Troubled families are the problem we can’t put off

2 December 2015

Russ Wilkins, Public Protection Business Partnering Manager, Northgate Public Services

How many times as a serving police officer did I get called out to the same home and see and hear things that horrified and upset me – children neglected and abused, and lives blighted. My fellow colleagues and I did all that we could, but it sometimes felt like we were sorting out the symptoms not the cause.

Often when we were called the underlying problem wasn’t the angry man or woman at that moment, or the out of control children, but something bigger, much more complicated – it was the troubled family around them.

So I knew something of the background when I was invited to the Troubled Families conference. It was mostly for police, including some very influential, very senior officers, but there would also be local authorities and policing partners present. I came out of it thinking, this could be the start of something important. 

“Police see the reality of troubled families every day,” says Mike Barton, Chief Constable at Durham Constabulary, and principal organiser behind the conference. “They see it in neglect, in inter-generational dysfunction, in the impacts of emotional and physical abuse. Often officers are frustrated because they know that timed, targeted intervention can save lives, and help people turn their situation around.”  

We need to find a solution for troubled families, otherwise it becomes a generational issue with the sins of the parents repeated by the children. Those families often wrote their own sad history and, compounding the problem, over the years taking up extraordinary resources from police and other groups that should have been available elsewhere.

The unique circumstances of every unhappy family make it clear that we need solutions that go beyond what an officer alone can achieve, or a social worker, or a teacher, or…it’s everyone. We need two critical things: a mindset that is about dealing with the root causes of the problem, and the capability to effectively create a solution. Admittedly, a well-funded national strategy would also be good, but I’ll stick to what I can get. 

“Helping troubled families requires a broad group to work together,” says Mike Barton again. “You can’t say it’s just about police, or it’s something that’s for social workers to deal with. It’s a big issue, one that takes up a huge amount of time, resources and care. It’s a complicated task, but the reality is that we can do more and we want to do more. But it will take a concerted effort from a lot of groups to get the best results.”

I take what Barton says as a message of hope. We can do something about this, it’s not intractable. We know the stakeholders. I believe that joining up those people who all have a different part of the answer is one of the key challenges of the 21st century. There are technical solutions that can help join up the answers to the problems. We can connect – as never before – police, health workers, social workers, educators, every group with a stake in a better future, all through a single system. At the end of which, by sharing information from a single system we can get a whole view of the troubled family, and create the unique solution it demands.

Looking at the calibre of people who attended the conference, and my belief that they are resolved to find a solution, I believe we can do more.