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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 21 May 2008



Families Matter

22 May 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson) 
Dr Kieran Deeny 
Mr Alex Easton 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr John McCallister

Ms Rosie Drysdale ) Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety 
Mr Sean Holland )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs O’Neill):

I invite Sean Holland and Rosie Drysdale from the family policy unit in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to make their presentation, after which Committee members will ask questions.

Mr Sean Holland (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):

‘Families Matter: Supporting Families in Northern Ireland’ is a crucial element of the Department’s contribution to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) children and young people’s strategy, ‘Our Children and Young People — Our Pledge’. It is vital that parents receive support in their roles as educators, primary carers and, most significantly, positive role models for children and young people. The strategy that I present to the Committee today aims to do that and to assist and empower parents to be confident and responsible in helping their children to reach their fullest potential.

I will briefly outline how we developed the strategy. Initially, we engaged extensively with key stakeholders in the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. We spoke to those who work directly with, and provide services to, children, young people and families. We also consulted groups who represent their interests. We held several workshops that helped us to determine the priority areas on which the strategy should focus and how those should be progressed, and they are listed in the final strategy.

The overarching finding from the workshops was that recognition and resources should be invested in working with families, with a particular emphasis being placed on prevention and early intervention. When families are under stress, and possibly experiencing difficulties, action should be taken before the situation deteriorates and more drastic intervention is required. We also identified four key themes.

First, people told us that parenting education, in its widest sense, should be considered. It should include the development of skills for direct parenting and for assisting parents to keep their families together by educating them in debt management, anger management and positive parenting.

The second area that people identified as important and requiring our focus was relationship support, through providing counselling to assist families to stay together when under stress and experiencing difficulties. Moreover, it is important that we recognise how many families in our society, sadly, break down. The latest figures, from 2004, show that approximately 2,500 parental couples separate every year, affecting about 2,300 children.

People told us that it was very important that services be available to limit the negative impact on children as families go through that difficult separation phase. They wanted relationship support to include mediation work, help for non-resident parents to maintain contact with their children, and expanded court welfare services to minimise the adversarial nature of family-court proceedings.

Thirdly, much of the good work that is already being done is recognised. People highlighted the issues of availability and access to services. They said that, often, the services were good on the ground but that they did not know that they were there or, for various reasons, had trouble accessing them. That was a particular difficulty for families for whom English is not their first language, and for socially excluded or stigmatised families. Those families sometimes had difficulty accessing existing services.

Finally, we were told that no single Department, agency, organisation or professional group could provide everything needed to support families. Therefore, people must improve how they work together, and how they combine their efforts. Responses indicated that that was important at the levels of planning and assessing need, and in the way in which services were organised to prevent duplication and ensure a co-ordinated effort. A wrap-around approach at point of delivery is an important element of any strategy, so that staff work multidisciplinary and inter-agency.

We considered all those themes and integrated them into the document that the Committee is to consider. We also focused on the high-level, strategic vision and direction that family-support services should have. The document identifies the strategy’s aims, vision, principles, and outcomes, and it elaborates on each of the identified themes, which came directly from the work that we did with key stakeholders before we began to compile the final document

The draft strategy was first issued for consultation from January 2007 until 31 March 2007. The Parenting Forum Northern Ireland (PFNI) assisted us in directly obtaining families’ views. Include Youth helped us to ensure that children and young people’s views were represented.

A total of 70 consultation responses was received. We are pleased that most of them were very positive, which, I hope, reflected that the good work done in engaging with people before we put pen to paper and ensured that the document contained what people wanted.

However, some improvements were suggested. In particular, people wanted a greater emphasis to be placed on joint and integrated working, and for there to be a more strategic feel to some of the language used. We took on board those comments.

We engaged extensively, and shared the consultation responses, with the children’s services planners, who form part of the children and young people’s committees in each board area. Our thinking was that the children and young people’s committees and, particularly, the children’s services planning groups have a long history in planning family support services. They are also strongly engaged locally and at community level, through voluntary-sector representation.

They were ideally placed to mediate between us and the people with whom we were consulting, thus ensuring that we captured people’s responses during consultation. They worked very closely with us and greatly helped us to finalise the document.

The document that we present to the Committee today for consideration reflects integrated working and gives strategic direction, through early intervention and prevention, to people working with children, young people and families.

‘Families Matter’ recognises that appropriate support services are necessary and that they must form part of a spectrum of services, including services for families in more serious difficulty with a higher spectrum of need. It complements other strategies, particularly our Department’s Care Matters strategy, which focuses on those families truly in crisis, including families in which intervention may be needed and parental responsibility for children assumed. It also serves as part of our contribution to OFMDFM’s overarching strategy, ‘Our Children and Young People — Our Pledge’.

I am happy to answer any questions that Committee members may have.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. I am a parent myself, and the family unit is so important, no matter how that unit is made up. Anything coming from the Department to support a family or a parent is to be welcomed.

