(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 2)

‘These families are off the barometer in the number of problems they have. We are beginning to achieve a revolution in how you deal with the worst families in Britain – worst in that they have the worst problems. Frankly, they cause the most problems and, frankly, you wouldn’t want to live with them’ Louise Casey in The Daily Express, 18 August 2014

‘She (Casey) described the case of a mother of 10. “She was seen as an antisocial behaviour case,” she said. “The house was a tip … She said to the team, ‘I can’t keep on top of the recycling,’ and you thought: tell another mug that, but not me’ The Sunday Times, 17 August 2014

When David Cameron launched the Troubled Families Programme in the aftermath of the English riots of 2011, he embellished his speech with a ‘true story’ of one family where numerous state services had been involved, including the following:

“The police were called out to their home 58 times, including five arrests and 109 hours of police work … Two injunctions were issued against tenants. Neighbours kept complaining to the council about disruptive behaviour. Two children were subject to different sets of close supervision by youth offending teams. There was a summons for non-payment of council tax…and on and on it went.”

Since then, ‘troubled families’ have been linked with a wide variety of social problems including Domestic Violence, teenage pregnancy, children at risk and, wait for it, violent extremism, leading to the frequent labelling of them as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘chaotic’. The publication of the ‘Understanding Troubled Families’ report, according to Louise Casey, ‘paints a picture of families sinking under the weight of multiple problems’, which can then ‘spiral out of control’ if they remain unchecked.  The report claimed that, on average, nine serious ‘problems’ exist in any one family at any one time. ‘Problems’, as defined in the report, include having a child  with a statement of Special Educational Need and having a long-term limiting illness or disability.

Leaving the issue of what constitutes a problem aside (that will be covered in Part 3), serious concerns should exist about the quality of the data, which are not official statistics and which have been collected from local authorities – see Part 1 here. However, if we take a leap of faith and take the data at face value, the interpretation and representation of the data should also cause us some concern. One could argue that Casey has adopted something akin to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in interpreting the data, seeking out the negative angles to the data, as the examples at the top of the blog and the clipping below from the Sunday Times front page suggest (clicking on the image should increase its size).

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If, however, one adopts something approaching a ‘hermeneutics of faith’ in examining the data, a very different picture can begin to emerge. For example, in contrast to the workless ‘neighbours from hell’ who ruin not only their lives but the lives of their children and those living next to them and are a constant drain on resources, we can find the following from the data behind the report:

  • 84% of families had children who were not permanently excluded from school
  • 26% of families had at least one adult in work
  • 77% of families did not have any young people classified as ‘NEET’
  • 78% were not at risk of eviction for any reason
  • 71% of those living in rented accommodation were not in rent arrears
  • 88% of families had no children on a Child Protection Plan
  • 77% of children did not have any children identified as being children in need
  • 85% of families had no adults with a proven criminal offence in the previous 6 months
  • 97% of families had children with either 1 or no criminal offences in the previous 6 months
  • 58% of families had no police callouts in the previous 6 months
  • 95% of families had no family members identified as being Prolific and Priority Offenders (PPO)
  • 89% of families had no adult subject to an ASB intervention
  • 93% of families had no identified gang members in the family
  • 93% of families had no adults clinically diagnosed as being dependent on alcohol
  • 93% of families had no adults clinically diagnosed as being dependent on non-prescription drugs

Whilst these figures show that there are undoubtedly some problems within ‘troubled families’ what they also show is that the reality of the families might appear to be somewhat different to the stereotypical, stigmatising image of them put forward by politicians, civil servants and certain sections of the media. The example of a police officer stationed on a family’s settee being a cheaper option than responding to all of the call-outs is a familiar one and was used in the Sunday Time article, but the data shows that it is an entirely inappropriate one to illustrate the experience of the majority of the families being talked about as, for example, only 5% of families included individuals known to be priority and prolific offenders. We should also remember that the data relates to families entering the TF programme in its very earliest stages – presumably these were the families that most easily fitted the criteria and were the ones already best known to services. One might conclude that they may therefore have more ‘troubles’ than later entrants to the programme, a conclusion which could be supported by some local authorities claiming to be unable to find their allocated number of ‘troubled families’

An alternative reading of the data could therefore include the findings which show that the majority of these ‘troubled families’ have children who are not excluded from school, are able to care for and bring up their children without statutory intervention of any kind, are not in rent arrears and are involved in no – or very low levels of – crime and ASB. Over a quarter of the families were in work within 6 months of the time of entry to the programme despite Casey previously stating that “We have known that there is a group of families who didn’t work in the boom times and won’t work in the bust times. They’re unemployed; they’re dependent on benefits.” As the data suggests, many of them don’t match this description and because of the way the data has been collected and reported, we do not know (or are not told) how many of the families had an adult in work in the  7, 8, 9 or 12 or 24 months prior to entering the programme.(Please see update below) We do know, however, that people often churn in and out of insecure, low-paid jobs and that ‘in work’ or ‘out-of-work’ are not static, unchanging categories, despite the attempt here to portray them as such. The reason for individuals being out of work is not reported either. Given the health data, it would not be surprising if a large number of families had nobody in work because of limiting illness, disability or caring responsibilities. This sort of detail probably doesn’t help the ‘workshy’ image of the families that Casey is eager to cultivate.

