DfE-funded care initiative 'provides low-cost support for vulnerable families'

By Joe Lepper

| 14 July 2017

A government-funded social care initiative originally developed in Chicago has the potential to support vulnerable families in the UK at low cost and reduce the number of children coming into care, an evaluation report has found.

Safe Families for Children UK has been operating since 2013. Picture: Safe Families for Children UK

Safe Families For Children UK, which has previously received £2m from the Department for Education's innovation fund, sees volunteers provide respite support, friendship, and mentoring to families in crisis.

The charity operates in 31 local authorities and has supported 1,425 families since it launched in the UK in 2013, but there are plans to extend it to all councils.

An evaluation report into the initiative found that early evidence suggests it has "the potential to support many vulnerable families at low cost including a significant proportion of those children that were on the edge of the care system".

It also found that the scheme has the potential to reduce the flow of children into foster and residential care.

In the six months following the evaluation, which took place between January 2015 and March 2016, no children in families that were supported entered care. In comparison, two children from a control group were taken into care, and another was placed under a special guardianship order.

"Safe Families represents one of the most adventurous start-ups in children's services for some time," the evaluation report concludes.

"It has the potential to support several thousand of England's neediest children; to greatly reduce the numbers of children in care, and to demonstrably forge a new relationship between public systems and civil society."

The evaluation estimates that Safe Families support could be an alternative to care for around 15 per cent of children who are placed in foster or residential settings. For the 20 local authority areas evaluated, around two thirds of 708 children considered to be on the edge of care were successfully diverted from care through support from the initiative.

The report also praises Safe Families for being able to attract volunteers and creating a steady flow of people from the community willing to give their time for free.

"Satisfaction levels among volunteers remains strong," the evaluation report states.

However, the evaluation also found that success in supporting families was patchy across local authority areas, with some councils taking longer to build up confidence in the initiative.

The evaluation, which was carried out by the Dartington Social Research Unit, also found that some of the charity's staff are nervous about managing more serious cases.

Safe Families chief executive, Keith Danby, said: "The whole evaluation process was not without its many challenges but we're grateful for the experience, insight and help that we've received from the whole process.

"We will continue to operate going forward with the many valuable lessons we learned from their partnership."

In March 2016 the charity, which was established in the UK by Durham-based philanthropist Sir Peter Vardy, announced plans to expand its reach across England through a network of 100,000 volunteers by 2025.

The charity currently works with around 3,000 volunteers and 500 community groups, supporting more than 3,500 children.

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