Case Study (Vulnerable Families): Reaching Out To Fathers Through Partner Agencies

29 December 2007

What: ‘Consent to Contact’ scheme
Who: Wellington and Meredith Children’s Centres
Where: Ipswich, Suffolk
When: Project introduced mid-2007

Engaging with fathers in vulnerable families is one of the toughest nuts Children’s Centres must crack. Two centres in Suffolk have pioneered a method that could help them do just that – and in a way that is reproducible across the country.

The ‘Consent to Contact’ concept

The ‘Consent to Contact’ scheme, developed by the Wellington and Meredith Children’s Centres in Ipswich, involves reaching out to vulnerable families by ‘piggybacking’ onto the work of other agencies.

This is how it works:
• The Children’s Centre manager identifies relevant agencies already dealing with vulnerable families – for example schools, health visitors or a local homeless families unit
• A simple form summarising the facilities and activities available at the Centre, and asking for a parent’s contact details and a signature, is created
• The manager/staff at the other agency agree, as part of their usual data recording protocols, to ask relevant service users to fill in the form. These are then forwarded to the Children’s Centre, who are thus authorised to get in touch with the family in question.

The scheme developed out of networking between the manager of the two Children’s Centres, Suzy Turner-Jones, and the local homeless families unit, where residents were complaining of isolation and a lack of support when leaving the unit. Other services already signed up to the scheme include a women’s refuge, several schools, the local health visitor service and a travellers’ site.

And a link with a military prison has helped the centres focus specifically on fathers.

‘Consent to Contact’ in practice

The Military Corrective Unit in Colchester, Essex is the only unit of its kind in the UK, and houses military personnel who have been sentenced by the HM Forces justice system. The unit’s residents are generally young men (aged 17-25), many of whom have gone absent without leave and are due for discharge. An estimated 75% of these men are fathers and/or stepfathers or expectant fathers.

The Wellington Children’s Centre’s connection with the MCU began as a result of a group of soldiers being sent there to do painting/decorating and maintenance work as part of a ‘civilian reintegration programme’ – akin to community service.

Ms Turner-Jones got talking to the men and realised that although they were receiving plenty of support around education, training and other issues like housing and welfare rights, there was no support to enable them to find or renegotiate a role in their family lives. In several cases the men were fathers to children they had rarely or never met.

‘I remember having a conversation with one lad who had a son of 18 months, whom he hadn’t seen for over a year. I said to him “you do know that when you see him he’s not going to come up to you and want to cuddle you, don’t you?” It was obvious he had no idea, and that sense of not really knowing what to expect or how to handle themselves as fathers was quite typical.’

On discharge the young dads were to return to locations across the country. Using the Consent to Contact model, Ms Turner-Jones facilitated contact between the MCU and the relevant Children’s Centres in their areas. Suffolk County Council has since approached Sure Start to roll out the concept for prisons on a nationwide basis.

How to make this approach a success

Ms Turner-Jones says ‘piggybacking’ with other agencies can be tricky, and it’s important to keep going back to each agency regularly – she suggests quarterly in the first instance – to make sure the Consent to Contact concept is understood, valued and being used. This is especially important where staff and management turnover is high.

Bigger, more established providers like schools and health visiting services can be the hardest to get on board, she adds: ‘We had a particular problem with health visitors because what we wanted was something more significant than just handing out a leaflet, but less ‘formal’ than a referral. Their instinct was for us to require the child’s name as well as the parent’s, and to make it more referral-like. I stood firm because this needs to feel non-invasive – all we want is for them to say we can get in touch. Then it’s up to us to do our jobs properly from that point forward.’

Ms Turner-Jones is now considering adapting the Consent to Contact scheme so that contact details for mums and dads are routinely captured (rather than just leaving it open as to which parent fills it in). This may require extra staff training, but handled properly even more dads in vulnerable families could soon be hitting the centres’ radar.

Further information

To view a copy of the Wellington Children’s Centre Consent to Contact form, click here
To read a brief summary of the scheme’s structure, click here
To read more about the centres’ work with the MCU, click here
To contact Suzy Turner-Jones, click here.

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