Early intervention works, but austerity is its biggest threat

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‘Early intervention’ seems to be the concept of the moment. Everyone, even politicians, agree that it’s the best way to support vulnerable families. It’s snappy, it’s punchy and it sounds like we mean business. We’re intervening and we’re doing it early.

When I worked at an Action for Children children’s centre I realised that early intervention isn’t one ‘ta-da!’ moment. It’s a complicated journey built on multiple, inter-dependent blocks.

Identifying problems early

Identifying problems early is the point, but what enables professionals to actually do that? For me, one key ingredient is communication.

Time and time again external professionals would alert us to families on the cusp of difficulty. Health visitors would call to say they had undertaken routine baby checks and spotted early warning signs. Mum appeared withdrawn and was struggling to maintain the house. The family lacked routines and the older children were displaying poor behaviour.

Once we’d been made aware, we could pop round to chat about our children’s centre. It meant being able to make that initial contact.

Fulfilling the spectrum of need: from universal to targeted support

In times of cuts, it’s unsurprising that resources become more targeted to those in most need. But that is to only leave our door ajar. Universal low intensity services keep the door wide open. They are essential in building relationships with families and gaining that initial trust. That’s how they take the first step through the door.

Once inside, the next steps of the journey could be planned together with the family. We could discuss their needs as individuals as well as a family unit. We could consider a timetable of classes and services. Perhaps Mum would join a baby massage class to spend relaxing, quality time with baby. Perhaps Dad would attend a financial management or healthy cooking course.

Building trusting relationships

Unsurprisingly, our families would sometimes leave sessions at the centre suffering from information overload. The courses were intense and about changing whole lifestyles. It was exhausting. Often families needed a worker to spend extra time with them at home. To help instil that bedtime routine. To help practice that new recipe. To help manage a child’s behaviour. To just be there.

Strengthening outreach

Often outreach is about reaching out, because some families aren’t capable of coming in. Some of our families were understandably sceptical about visiting the centre. Sometimes they simply couldn’t physically get there. Outreach was especially crucial to those families; if they couldn’t come to us, we would go to them. Unfortunately, in the climate of cuts, this tailored support is often the first to go. It is staff and resource intensive, but the results it can yield are life changing.

Early intervention is a complicated multi-layered concept whose building blocks are balanced precariously.  When you look at how it works on the ground you realise just how precariously. Those blocks are inter-dependant and if one goes, they all fall. Early intervention does work. I just hope that austerity doesn’t cause the blocks to tumble.

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