Increasing numbers of children are being referred for statutory support and protection. This is driving spending towards highly skilled, resource-intensive professional interventions and away from the types of help and advice services at community level that are often delivered with and through local volunteers. This is unwelcome on several fronts, as local authorities well know. Not only does it erode prevention, but it can make it more difficult to make safe and sustainable progress with families that are "stuck" in ambivalent or even hostile relationships with professional services. Volunteer mentor programmes that work alongside families on child protection or child in need plans are one way in which local authorities can deliver robustly on their duties to children at risk by drawing on the strengths and capabilities of their communities. Volunteer mentors can act as bridges back into normal community life for families whose circumstances have often isolated them, and for whom professional interventions can add to their impression of being singled out or at fault.
The effectiveness of these programmes depends largely on two factors. First, is the intervention well designed and managed? Second, how well does the volunteer intervention integrate with the local authority's overall approach? Bluntly, is it part and parcel of an assets-based approach that feeds into whole-system learning, or is it a supplemental service to reduce pressure on professional teams?
1. Give your programme time to get established. Recognise that the volunteers you recruit today will become key to the training and supervision of those who come after, and powerful ambassadors for future recruitment. Be ambitious and pacey, and expect value for money but set out to build capacity in waves, and take the opportunity to invite communities - and local funders if appropriate - into a longer term partnership. This will also help allay fears that the local authority is simply using volunteers to plug immediate budget gaps, rather than developing new ways of working.
2. Understand the role of mentoring. You need a clear picture of what you understand by mentoring and the distinct mechanisms through which it has positive impacts for different groups and individuals. Volunteering Matters sees mentoring with vulnerable families as a regular and time-limited intervention. Mentoring relationships with vulnerable families should work jointly towards an agreed set of measurable goals, agreed as being important by the family and children's social care professionals.
Your volunteer mentoring programme for vulnerable families should ensure that all matches have an agreed timescale. If, when you review progress against goals, you agree that more time is needed then that's fine. But this should be an explicit decision-making process, not something that happens by default. When setting your initial timescale, be aware that there may be a lot of "testing" by the mentee before trust is established and learning and change begins to take place. Also be aware that agreeing a reasonably long matching period - say six months - will allow the family and mentor to work together over a period that will usually span several child protection conferences and reviews, and will therefore offer continuity.
3. Embrace an assets-based approach. We recommend your investment in volunteer support for vulnerable families is explicitly framed within a broader narrative of community and family capability. Local authorities increasingly emphasise the importance of working with and alongside families and communities to resolve conflicts and repair harm. Mentoring interventions, in which volunteers empower rather than enforce change, naturally complement this approach. Many have been in contact with services for years, but have not had a forum in which they feel supported to lead their own decision making.
Where the values of the local authority and the family mentoring service are misaligned, matching can become problematic and outcomes can fall short. There is a risk that a project will occupy a relatively unproductive information and guidance or watching niche, or, at worse, become a parking place for families where other options have been exhausted.
4. Share learning on a regular basis. Learning from your volunteer mentoring intervention should be shared regularly at strategic level, drawing on live and relevant impact data. At casework level too, communication is crucial. Collaborative review and planning that fully involves the family, the mentor and the relevant professional teams should ensure that expectations and learning are regularly shared. Families' conversations with their mentors are often more frank than those they have with professional staff, so mentors have an important role in supporting the family to express its views, ideas and concerns.
5. Volunteering can help with recruitment. Finally, and ironically, by investing in the capacity of communities to be part of delivering intensive family support, you may well be renewing your professional pipeline. Our experience of volunteer mentors is that many discover a passion for children's social care. So be ready to encourage these individuals, and set up the pathways through which they could ultimately join your professional services.
- Paul Buddery is director of strategy, Volunteering Matters