Much of the work that needs to be done around the strategy’s four key themes is done by the likes of Sure Start. The Parents Advice Centre (PAC) also does good work. They are probably involved in planning and in workshops, which complements our work. You said how important it is that Departments work together to provide services, so does ‘Families Matter’ feed into the Care Matters strategy or the domestic violence strategy? Does it complement those strategies?

Mr Holland:

Very much so. DHSSPS did not want to duplicate the work that was being done, and there are strategies out there that cover particular work areas. Those include the two strategies that you have just mentioned, as well as some of the strategies that have emanated from Brian Gaffney’s Health Promotion Agency on teen pregnancy and on drug and alcohol use. All those strategies obviously play a key role in supporting families.

It was not our job to try to come up with a document that replicated those strategies and addressed all the areas that they cover. We were trying to set out a strategic direction and provide a context in which those strategies could work best, and that is why we focused on ensuring that families can access information about all the services that flow from those documents when and where they need them.

The strategy emphasises strengthening and improving the children’s services planning arrangements in order that all those services can be co-ordinated and delivered in an integrated manner. Yes, ‘Families Matter’ does complement those strategies. However, it is not intended to replicate them; rather, its intention is to support them and enhance their delivery.

Mr Easton:

Thank you for your presentation, which was very good. ‘Families Matter’ is an impressive-looking document, and I hope that its recommendations will be delivered, and that it will not simply amount to hot air.

I have a number of questions. Can you give me some more information on children’s contact centres? Where will they be and who will be control them? Is there local community involvement in the strategy? Who will pay for it and who will be in charge of it? Will it be OFMDFM or DHSSPS, or will it be both?

Mr Holland:

I will link my answer to your first question to a point that you made about the involvement of local communities. Children’s contact centres are an outstanding example of how local communities can work together to support members of that community. They have largely been initiated and developed by volunteers — most of them grew out of Church-based groups, and they have been run by volunteers for a number of years.

The aim of children’s contact centres is to provide a safe and secure environment where non-resident parents can continue to have contact with their children when, for a variety of reasons, the relationship between both parents is such that that contact is not possible in either parent’s home. Those contact centres are normally situated in church halls and provide an atmosphere and environment in which both parents trust the contact centre enough to allow contact to happen. That reduces the likelihood of parental contact’s being lost in the course of family breakdown.

Children’s contact centres have found it increasingly difficult to sustain their services, given that they have, more or less, no money. ‘Families Matters’ is used as a basis for bidding for resources. We highlighted the plight of such centres, so we are allocating them funds. Children’s contact centres will still largely be voluntary, but that money will allow for the expansion of existing centres and the establishment of new ones. The funding is primarily being used to employ a co-ordinator for each centre. As I said, centres will still use volunteers and they will very much remain part of the community, but the funding will give them that little bit of extra help.

Children’s services planning is key to delivering the strategy and to developing an infrastructure that firmly supports those services in Northern Ireland. We chose children’s services planning mainly because that is the place where stakeholders in children and young people’s lives, and in families, come together.

The voluntary and community sectors are well represented on children’s services planning groups and on children and young people’s committees, as are their statutory partners and statutory agencies other than health and social services. The police, the Housing Executive and the Department of Education all come together with local community organisations through children’s services planning, so, yes, we see it as a key mechanism.

As for who will pay, we used the strategy as a platform for bidding for resources, and from the resources available to him, the Minister allocated £10 million for family-support services — in their broadest sense. I must emphasise that not all that money will be allocated to what we call level 1 and 2 services, which are what the strategy is primarily about — the allocation covers the full range of services. For the specific initiatives announced, we have received £2·3 million to establish an information service; to improve accessibility; to set up a regional telephone helpline; to assist contact centres and court welfare officers.

A further £3·5 million will be invested in accordance with the priorities identified through the children’s services planning process. We have not said exactly what that money will go on, because it is important that that allocation reflect local needs and priorities. We have set a very broad target and want to see a number of family-support interventions. However, children’s services planning, because of its intelligence and because it can engage with local communities, will invest that money locally.

Dr Deeny:

Thank you for your presentation, Sean. As someone who has three happy and healthy children, I agree that the family unit is the foundation of our society. Therefore, we must do whatever we need to do for our families. Disintegration of family units leads to the disintegration of society. It is nice to see practical strategies put in place, so it is to be hoped that will happen in this case.

I wish to ask a couple of specific questions. As a GP, I see a complete and utter lack of mental-health facilities for young people in Northern Ireland. We must address that shortfall. A few weeks ago, we spoke to young mothers at the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust in Knockbracken Healthcare Park. They had not only antenatal problems but serious perinatal and post-natal psychiatric problems. Mothers are the bedrock of families, and, here in Northern Ireland, they have to be moved out of the home in order to be treated. It is the same for our young people with addictions. Those are very serious issues.

I was listening to the radio as I travelled here in the car. A doctor from across the water was talking about the serious problems that alcohol causes. People in their thirties now require liver transplants, where once it was people in their sixties and above. The problem is manifesting itself from a very young age. As a doctor, I want to see strategies implemented, but who will do that? Who will ensure that they are implemented? Who will ensure that the necessary mental-health facilities and backup for our young people and our mothers are available?

