Troubled Families – can technology help turn lives around?

Phil Neal considers the important role technology can play in helping local authorities prepare for phase two of the Troubled Families programme. 

The success of the government’s Troubled Families programme has been a topic of much media discussion since the initiative was launched in 2011.

Headlines recently announced the availability of additional funding for a second phase of the scheme. This will be piloted by 51 ‘early starter’ areas that have reported success in turning families’ lives around in the initial phase. With a national roll out of the extended programme planned, it is hoped that as many as 40,000 more families will be helped in the coming years.

Local authorities will be called upon to target families with specific issues in this next phase of the scheme, and to put effective measures in place to improve outcomes for them.

But what technology is available that can support authorities in transforming the lives of these families?

A new challenge for technology

Right from the start, technology has had a key part to play in the Troubled Families initiative. Powerful data analysis tools have made it a much simpler task for authorities to identify the families they need to focus on, according to government and local criteria, even as their circumstances change. However, the publication of the Understanding Troubled Families report released in July highlighted a new set of challenges that need to be addressed in phase two of the scheme.

The report concludes that many of the most troubled families are not just facing one difficulty; they are dealing with an average of nine different serious problems. Examples of these include unemployment, youth crime, anti-social behaviour and truancy.  

Findings also suggest that 71% of families suffer from health problems, 46% are dealing with mental health concerns, and 29% of families are affected by domestic violence or abuse. These are the key focus areas for phase two and authorities will require IT systems which equip them to provide targeted support for families with these specific issues.

Getting help where it is needed

The problems experienced by the most troubled families can be hard to address because of their range and complexity, and the intricate relationship between them. It tends to mean that one family member’s problem impacts on the rest of the family unit. If a parent is burdened with mental health issues, for example, this may affect the children’s attendance and behaviour at school.

Tackling multiple problems calls for a broad range of information to be made available to different teams and agencies so that they can work together to unravel the deeper issues. To achieve this, it is important for authorities to have tools available to them that pull information together from a number of places such as schools, the health service and the police, for example.

Bringing this data together in one place is key to enabling authorities to gain a clearer view of a family’s needs in order to map out a care package that will make a real difference to their lives.

Family centred support

It seems that the family focused approach is fast becoming a model for best practice in the planning and delivery of service for the most vulnerable in society. Systems are being continually developed to help authorities build a picture of a family which is burdened by a complicated series of challenges.

Collecting and storing data on families in one central place means it can be accessed quickly and easily by those authorised to see it, whenever it is needed. Very often speed is of the essence here, particularly when a family has suffered a crisis such as a domestic violence incident. In these cases, information needs to be entered and viewed by the right people so that help can be made available straight away.

A central point for information is also crucial for local authorities to monitor troubled families over time, so that regular support can be provided and problems anticipated before they happen.

Making the right links

Keeping track of vulnerable families can be problematic as their structure is sometimes complex. Families could include short term relationships or relatives living in different places, with different family names. Children may be cared for by a number of different adults and the connections between them may not be immediately clear.

There is certainly scope for technology to support authorities in responding to this challenge. Systems are being designed to identify links between individuals in one family. This means it will soon be possible to gather and store data about each family member in a single record, even if they do not share addresses or names.

Ultimately, the technology will allow authority staff to create a holistic view of a family, which will include data about each individual, information about the care they are receiving and details on the outcomes of any interventions.

By helping each individual to manage the difficulties they face, the entire family unit will benefit, making lives easier, happier and more fulfilled. It is vital that technology continues to provide the critical backbone support teams need to help them build a much brighter future for some of the most vulnerable families in society.

Phil Neal is the managing director of Capita One, whose management information solution is used by 120 local authorities to manage data on children and families.

Colin Marrs

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