Knowsley leads on child poverty in the Merseyside city strategy. Child poverty activity brings together partnerships across the authority but, despite the existence of a variety of interventions, services and agencies addressing child poverty, a high number of families living in persistent poverty were not engaging in services that could help them move forward in a positive and thriving way.
Most of the families do not need a high level of support in one area, and are therefore not considered for specialist support. However, many do still need support and some are coming to the end of specialist support and are ready to begin rebuilding or moving on.
Some of the key barriers identified as to why families living in persistent poverty have been reluctant to engage with support services were:
Most families have a combination of the above.
In response, Opportunities for Families was set up, with the aim of creating a team of volunteer family mentors that would encourage the local community and local services to work together to improve outcomes for families living in persistent poverty.
Twenty volunteer family mentors were recruited and trained from the local community. All had experience of dealing with the local services on offer as well as direct experience of some of the issues the families were dealing with. The role of the mentor is to give one-to-one support to families. The volunteers use a motivational assessment tool designed to help the family identify what type of support they would like and identify areas of their lives they want to change. This is then translated into an action plan. Volunteers are expected to be with the project between 6 to 18 months.
The fact that the volunteers are community members rather than professionals brings a different dimension to this initiative. Often volunteers are trusted more than a professional as they have first-hand experience of the community they are working in and the issues the families are coping with.
Partnership work is essential as families come from a number of referral routes including: housing, social care, family centres, children centres, schools, Shelter and health.
The use of volunteers is cost effective but not cost free. Volunteers need to be fully trained and have a good support network including a paid volunteer coordinator to look after their emotional and development needs. The volunteers also incur expenses; however, the amount of money it costs to build capacity in this way is negligible in comparison to the cost of letting these families fall into long-term specialist support.
This type of self-directed support is helping families take better control of their own future by giving families the skills to move forward independently and empowering them to make positive changes. Early evidence has shown that with the provision of appropriate help and encouragement, a foundation of stability, confidence, self-esteem and resilience can be established for these families. Examples of positive changes include parents attending training courses, gaining qualifications and seeking employment. Some of the families in just a short time have progressed well and are now training to become volunteers themselves. Families tend to be supported between six weeks to six months.
Volunteers are gaining valuable experience and qualifications, and have started to look for jobs that offer longer-term prospects and training.
The local economy is helped not only through volunteers moving into employment and the reduction of families’ longer-term reliance on services and benefits, but also through increasing community awareness and capacity. There are early signs that social networks are expanding, encouraging the notion of 'big society'. For example, a number of volunteers are now trained as peer support volunteers and receiving training to train up future volunteers. In addition, having such in-depth access to families and volunteers means the authority is able to learn more about the needs of its community and feed this knowledge into current service provision.
One mum quoted of the staff and volunteers: "They have been extremely helpful in shaping mine and my boy’s future, a great weight has being lifted from my shoulders and I feel I have someone to listen and guide me to opportunities and information…I have been empowered to build on my confidence and start the process of healing me and having a positive effect on my son’s world".
One volunteer, after she had finished training, quoted: "I have gained knowledge of services that are around Knowsley I can share with others… I feel this project is excellent if we want to move forward and encourage people out of poverty…With the experience and knowledge that I have gained I do hope to gain full-time employment within this line of work because it gives me a great sense of achievement".
Child Poverty Project Manager
Telephone: 0151 4433277