‘Perpetual infancy’ in the ‘troubled families’ agenda

 Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana (1905)

Louise Casey is, apparently, a history graduate but, as John Welshman has pointed out, she doesn’t seem to be particularly aware of the history of the concepts such as ‘troubled families’

The idea that families pass on their shortcomings and problematic behaviours through a process of ‘intergenerational transmission’ is central to the ‘troubled families’ agenda. Casey has also argued however, that ‘despite the best efforts of many governments over the years’ the families have ‘not been changed’ and attributes this to a form of intergenerational failure of public services to these families. She went to say, at the Local Government Association conference in 2013, that

The stories of these families tell the history of a generation of initiatives, a generation of programmes, a generation of goals.

Yet from generation to generation we have failed to stop the transmission of problems and disadvantage.

In my view we have let them down – and I include myself in that.

This time therefore is has to be different.

Unfortunately, the ‘different’ approach that Casey advocates ‘this time’, in the form of the ‘family intervention’ model, actually forms part of the history of the concept of ‘troubled families’. The Family Service Units, working with the ‘problem families’ of the post-war period advocated an intensive practical, relationship based way of working with families that bore remarkable similarities to the ‘family intervention’ model. Pat Starkey, in summarising the approach writes that:

The form of intervention they developed became known as intensive family casework and emphasised the importance of building close links with the family, in nearly all cases with the mother, and establishing a pattern of close supervision – so close that some were visited two or three times a day or even more. Treatment was directed towards remedying faults thought to be characteristic of the failing mother and emphasised the successful performance of such tasks as getting the children out of bed in time to go to school and taking them there; washing and ironing; regular fine-combing, and, if necessary, deinfestation of children’s hair; cleaning and cooking; putting the children to bed at a reasonable and regular time (2000 pp549-550).

Nearly all of these features can be found in the current ‘different’ approach being advocated by Casey and the DCLG. The first of five ‘family intervention factors’ identified by the DCLG document Working with Troubled Families is ‘dedicated workers, dedicated to families’:

The evidence suggests that much of the success of family intervention work is due to the skills of individual workers, both in building an honest and productive relationship with a family and influencing the actions of other agencies around that family. (p17)

Practical ‘hands on’ support is the second of the factors. Setting out what this means, the document states:

Workers help provide a routine for those living in chaotic circumstances, showing parents how to get children up and fed in the morning, how to prepare meals and how to put children to bed. Families’ day-to-day skills such as cooking, hygiene and daily routines may often have been taken for granted by other agencies and they may need to learn these things for the first time (p21)

Casey herself has talked at length about the importance of this kind of help, including the comment below to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee:

It is an important thing that we need people to do, but going in to do that assessment, getting kids out of bed and to school for the first time in ages, making sure there is food on the table and establishing routine while you are working with the family means that you achieve very small steps with them

A persistent, challenging, assertive approach is the third factor, consistent with the FSU emphasis on close supervision. The DCLG ‘guide to evidence and good practice’ includes this quote from a family worker:

“I was working with [this parent] and [the family] was getting three visits, four visits a day and that’s not an exaggeration. I would be like a bad smell in that house.” (p23)

The point in highlighting these similarities is to demonstrate that when Casey and government ministers talk about the need for ‘radical reform’, ‘public service transformation’ and a ‘cultural revolution’ (which they do), they are advocating an approach that originated nearly 70 years ago. This, if it worked, would not be a problem, but there is little evidence it did and the plagiarizing of the idea is unnecessary and disingenuous.

Interestingly, Starkey does point out some social policies which did appear to have an effect on the numbers of ‘problem families’ in the post-war period, where governments ‘best efforts’ appeared to work a little. She notes that:

By the mid-1950s, when the effects of post-war welfare provisions were beginning to be felt, and when public house-building programmes were starting to make inroads into the domain of the private landlord. Family Service Unit workers reported with some surprise that the ‘problem family’ was numerically less significant than it had been a decade earlier. (2000 pp551-552)

Now that would be a ‘different’ approach at the current time.