We receive departmental feedback, but we need to get feedback from health professionals on the severe dearth and deficiency of facilities.

The Committee recently published the report of its inquiry into prevention of suicide and self-harm. Just this morning, I spoke to several people from Derry about the number of suicides in the city. They are crying out for help. We talked about how many young people who, because of addiction or another reason, have gone to the Foyle Bridge and decided to jump. Facilities available to families, particularly mothers and the young, are seriously lacking. I want action taken. The strategy’s recommendations are vital to preserve family healthcare and to maintain the family unit. Who will ensure that those recommendations are put into practice?

Mr Holland:

You raised several points about specialist areas. Earlier, I mentioned that we have tried not to duplicate other documents that are specifically concerned with some of those areas. However, the strategy should deal with two particular specialist issues, the first of which is access to services. Sometimes, when people face the difficulties that you have described, they do not know where to turn to for help. Work on improving information should form part of the effort to ensure that people are connected to available services at a particular time.

The strategy’s information dimension is not only about providing information on services to families, and children and young people, but about gathering information on families’ needs. Everyone here knows only too well that the first important steps to try to secure improved services is to establish needs; to be able to demonstrate baseline needs and prove them convincingly; and to identify where gaps in services exist. A significant part of that work involves the development of an information-mapping system, which will help local communities, led by the children’s services planners, to identify their areas’ needs and where gaps in provision exist in order to respond to them.

‘Families Matter’ complements the Care Matters strategy. Of the £10 million that I mentioned that has been secured to support families, approximately £3·5 million will be spent by the children’s services planners. That will include money for the development of services for children and young people who experience greater difficulties, such as those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; those who are on the edge of the criminal-justice system; and those who experience difficulties with drugs and alcohol. We expect that that money will go towards the development of local services in response to those needs.

Mr Gallagher:

I have just looked though the strategy. You have done much work. That is encouraging, because so many issues and concerns need to be dealt with.

You suggest that there should be some kind of regional information service. That would be particularly useful, given the fact that some parents find it difficult to locate the information that they need. They may turn to two or three different authorities or organisations, only to give up, unable to obtain the information.

Another growing problem is how to take account of new immigrants and their families, particularly in schools. Parents know what is happening, but do not want to say anything, because they are afraid that their children will suffer or lose out in some way as a result. That is an important issue.

There is a great acronym at paragraph 4.42 in the strategy. It is “UNOCINI”, which stands for “understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland”. I welcome the development of that initiative.

What is the timescale for the two initiatives that I have mentioned?

We all know the value of Sure Start and other programmes, such as the extended-schools programme, which is controversial at present. Kieran Deeny identified some of the problems that he and other GPs encounter. I do not know why some parents are so apathetic. Some parents seem to think that rearing and looking after children is somebody else’s problem and that they should receive support. That cannot be done; it is a matter of parental responsibility. Some people are simply incapable of undertaking such responsibilities. They need a great deal of education, and they need it quickly. Therefore, I am concerned about how quickly such education can be made available.

Mr Holland:

I fully agree with your point about parents being responsible for raising their children. We were anxious that we should not produce a document that would be seen as undermining or interfering in any way in that. Parents know their children better than anyone. In the vast majority of cases, parents are the best people to bring up their children. The strategy is about assisting parents to discharge their responsibility as well as they can.

We also had to recognise that, perhaps, for a variety of reasons, young people who become parents today have no experience of the ways in which you and I learned how to be parents —from our parents and from our extended families. Although they may have the best will in the world, they do not have the support and the wisdom of grandparents and of aunts and uncles — even the neighbourhood and community in which they live may not the same as that in which people of a different generation grew up. Many people still grow up in those communities, but that is not a universal experience. That is why we have emphasised parental education. The knowledge and skills that are required when one becomes a parent are available for those people who require extra help. The intention is to address particularly those groups of parents who require assistance, but education can benefit any parent.

If I may digress by telling a personal story, I remember bringing my daughter home from hospital, and, on the first night, I was baffled and bewildered about how to ensure that her bottle was sterile. I greatly desired some help and assistance. At times, we all need some extra help. Our ambition is to put in place services that will provide that sort of general help and also address the needs of particular groups.

You asked about when particular services would become available. In some instances, we did not wait for the document’s publication. We had some resources available, so we have already begun investing in parenting education classes and other aspects of the strategy. We hope to deploy fully the resources as we move through this financial year. We will establish an implementation group that will closely monitor progress against actions. Therefore, we intend to ensure that all aspects of the strategy are implemented as quickly as possible.

You referred specifically to UNOCINI. The assessment tool has been developed, and several key professionals have been trained in its use. It is partially in use, and it is being rolled out across a range of professionals in Northern Ireland as we speak. I do not have a firm date by which I expect that to be completed. However, I can submit that to the Committee in writing later.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs that one will ever do. I was in a doctor’s surgery one day, where I picked up a guide to parenting teenagers. I do not know who produced the guide, but I found it very helpful. My daughter thought that it was great that I brought it home, and she teased me about it. Anything like that is a brilliant resource for parents. Thank you very much.

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