Concern over Covid's "hidden" effect on some Lancashire families
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That was the warning from the woman in charge of Lancashire County Council’s children and family wellbeing work.
Head of service Debbie Duffel told a meeting of the authority’s education and children’s services scrutiny committee that families were experiencing a range of “challenges and issues” after almost a year of living under the cloud of coronavirus. She added that many of the predicted problems may not yet be apparent to the organisations that will ultimately have to try to resolve them.
“We are expecting that there will be an increased demand [for services] as a result of Covid – whether while going through this remaining lockdown or when we try to get back to some kind of normal,” Ms. Duffel explained.
“We are also expecting that there is some hidden demand out there that we have not been able to [identify] because of the restrictions or because families are not being supported to access early help.”
The meeting heard that around a third of the county’s 74 neighbourhood centres – where residents can request support – have now reopened after initially closing when the pandemic stuck – and that there are plans for more to do so.
Councillors were told that some of the county’s support services had been shifted onto digital platforms over the past ten months, but that face-to-face family visits were still taking place where it was deemed safe, so that staff could keep in touch directly with the most vulnerable families.
County Hall’s director of education and skills Sarah Callaghan said the authority had carefully monitored whether children classed as vulnerable had been attending school during the first and current lockdowns, as they are entitled to do.
“In instances where we know that they have not, we [ensure that we] have got the right service identified…to support and sustain contact with that family,” she said.
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that just over 10,000 so-called “troubled families” have been helped in Lancashire in the six years since the government launched the latest phase of its programme of the same name back in 2015.
Lancashire County Council has netted an additional £18m in Whitehall funding under the payment-by-results scheme for being able to demonstrate that it had “improved the life chances” of a target of 10,064 families. Ms Duffel said.
The government recently announced that it would be extending the programme – which was designed to turn around the lives of families in difficulty and help them make “significant and sustained progress against their multiple problems” – for a further year up to March 2022.
Committee members were told that the county was well-placed to continue to benefit from the early intervention principles that underpin the scheme even when it ends, because they have been embedded into the authority’s own work, rather than being delivered as a wholly distinct programme.
Early help services are also now being targeted directly at Lancashire’s schools, with five partnership officers operating in different parts of the county – and a plan to recruit “children’s champions” at both primary and secondary school level.
Sarah Callaghan said it was important not to focus solely on poor education outcomes as an isolated measure of the problems faced by youngsters.
“We [need to] think about the barriers that are preventing that child from even feeling able to learn in the first place.
“If they are experiencing [say] domestic violence, they’re not going to be worried about their attainment. It’s about identifying those barriers and putting the support in place to address them,” Ms. Callaghan added.
SHUTTING THE “REVOLVING DOOR” OF SUPPORT SERVICES
The continuing challenge faced by families as a result of Covid has coincided with a drive to reduce the number of children in care in Lancashire.
As the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed last week, 21 new teams – including adult and children’s social care staff and specialists in drug and alcohol rehabilitation – have been formed in an attempt to intervene earlier and more effectively to stop families reaching crisis point.
That work involves the county council’s statutory services – but the approach has also been adopted by its dedicated early help team, which operates a consent-based programme offering families support at the point before more formal services can oblige them to engage with the authorities.
Councillors heard that referrals can be made by other agencies or even families themselves – and that reaching the right decision about the help needed at that point was crucial and so must incorporate the views of all the organisations involved.
“It stops families experiencing a delay in getting the support they need and…having to go through that revolving door, where they go into one service for a time and then come out of [it] because it’s not right of them,” said Debbie Duffel, adding that it was equally important to recognise when families were ready to move on.
“Sometimes [they] get stuck in drift and [end up] holding the hands of services when perhaps they no longer need that level of support.
“So we have looked at all the cases that are open to us to see if it’s the right time for families to access support through more universal provision rather than targeted early help. Doing that has allowed us to increase our capacity so we can work with more complex families as they are presenting [to us].”