In choosing to interpret and present the data at her disposal in this way, Casey is arguably guilty of what Thomas Teo, drawing on the work of Gayatri Spivak, has called ‘epistemological violence’. Teo suggests that:

“Epistemological violence is a practice that is executed … when interpretative speculations regarding results implicitly or explicitly construct the ‘Other’ as problematic. The term epistemological suggests that these speculations are framed as knowledge when in reality they are interpretative speculations regarding data. The term violence denotes that this ‘knowledge’ has a negative impact on the ‘Other’ and that the interpretative speculations are produced to the detriment of the ‘Other’.”

In highlighting the potential different readings of the family monitoring data provided by local authorities, we should not seek to deny that many ‘troubled families’ lead complex lives or that some families do cause trouble for other people. When a programme specifically and deliberately targets some of our poorest and most disadvantaged families, we shouldn’t be surprised when issues such as unemployment, domestic violence, crime, lone parenthood, educational problems and mental health issues can be found. After all, these issues occur across all cross-sections of society. What should, perhaps, be more noteworthy, given the difficulties they face and the conditions and stresses under which many of them live, is the fact that many of them appear to function reasonably well, and without succumbing to the ‘Shameless’ stereotype perpetuated by Casey and the right wing press.

Part 1 of (Mis)Understanding Troubled Families can be found here

****UPDATE 21 October 2014. It would appear that I’ve misunderstood some of the data relating to the Understanding Troubled Families report that the Working Paper is based on. I initially thought the in-work/out-of-work figures related only to the time of a families’ entry to the programme. It turns out that the ‘in-work’ figures relate toan adult member of the household being in employment at any time during the 6 months prior to entry into the programme. I have updated the blog to reflect this and hopefully the information above is correct. My original concerns about the presentation of the data still largely stand. Apologies for the unintended misunderstanding****

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4 thoughts on “(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 2)

  1. Really interesting read. The point about whether statistics can ever be used as neutral data is well made (especially in the context of something like the TF agenda).

    In relation to the list of ‘positive statistics’ you use, I wonder what the comparison would be with the general population and / or whether and how you think that matters (or whether actually that’s exactly the problem with the whole TF approach)?

    Similarly, you note that problems such as unemployment, DV, crime, mental health issues, etc. exist across society – in your view, does it matter (and if so, why and how?) that these ‘problems’, whilst absolutely being found across society, do tend to be concentrated within certain places more so than others (eg greater levels of mental health problems in inner city areas). I guess what I’m wondering is – how can we productively and helpfuly have a conversation about the ‘problems’ the TF agenda is about without making the mistakes of epistemological violence and Othering? For example, have you seen any policies or programmes from other countries that do so more progressively than TF (there surely can’t be many that do so more regressively……)?

  2. @D Wilkins. By not trying to single out groups and target them for ‘intervention’ but rather develop family support services such that people feel they can find support where and when they need it on their own terms. Perhaps we would find an interesting new set of concerns raised by families in need themselves.

  3. Thanks for both the comments. In answer to David’s final point, it’s hard to disagree with the other response. Participle and their ‘relational welfare’ approach appears to be a very different way of engaging with similar sorts of families, for example.
    One of my main interests is in the social construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem. Some of the characteristics they exhibit may be more readily found in lower-income groups but then tax evasion, cocaine abuse and insider trading are problems which might be more readily found in higher-income groups, but the government has decided not to launch a high-profile national programme to address these problems. Spector and Kitsuse argue that social problems should be understood as the activities of people who make claims about certain putative conditions rather than the circumstances or behaviours of those individuals or families being talked about. Similarly, Bourdieu argued that we should aim for an epoche – a methodical suspension of naive adherence to the world and question everything – he suggests we should seek to understand ‘who constructs the instruments of construction’, which is how I feel about the TF programme and narrative. It’s late, I’ll stop but happy to carry on another time.

  4. Pingback: (Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 3) | A Kind of 'trouble'...

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