return to school after the pandemic.
  • Government to recreate its disbanded Child Poverty Unit with an initial target to publish a cross- government poverty reduction plan by April 2023.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “The conveyor belt of vulnerable children available to county lines, gangs, and abusers will continue to roll on while families are left without help beyond a blizzard of bureaucracy and assessment forms, and where they feel services are being done to them rather than with them.

“I am increasingly struck by the number of middle-class parents who are discovering what many disadvantaged families have known for years: organised criminals have a ruthless business model, and the decade-long breakdown in help and support, combined with the impact of Covid, is exposing their teenage children to serious violence and exploitation. They don’t know where to turn to when it happens and feel abandoned and ignored.

“Families are our biggest asset in the fight against criminal exploitation, but they can’t do it on their own. The massive reduction in funding for Sure Start centres was a huge historic mistake that not only resulted in many children and families paying a heavy price, but which also proved to be a false economy. Family Hub plans are welcome but are not ambitious enough.

“Government’s ambition must be for a new partnership with families that provides statutory services, and charitable groups with the armoury they need to fight back. We need to tackle child poverty by reintroducing a Child Poverty Unit at the heart of government and we need to stand up for families by implementing David Cameron’s “family test”.”

“If we help and support parents, we make it harder for children to be groomed, coerced, exploited and harmed. Those who seek to exploit children know it and policymakers and services need to catch up fast.”

* Read A New Partnership with Families: Supporting families to keep teenagers safe from gangs, exploitation and abuse here.

* Source: Commission on Young Lives