Troubled families approach expands … but is the evidence there?

paper family on handBy Dorothy Laing

Nobody likes the idea of experiencing antisocial behaviour on their doorsteps so further government action to help ‘troubled families’ will almost certainly be welcomed by neighbours and local communities alike.

On 19th August, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced an extension of the Troubled Families Programme, as findings from independent research carried out for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) – National Evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme interim report family monitoring data: a report by Ecorys UK and Understanding Troubled Families – revealed the current state of progress.

Origins of the programme

Back in December 2010 David Cameron set out the ambitious goal of turning around the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ by 2015. This led to the launch of the three-year Troubled Families Programme in April 2012, under the direction of Louise Casey, with £448 million of funding to help local authorities tackle the issue of ‘troubled families’ – families that have problems, and/or cause problems for those around them for a number of reasons, and place a financial burden on the public sector.

For inclusion in the Troubled Families Programme in 2012 families had to  meet three of the four following specific criteria:

  • are involved in youth crime or anti-social behaviour
  • have children who are regularly truanting or not in school
  • have an adult on out of work benefits
  • cause high costs to the taxpayer.

In addition, local authorities participating in the programme may apply local discretionary criteria to cover families causing concern.

Prior to the launch of the Troubled Families programme, local authorities mainly employed local targeted initiatives and/or Family Intervention Projects, a national network of projects set up as part of the Respect Action Plan, to tackle the problem of anti-social and, disruptive families.

Many of these initiatives were based on the successful pioneering work of the Dundee Families Project, launched in 1996, to help families who were homeless or at severe risk of homelessness, generally as a result of anti-social behaviour and complaints about neighbour nuisance. The project, delivered in partnership with Dundee City Council housing and social work departments and the charity Action for Children, specifically aimed to help people rebuild their lives through a programme which included family support, parenting education, dispersed accommodation, and preventative outreach services.

A similar approach has been taken by the Troubled Families Programme which also works with families in order to help them to change or turn their lives around:

  • by working with the whole family
  • using a dedicated worker or dedicated team to get to the underlying problems
  • by developing a relationship with the family, being persistent and building trust with them
  • and, where necessary, drawing in specialist services.

Local authorities that are signed up to the programme each receive up to £4,000 per family to help get children back into school, reduce youth crime, and get people back to work.

Costs and savings

The costs to local authorities of dealing with troubled families varies considerably. According to the DCLG’s The Cost of Troubled Families, in one extreme case, a family in the South West cost as much as £400,000, as costs to police, local authority housing, anti-social behaviour and children’s services, and the health system were factored in.

While interventions may seem expensive (estimates of interventions range from roughly £8,000 to £25,000 per family), and although comprehensive measures of outcomes and savings are not yet readily available, some estimates have been made:

  • in Leicestershire, the council is projecting average financial savings across local and national public services of around £25,700 per annum per troubled family
  • in West Cheshire, the local authority estimates average savings of around £20,000 per family per year
  • in Manchester the city council is projecting average savings of around £32,600 per family per year
  • Wandsworth Council is projecting around £29,000 per year worth of savings per troubled family.

Its been noted however that evaluation of both savings and performance of the Troubled Families Programme is hampered by the changing participation criteria and definitions used by the government. Channel 4’s FactCheck blog on Troubled Families concluded that this makes it difficult to verify any of the government’s claims.


The DCLG research reveals that 2 years on from the start of the programme in England:

  • 111,574 families have been identified for help
  • 97,202 families are being worked with in the programme
  • 52,833 families have now been turned around.

Families involved in the programme had, on average, nine serious, often inter-related, problems such as employment/worklessness, education, truancy, crime and anti-social behaviour, housing, child protection, parenting or health.

Recent analysis of the latest DCLG figures by the LGC shows that the best-performing local authorities in terms of reported turnaround of troubled families were: Wakefield MDC (99% of troubled families turned around), Leicestershire County Council (95%), Bristol City Council (85%), Bath and North East Somerset Council (81%) and West Berkshire Council (76%). Slough BC (7%), Central Bedfordshire Council (16%) and Wolverhampton City Council (18%) were among the poorest performers. Again this raises questions about definitions – at what point are families assessed as having been turned around? Especially as the problems being addresssed are inter-generational and complex.

So what works? According to the Understanding Troubled Families report the main elements of the approach involve:

  • managing families proactively
  • looking from ‘inside out rather than outside in’
  • systematic sharing of information to provide a more complete picture of the family.

Case studies on the DCLG’s website illustrate the impact of the programmes on individual families in Leicestershire, Bristol, Wakefield and a number of other local authorities.

The future

The government aim is that more families will be helped through the extension of the Programme – 51 of the best performing local authorities will work with an additional 40,000 families this year, ahead of a national 5-year programme from 2015 which will work with up to 400,000 high risk families.

While the focus will still be on reducing anti-social behaviour, the expanded programme will also include working with pre-school children, helping to improve poor health, and helping families suffering domestic violence and debt problems.

Further reading

Assisting the unprotected ‘invisibles’, IN MJ, 31 Jul 2014, p22

Childhood behavioural problems: a briefing for Troubled Families teams. Centre for Mental Health, 2014

Programmes to help families facing multiple challenges: fifty-first report of session 2013-14 (HC 668). TSO, 2014

Great strides for troubled families?, IN MJ, 5 Dec 2013, pp14-15

The use of family intervention projects to deal with anti-social behaviour: a preliminary study of keyworker perceptions, IN Crime Prevention and Community Safety, Vol 15 No 4 2013, pp278-291

Family man (Wandsworth Council’s approach to supporting troubled families and tackling anti-social behaviour), IN Inside Housing, 25 Oct 2013, pp24,27

“Families First”: A study into the Coalition Government’s “Troubled Families Programme” in Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK. University of Leeds, 2013

Programmes to help families facing multiple challenges. NAO, 2013

Troubled Families programme: lessons from the first year, IN Children and Young People Now, 28 May-10 Jun 2013, pp12-13

The fiscal case for working with troubled families: analysis and evidence on the costs of troubled families to government. Department for Communities and Local Government, 2013

Working with troubled families: a guide to the evidence and good practice. Department for Communities and Local Government, 2013

Evaluation of the Dundee Families Project: final report. Scottish Government, 2001

Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

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