A small group of Community Reporters from within Manchester came together to share their experiences of life in their families. Their stories provide rich insights into the Community Reporters’ individual lived experiences of family life, identifying some of the issues they are facing, support they are accessing and seeking, and also their thoughts on the future. Through sharing these stories, the Community Reporters are defining their own realities and this feature brings together some of the key points and messages from their individual experiences.
The importance of listening to people
In her story, JL, a mother of four children aged 5 to 12 from Manchester, UK, explains how social services came to her home and suggested that attending a parenting programme would help her become a better parent. JL did feel that she needed some support, stating, “that’s why I was on the parenting course, to find help”, but this was not to be the case. She felt that rather than trying to support her individual needs as a parent, the programme instead was more concerned with following guidelines set out in an American book on which the programme was based. JL found the course “quite patronising” and she “didn’t really get much from it”. She explains how attendees were rewarded with stickers for making contributions in-line with the programme’s teachings, and how she felt that she was treated like “a school child” and was “presented with a load of rules”. However, JL did enjoy the social interactions with the people on the course and the trainers who delivered it.
This sentiment is echoed by Clara, another mother from Manchester, UK, who too has received interventions and support from social services. In her story, Clara explains how she feels that the attitudes of the professionals who are involved in her family undermine her own abilities and “tell her what to do”. This behaviour makes Clara feel like the professionals think she “doesn’t know her left from her right”. Clara’s daughter, Vanessa, a teenager studying to become a social worker herself, agrees that the top-down approach by professionals indicated in both her mother’s and JL’s stories, is not necessarily the most effective way to build relationships with people. In her story, Vanessa explains how she would like more of a “friendship” with her social worker, rather than it being “strictly professional”.
Understanding the complexities of people’s lives
All of the people’s stories we have heard from here have received interventions and support as part of the ‘Troubled Families’ programme. The programme is a national, systematic approach for working with families that are experiencing multiple problems, and it advocates working with the ‘whole-family’ to avoid providing support provision in silos or in a reactive manner. It was funded partially via a payment-by-results model that was ‘designed to incentivise an outcomes-based approach’.
JL, Clara and Vanessa’s stories give us an insight into what their families’ lives are like and also their individual experiences of the support provision they have accessed. What is clear from their stories, is that the issues in their lives are multiple and complex. When JL talks about her family life we gain an understanding of the difficulties that she faces that include a custody battle, her child’s on-going health issues and a close family relative’s problem with substance abuse. She also details how these issues impacted on her own mental health and contributed to a breakdown. Similarly, when Clara recalls how social services became involved in her family life, she describes how an accident involving one of her children led to further interventions. During this moment of crisis it was felt that another child’s existing chronic health needs were not being met. Clara says that she feels “bad” about this intervention as she wasn’t “given the chance to express herself”, resulting in continued involvement by social services in the family’s life.
The value of peer support networks
Whilst much of the interventions and support provided to these individuals has been seen negatively, the intervention that the family worker made for Vanessa, in terms of providing her with a mentor (a less top-down intervention), was well-received. In her story, Vanessa describes how she has a range of caring responsibilities within the family for her younger siblings and how this puts “pressure” on her. To ease this, the mentor has arranged for Vanessa to participate in a range of activities, providing her with some space and time for herself. As Vanessa describes, “I think that was good because it gave me a break as well. It gave me a break away from my family, my sisters and college. I think that was a really big help.” What Vanessa’s story suggests, is that support services can play a pivotal role in helping people to overcome the challenges in their lives, providing that the support being provided is in-line with what the individual’s needs and wants are.
In the cases were these families have not found support via more formal routes such as public services, they have instead tended to rely on their peer support networks. In JL’s story about her life, she states that if it wouldn’t have been for her family and their support, that she would have “sunk” due to the pressures she was facing. Similarly, Clara found support in the congregation at her church. Talking about this she says, they’ve provided her with “a lot of support” and that “they’ve always been there for [her], more than the other professionals”. The importance of these informal networks of support that family and friends provide is evident in a number of our Community Reporters’ stories from across Europe. Jorge who lives in Valencia, Spain explains how it is family members who are supporting people who are unemployed, not Government provision. Sofia (Athens, Greece), shared a story with us about a friend who is overcoming an abusive past, partially due to the encouragement she has received from friends in terms of publishing her poetry.
So, what can we learn?
The key message from these stories is that personalisation is vital for support provision to be effective. The families who have shared their experiences with us, suggest that they would like support services and interventions to be much more person-centred and specific to their needs. A large part of JL’s frustrations with the parenting programme was that she wanted something “more personal” than what was being provided, and Clara’s frustration with the interventions being made in her family is very similar – she expressed how she just wanted her needs to be listened to. From these people’s stories, the most effective interventions and support services are those that have been provided in dialogue with the recipients. Vanessa’s experience with the family worker who "took an interest in [her]" and was instrumental in arranging her mentoring programme, is an example of this approach. The fundamental insight gathered then from these Community Reporters’ stories is that support should be meaningful to the individual.
The stories in this feature article are part of a European project – InnoSI - that looks at a number social innovation and investment programmes running across 10 different countries. People’s Voice Media have been supporting people to tell their own stories about their experiences of these programmes and their thoughts on the key themes from them. You can see all of the stories collated here.