An early help service that supports St Helens families is one of the worst-performing in England – despite seeing a “massive improvement” in recent months.
The programme is intended to support hard-to reach families with complex needs at the earliest opportunity to enable them to achieve “significant and sustained progress”.
The current programme is in its final year, but it is not clear if funding will be provided by the government to renew the initiative or create a new service in the same mould.
The initiative is a Payment by Results (PbR) programme, meaning funding is provided when specific milestones are met.
St Helens joined the programme as ‘early starters’ in 2012 and has been set a target by the government to work with and “turn around” 1,710 local families.
A report on the Troubled Families programme, which was presented to the People’s Board this week, says there is still a “great deal to do” to reach the target.
In order for a family to be attached to the programme, they must meet two or more of six criteria, which include anti-social behaviour, poor school attendance and domestic abuse.
Once a family has met the criteria there must also be effective intervention before the local authority is able to claim a £1,000 attachment fee.
If a positive outcome is achieved for a family, the council can then claim a “turned around” fee of £800.
Vicky Velasco, early help service manager for St Helens Council, joined the programme in 2017.
Ms Velasco said: “St Helens joined the programme as an early starter. So, in 2012 we were actually part of the programme.
“In 2017 I picked up the programme and some of the areas that we identified was that our performance was really low.
“At that time, just 2.6 per cent of the families who were known to the programme, we could demonstrate had been turned around.
“So, the needs that had been identified had not been met.”
Ms Velasco revealed that she recently received national data that places St Helens as 135 out of 141 local authorities that are taking part in the Troubled Families programme.
To date, the council has claimed £374,400.
The maximum amount the council can claim if it achieves the 100 per cent turn around rate is £1.3 million.
One of the changes Ms Velasco oversaw was a change in the name of the programme to ‘Families First’, due to the negative connotations of its original name.
Ms Velasco said St Helens turned to Cheshire West and Chester Council – the best performing local authority in the North West – to see what they are doing differently.
In response, St Helens Council disbanded the small team that originally delivered the programme and has moved towards a “whole system approach”, which requires a greater level of support from partner agencies.
Ms Velasco said the changes have so far proved effective.
As of April 2019, 27 per cent of the families (468) attached to the programme have been turned around.
Additionally, 527 families have achieved significant and sustained progress and 41 have achieved continuous employment.
This performance still places St Helens as one of the worst-performing areas in Cheshire and Merseyside.
To meet the government’s target of turning around 1,710 families, the council says there is a need to over-attach to the programme.
St Helens is aiming, from now until the end of the programme in 2020, to identify and attach 3,665 families.
Subsequently, 3,256 families have been identified as meeting the criteria and have been attached to the programme.
Ms Velasco said: “What we know is, if there are 1,710 families that we have to demonstrate 100 per cent turn around, that would be quite challenging for anyone to do.
“So, we’re identifying more families than we need to, to be able to demonstrate 100 per cent turn around on the 1,710.”
In January 2017, Professor Sarah O’Brien was appointed as the councils’ strategic director of people’s services, in addition to holding the role of clinical accountable officer for St Helens CCG.
The joint role was created in order to enable the further integration of the council and the CCG.
Speaking to the People’s Board this week, Prof O’Brien said she was “much more reassured” with the way the programme is now operating, adding that results have “massively improved”.
She said part of the reason for bringing it to the People’s Board was to make sure that all partner agencies were aware of ther situation in order to help meet the government target.
Prof O’Brien said the issue was not that partner agencies were not working with the council, rather that it was down to “stretched” resources.
But she pleaded with partners to support the Troubled Families programme in order to meet the target by the deadline.
“This programme is coming to an end in the autumn but there’s been no decision yet about whether there will be another similar programme,” Prof O’Brien said.
“What we’ve got to ensure, if there’s another similar programme with similar funding is that we’ve turned it around enough that they would re-invest in a programme like this in St Helens.”