Marie Woolf, Independent (London), June 17, 2007
Children born to black mothers are more likely to be expelled from school, suffer alcoholism and get in trouble with the police than their peers, according to controversial new government research published tomorrow.
An extensive inquiry into “families at risk”, by the Social Exclusion Task Force, says government agencies have failed to help the 140,000 most “at risk” families in the UK, whose lives are blighted by a dangerous combination of poverty, poor housing, drug abuse and criminality.
Children with the worst prospects in the UK have many characteristics in common, it concludes, including coming from single-parent households, living on council estates and in homes where the mother’s first language is not English. The risk of problems is exacerbated if the mother’s ethnicity is black, or, to a lesser degree, if she is Asian, according to the paper, Reaching Out: Think Family.
The report, to be announced by Hilary Armstrong, minister for social exclusion, will propose targeting whole families—rather than just children—because “the root causes of children’s disadvantage . . . often lies in the difficulties of their parents”.
“Some families with multiple problems can create significant harm to themselves and the communities in which they live,” the report says. “They may externalise their problems through criminal or antisocial behaviour which can have an impact on whole communities.”
It said the risk of a child experiencing severe disadvantages is triggered by eight key factors, the top of which is living in council accommodation, and the second the lack of English at home. Third is being born to a single mother and fourth is if the “mother’s ethnicity is black”.
Children born to families with several such characteristics were far more likely to find problems at school, in socialising and in their prospects in later life.
But black advocacy groups cautioned against saying race is a factor in poor prospects for children. They said the data reflected the fact that m any black and Asian mothers find themselves living in poverty with little support and few opportunities.
Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote said the Government was wrong to suggest race is a reason for dysfunctional families and social problems. “This is not about race. This report implies that there is something intrinsic about your race which is problematic. That is not the case. It’s the circumstances that black mothers find themselves in or the lack of opportunities that are the major factors.”
The report also looked at the impact of broken homes on children and found that “authoritative” but warm parenting had a very positive impact on children. Children from broken homes with warring parents “tend to have lower academic performance, independent of their socio-economic status,” the report found.
But it said that, following a break-up, “a good relationship between both parents acts as a buffer from many of the negative impacts of parental separation and divorce”.
“In particular, continuing contact between effective non-resident fathers and children after a divorce is positively associated with the child’s achievement at school.”
Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, said targeted intervention was needed to help the most disadvantaged families. “If you are a child of a first-generation immigrant, who may have had a basic education and not the same views on education, it is not surprising you won’t do well,” he said.
[Editors Note: “Reaching Out: Think Family, Analysis and Themes from the Families at Risk Review” can be read or downloaded here. (Scroll down the page.)]
On Monday, 18 June 2007 Hilary Armstrong Minister for Social Exclusion launched the first part of the Families at Risk Review ‘Reaching Out: Think Family’.
It will clearly show the dramatic impact that parent-based family circumstances have on the outcomes and life-chances of children. It demands a more family-focused approach from agencies that work with adults and those that work with children.
It looks at the most excluded 2% of families who have not been lifted by the rising tide of living standards and increased opportunity, and who remain in poverty with complex needs, multiple problems and low aspiration.
This is the first part of the review, which sets out the analysis and emerging themes, with full policy recommendations to come out after the summer. This document is about setting down a marker that substantial change is needed in the way we work with these most at-risk families who need a targeted, specialised, whole-families approaches. It is also about making sure the different parts of the system around families work together.
Our transformation in children’s services is having an impact on the opportunities of our most disadvantaged children. We want to build on this success by tackling the problems that the adults in the family face and which have such damaging consequences for the children.
The vast majority of families are a source of strength and protection. However, they can also face challenges. Parental and wider family problems such as poverty, parental worklessness, lack of qualifications, parental mental health, substance abuse, poor housing, and contact with the criminal justice system can cast a shadow that spans whole life’times and indeed passes down the generations. These family experiences can limit aspiration, reinforce cycles of poverty, and provide poor models of behaviour that can impact on a child’s development and well-being, with significant costs for public services and the wider community. They damage the ability of children to build up resilience to problems or to benefit from the opportunities they are given.
At the moment adults’ services don’t sufficiently take account of the implications for the family when, say, an adult is taken into prison or has mental health problems.
We want to extend the benefits of the Every Child Matters approach, which has a common vision, clear accountability, joined-up working, information sharing and core processes and assessments. We want to broaden this approach to the whole family so that adults’ and children’s services work together to tackle the root causes of children’s disadvantage that often lay in the difficulties of their parents.
This is about early intervention—breaking the cycle that is passed down the generations, by tackling the drivers in the wider family environment that contribute to poor outcomes for the children and for child poverty. It is also about never giving up on families and looking for every opportunity to support them.
It’s about joined-up working—getting agencies to talk together, sharing information and concerns about a family, making sure that where wider problems show up services work together effectively in the best interests of the family. Particularly agencies that may not have a history of working together like prisons and children’s services to ensure the family gets the support it needs when a parent goes into prison.
It’s about tailoring support, and making sure that the families are treated according to their individual needs, rather than expecting one-size-fits all universal services to find these families. It’s about getting all agencies working with individuals to instead ‘think family’.
This is not a debate on the shape of families and we will not try to incentivise or engineer particular family structures—this is not the job of government. Instead it will look at the individual needs of families suffering exclusion, the wider barriers to opportunity, and the risk factors that parents face that impact on their children.
Government has a responsibility to work with families to ensure every child gets the best start in life.
This document sets out a vision for a more coherent, effective, personal, problem-solving approach to excluded families to enable them to transform their life-chances and break the cycle for their children.