Flexibility, trauma science and better relationships: How this independent service is enhancing family support

By Tristan Donovan

| 29 April 2019

A year ago, the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham took a close look at its family services and decided that things could not go on as they were. Budgets were under pressure and demand from families rising. If services were to be protected and quality improved, something had to change.

Family Support’s flexible working means practitioners build better relationships with families. Picture: Family Support

So it took a radical step. It moved its early help and children's centres into a council-owned trading company called Family Support, and the primary goal was to find a way to provide a better, more integrated experience for families in need of help.

"Instead of having families go to a children's centre and then have to access early help and find nurseries separately, the borough wanted to offer families a better experience," says Peter Watt, the managing director of Family Support and former national services director at the NSPCC.

In tandem the vision was to make family support services in the West London borough respond faster to families. "In local authorities there are lots of decision-making layers to go through, we wanted to create an organisation that could deliver change and be innovative without being held back by those layers of bureaucracy," says Peter.

‘We trust our staff'

To achieve this Family Support put flexible working and practitioner-level decision making at the core of how it works with families. "We decided to trust our staff," says Peter. "We give them the equipment and the autonomy they need to work when and where families need them."

It's a cultural shift that Brogan Wyness appreciates. Brogan is one of the company's family support practitioners and she feels it's a welcome change from the service's local authority days. "One thing with Hammersmith and Fulham that was a niggle of mine was that we had to be in the office 10am to 4pm," she says.

"It was quite rigid even though we needed to be flexible to support families well. We got the job done but it was harder. Now, we work around the families rather than making them work around us. It means every day is different, which is great because you don't do this job to have an office job.

"If the best time to see a family is at seven in the morning when the mum is getting the kids ready for school then I will go see them then and because I do that there's no way I have to be at work until five. As long as I do my 36 hours a week, I work as I need to. It makes my husband a bit jealous of how flexible my job is compared to his."

Strengthening children's centres

That flexibility does more than improve work-life balance and provide services at times that are good for families. It also helps practitioners build better relations with families. "It makes families realise that we work around them and that really helps to quickly build a positive relationship with them," says Brogan.

Family Support's efforts to make its services responsive to families are also being felt within its five children's centres. The centres are now open every weekday and plans are afoot to have them open at weekends too.

"How we achieve seven days a week opening will vary across the borough, but we've chosen not to do that by telling our staff to work on a seven-day rota," says Peter. "We're looking to work with other organisations in the borough with the goal that between us we can provide seven days a week support to families.

"Also, the flexibility we've given staff is already moving us towards that. Some staff are doing things like running sessions for fathers on Saturday mornings because that's the best time to do it. It's not a requirement; those staff have chosen to do that, and the quid pro quo is that they take an afternoon off in the week. Our staff own the change."

Brain development and trauma

Another critical change that Family Support has embraced since its creation is a strong focus on offering support that is informed by a detailed understanding of the impact of brain development and trauma on children and young people.

"The scientific evidence is clear that raised stress hormone levels over a prolonged period is likely to have a negative impact on children and young people's development," says Peter. "Unchecked, this can lead to physical and emotional ill health as well as behavioural problems that lead to reduced life expectancy and life chances, be that through obesity, cancer, mental ill health, knife crime or poor educational attainment.

"So we're trying to provide universal services that support parents and carers to understand the importance of brain development and practical ways they can use that knowledge to provide the best for their children. That applies to everything we do. For example, our website - which we see as a digital service - offers advice for parents, children and young people that is written through the prism of brain development."

Learning from mistakes

But while these changes are turning Family Support into a nimble provider of evidence-based family support, care has been taken to ensure what is good about being a service within a local authority isn't lost in the transition.

"We've worked hard over the past year to maintain the close relationships we've had when we were in the council, so that the stepping up and stepping down of cases continues to work well," says Peter. "We don't want our local authority colleagues to feel we've become less accessible because that would be mad. In the past year there are times when we've got things wrong and times when the local authority has got things wrong but as a service we believe in learning from mistakes instead of judging people because of them. We both understand the mutual benefits we get from being close partners while not being the same organisation."

Want to be part of a family support service that trusts staff to do the best for families? Then check the latest opportunities to join Family Support.

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