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Samantha Callan: Early intervention is key to stopping young people turning to crime

ConservativeHome is today beginning a series of policy-orientated pieces looking at how we take young people off the conveyor belt to crime. We begin with this article from Samantha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice looking at the importance of early intervention.

The best time and place to apply the crowbar to the conveyor belt to crime is before it starts moving – early in a vulnerable child’s life or at the first signs of trouble. When police were first faced with rioters they were criticised for collecting evidence of acts of disorder and not preventing it from happening in front of them. Yet that’s precisely what we tend to do with our most troubled families: we condemn their parenting when their children and young people fall foul of the law but are reluctant to step in – and help – before the line is crossed.

The emphasis on Early Intervention that runs through almost every important report on improving social mobility cannot remain a lofty concept in social policy – or be used to justify even more state intrusion into family life. Early intervention rests on a recognition that children’s physical, social, intellectual and emotional development is heavily influenced by their early experiences. Healthy brain development, in particular, requires a nurturing and responsive parent or caregiver. Abused and neglected children are at least 25% more likely to become involved in delinquency, to fall pregnant in their teenage years and to become drug users, as well as to suffer from mental health problems.

All too often this repeats a dysfunctional cycle – perhaps one of their parents was an addict or severely depressed and unable to meet their emotional and physical needs. Sometimes a tragedy strikes an otherwise robust family, parents find themselves unable to cope and there is no one else around to prevent the children falling through the cracks. Divorce and separation can also hit children hard. It’s not all about the early years but they do set the tone.

There is a strong role for civil society in family strengthening as parents helping parents should always be the first place to start. Community-based initiatives that aim to build good social networks can provide the timely injection of support that prevents problems from escalating to the point where the state has to step in. Similarly, the private sector not only encourage employees to volunteer (and gives them time off to do it) but also develops socially beneficial programmes based around their core business. Mothercare puts on high quality parenting workshops in its stores after hours – drawing early on a trusted brand is more motivating than being mandated onto a course by social workers later on.

The Early Intervention paradigm has to revolutionise the thinking of local authorities, health commissioners and educators so they see the effort of ordinary people through voluntary and private sector initiative as indispensable. Helping families and children before problems escalate requires services to work together well and outside of usual professional and sectoral silos – this is not about passing families from one service to another. The ability to build strong relationships with families where there is mutual trust is essential, again often done best by voluntary sector organisations. Concentrating on parents’ and children’s deficits is far less effective than finding grounds for encouragement and building on these, requiring flexibility and sensitivity to family dynamics.

What does Early Intervention look like?

  • Family Nurse Partnerships for teenage mothers and the voluntary sector (such as Community Mothers and Fathers Programmes) working with a revitalised health visiting profession to support other vulnerable expectant mothers
  • Better identification of post-natal depression (again, health visitors working in partnership with befriending schemes and Home Start) and parent-infant therapy in Children’s Centres to help parents bond with and nurture their babies (by voluntary sector providers such as OxPIP, Family Links and others)
  • Mentoring programmes working within and alongside schools, using local but well-supervised volunteers. These help children work through why they are ‘acting out’, showing aggression and other early signs of conduct disorder and also draw in parents
  • Community-based relationship education to give couples good pointers before they get into entrenched crisis – and before they need highly trained therapists.

> A recent ToryDiary: The big idea of early intervention


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