Why we are asking Holyrood candidates to uphold families right to support

Family support is a right – what must we do to make that right real for every child?

There’s been a lot of talk about the impact of the pandemic on children and families over the last year.  Over the last few weeks, as we enter the election period, we’ve heard about ‘building back better’, ‘catching up on lost learning’, ‘mental health crises’ and even ‘ticking time bombs’. Politicians of all parties have talked  about the need to consider how to address the structural inequalities like poverty that have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic for our most ‘vulnerable citizens’. But, in my view, there’s still been much more talk than action.

Of course, organisations like Children 1st have been working hard to support children and families over the past year with emergency funding, crisis grants, essential items of food and devices to help with learning at home. It’s been great to have been supported by funders like Barclays, the STV Hunter Foundation and the Scottish Government to make this happen. Our family support workers, often funded by Local Authorities, have offered a lifeline to children and families via the phone, through zoom or on the doorstep. We have also seen some great holistic multi-agency support established in response to the pandemic by forward-looking partnerships, like the ‘Fit Like” family support Hubs in Aberdeen we are running alongside Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen City Health and Social Care Partnership and NHS Grampian.

However, the children and families that we work alongside tell us that these kinds of supports are the exception; hard to find and even harder to get past the bureaucracy before they can actually get the practical, emotional and financial help they need. All too often families tell us the services and support that are available are confusing, inaccessible, siloed and disjointed. Many families feel lost between the gaps or feel ‘parked’ on waiting lists for inappropriate more acute services when there is no alternative.

I believe that, as we consider what recovery from the pandemic will mean for Scotland’s children and families, especially those who suffered the most, we must listen to their voices and hear their stories. We have to understand the reality of their lives and act on what they tell us would help them get beyond crisis to a place of security. Where children are loved, safe and nurtured they must stay, at the heart of loving, safe families and strong communities. That’s why this week we are working alongside other children’s organisations to encourage politicians and decision- makers to commit to investing in a network of  community-based whole family support.

As ever there have been warm words from many parties about family support in their manifestos, but little explanation in practical terms about what they will do to ensure every families right to support is upheld. There is so much more that needs to be done to realise children’s and families’ right to get the support they want and need, in the way they need, for as long as they need.

So what does this mean in practice? We know that strong, loving relationships around children are what helps keep them safe and well. Children thrive when their parents and carers have all the emotional and practical resources they need to bring up their children. 

At Children 1st we have been writing and talking about what families have told us they need for many years. The Christie Commission, the Kilbrandon Report and now The Promise have told the same story. This is what families tell us: Help and support should be provided early at a time when families reach for it and by people who understand how difficult it can be to ask for help. It should be offered as a right without shame or judgement and it should be universally accessible without complicated referral processes. Families should help design and influence the type of support they can get. Support should build on strengths, what is going well in families as well as offer practical help to improve the things that aren’t. Parent’s, Carers and their children should be equal partners in the plans to make things better. They should be respected and heard as the experts in their own lives.

Trusted support workers must be available when and how families need them, they must be kind, compassionate and skilled and be able to build strong and lasting relationships. Working in the heart of communities, teams should offer emotional support, help to improve family relationships and overcome all the challenges that can get in the way. There should be money and benefits advice, help to manage debt and support with getting into work.  Rather than multiple professionals and agencies working separately, teams must work collaboratively so that families are no longer exhausted by the merry-go-round of bouncing around a system that often bewilders them and is not built for or around them.

Although the Coronavirus pandemic has shown us the strengths of families, whose resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems and hardships has been inspiring, it has also shown us the incredible burden that too many of Scotland’s families carry; living in poverty, excluded, judged, neglected, struggling to cope and overcome trauma and adversity   We need to capitalise on the way that communities and families worked together over the last year and shift our perspective from thinking about what services are available to support families to what families are telling us they need and want—and we need to respond by developing  and designing those support systems right alongside them.

In order to achieve this we must be prepared to invest significant funding that matches the level of need and be willing to completely transform our systems of support. There are too many gaps between universal and statutory services that can only respond when families reach crisis point. We must ensure families don’t have to reach a point of desperation where children are harmed or hurt before they get help and support that goes beyond what schools or GPs can offer.

Such transformation will be difficult. It means all of us—including those of us in the third sector—rethinking our approach to working alongside families and fully embedding a rights-based approach across our ways of working. It means challenging the current disparate and dysfunctional commissioning, procurement and funding processes that limits our ability to innovate and develop support that really works for families. It means less siloed, single agency work and much more multi-disciplinary teams throughout the entire system. It means challenging the unhelpful siloed way that the Government currently operates. It means leadership from the very highest level that goes beyond rhetorical commitments about supporting families to considering how we can change culture so that children and families are at the very centre of decision- making and design.

I am confident that this can be delivered, but the need for change is urgent and we need to start now. We need to build on existing pilots that show new ways of working and ensure the evidence about change and impact is listened to and learnt from. We must take this to scale and make sure support is available across every community in the Country. We need to stop making siloed funding announcements and start considering where the money is in the current system and use it more effectively. We need to value the relationships the third sector develop alongside families and recognise them as much more equal partners. We need to create a model where families know how and where to access the help and support they need. In short, the Investment in supporting children and their families to recover needs to be as much of a priority as the investment in economic recovery.

We need to take account of social justice, poverty reduction and emotional support so that we don’t plunge thousands more families into crisis by abandoning them just when times have got really tough. If we don’t, we run the risk that thousands of children who need support to overcome understandable emotional distress will be waiting on a list for mental health services or that hundreds of families will find themselves appointed a social worker or be at risk of their children being taken into care because the  help they needed to keep them together just wasn’t there.

As we welcome the process of incorporating the UNCRC into Scots Law it is worth remembering that support for children and families is a right that will soon be legally binding. We must take this seriously and begin to develop clear and comprehensive models to ensure that all families are able to access universal family support whenever they need it and, crucially, that there is sufficient funding to realise this right.