Dimensions of Family Empowerment in Work with So-Called ‘Troubled’ Families
Blog post based on an article in Social Policy and Society
In the Prime Minister’s speech on 22nd June 2015, David Cameron declared that the Troubled Families Programme established under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition was “a real government success” with almost all of the 117,000 families involved in the programme having now been “turned around” and plans to replicate this success with a further 400,000 families over the next 5 years. The programme is certainly politically popular with considerable cross-party support and the term ‘turned around’ having taken on a life of its own within the House of Commons and across the media. Yet in academic circles, the jury is out as to whether such successes are indeed genuine, and whether the measures of success used within the payments by results framework actually reflect significant long term improvements for families who are struggling in the face of considerable social, economic, health and personal difficulties. Even the term ‘troubled families’ is highly contentious, having emerged in the wake of the 2011 riots, replacing earlier language of families with ‘multiple disadvantages’ or ‘complex needs’ and emphasising the ‘anti-social’ nature of the families over their vulnerability and social exclusion.
When he announced the introduction of the Troubled Families Programme in 2011, David Cameron declared that the programme would succeed with families where traditional services had failed in the past, because it would be empowering for those families. The family support worker at the heart of the service would work with the family to support them to change, rather than being a coercive intervention imposed upon the family who remain passive and resistant to change. Yet critics point out that, in spite of the voluntary nature of the inclusion with what is a non-statutory intervention, families are still in effect coerced into participation under threat of sanctions imposed by other agencies (for example eviction from social housing, imposition of an ASBO or children being taken into the care system).
My research in one such local authority service allowed me the opportunity to interview families and their support workers about their experiences of family intervention, and to explore the extent to which such an approach could provide opportunities for family empowerment. What became clear is that empowerment is a term which has a variety of meanings, which can be used selectively to support different features of family interventions. Government discussion of empowerment tends to reflect neo-liberal notions of responsibilisation, economic self-sufficiency and active citizenship, in order to reduce spending on each family. By contrast, families and keyworkers describe ‘empowerment’ in terms of the redistribution of resources towards such families, advocacy strategies and psychological support, all of which enable families to resist speciﬁc attempts at the exercise of professional power. Nonetheless, they remain subject to wider structural forms of regulation and exclusion which can only be addressed through more substantial, long-term social and economic reforms.
Sue Bond-Taylor was interviewed about the article for Podsocs, you can view the podcast on their website here: http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/troubled-or-disadvantaged-families/