Years ago I worked as the Bristol City Council Lead Trainer for the Common Assessment Framework (CAF). I, together with a large team of co-trainers, were tasked with delivering training in CAF and a range of other brand new safeguarding initiatives to thousands of professionals across Bristol. CAFs were designed help families get the support they needed at the earliest possible stage of need, before situations escalated and there was the possibility of abuse. Although CAFs in Bristol don’t exist anymore and were superseded by the Single Assessment Framework and new and improved referral pathways and service delivery, commitment to early intervention – help for families before any problems reach Child Protection thresholds – has never wavered.
Early intervention has been defined as: ‘providing support as soon as a problem emerges, at any point in a child’s life, from the foundation years through to the teenage years.’ Working Together to Safeguard Children (2015). Statutory guidance makes very clear that it is important that children in need of early intervention receive this support in a timely fashion to prevent the escalation into abuse and to lessen the risk of harm or impairment. By providing support and information to all families, settings should be able to prevent families reaching crisis point by identifying families that are struggling at an early stage.
While statutory guidance certainly asserts the importance of early intervention, it does not stipulate how local authorities should go about delivering this service for families. There is no central funding for early intervention services, and there are no statistics that are centrally compiled as local authorities offer such different models of early intervention.
Because thresholds are lower for early intervention compared to Child Protection services, parental consent for the service is essential. Professionals are advised, however, to regard obtaining consent a continuing conversation with a parent, rather than a one off event, requiring skill, rapport and shared concern expressed for the child. When we first started offering early intervention services in Bristol, we were unsure how parents would respond and were delighted to discover that they, on the whole, greatly valued the offer of help and offered their consent readily.
In Bristol, what were previously known as the ‘Early Help’ teams have now been renamed ‘Families in Focus’. Massive funding cuts have meant that services have had to be restructured. There will be more emphasis on professionals and agencies working together to provide early intervention for families rather than distinct Early Help teams. Smaller groups of Families in Focus professionals will eventually be based with social care teams. Bristol City Council have explained the new vision for early intervention in the City:
‘…as part of our new localities working under the Strengthening Families programme we are keen to make sure Early Help is a function delivered across the system by our partners as well as us and is seen as an approach rather than a team. It is also fair to say a lot of the work we do isn’t that ‘Early’ and the targeted intervention work is equally as important. Families In Focus was the name chosen by staff and supervisors as reflecting the good work that we currently deliver.’