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Could a volunteer programme help stop children's services from keeling over?

Posted on 28/07/2016 by


The Volunteers Supporting Families programme is saving councils money and supporting families at risk

In six years, 1,301 families and 2,374 children have been supported by volunteers across three boroughs trialling VSF.

A volunteer programme set up to support vulnerable families which allows child protection social workers to devote their time to more complex cases is reaping rewards.

According to a recent evaluation, every pound spent on the Volunteers Supporting Families (VSF) scheme delivers a £2.23 return in terms of improved family outcomes.

A programme that not only saves money but also improves the lives of families and children at risk is like gold dust at a time of austerity, a social worker recruitment crisis and increased demand for services. There is hope that the model, commissioned by Greenwich and Lewisham councils in south London and Southend in Essex, could be adopted nationally.

The scheme is run by national organisation Volunteering Matters. Its chief executive, Oonagh Aitken, says: “I think it could be a national model. It’s a preventative service and is helping to keep children out of the care system – that is its big plus. This has high social impact.”

“Between 2009 and 2015, 1,505 volunteers supported spent just under 4,000 hours 1,301 families and 2,374 children across the three districts,” says Jill Williams, business development manager at Volunteering Matters. “During 2015-16, our volunteers carried out 4,137 family visits and contributed 5,682 hours of volunteering” she adds.

The research revealed that emotional wellbeing improved for 65% of families, 62% said it had brought routine to their home life and another 59% said they felt better able to manage boundaries. Currently, councils pay around £50,000 a year for the service to support up to 35 families, which includes funding a project co-ordinator. Economies of scale mean these costs could be slashed if the scheme was expanded.

Families with children in need or subject to a child protection plan are referred to the programme by their social worker. Typically, families are those that need practical support to bring order and calm to possibly chaotic households. In other cases, those parents who would value the opportunity to chat regularly to somebody who comes from outside statutory services are referred. The volunteers are unlikely to be placed with families where sexual abuse is suspected.

Rafiat Lawal was a volunteer in Greenwich and says the non-statutory status of the volunteers is key to the programme’s success. Before being placed with a family, she had two-and-a-half days training, which included parenting styles, child protection and safeguarding, plus working within boundaries and communication skills. Lawal, who is training to become a social worker, says: “I think the fact that I wasn’t part of statutory services helped our relationship. The mother trusted me and I don’t think she would have been as cooperative if I had been a social worker.”

That’s a view shared by Greenwich social worker Jaison James who says: “I think the families tend to open up more to the volunteers. From my perspective this programme doesn’t make my life as a social worker easier but it does give me satisfaction as I feel like something is being done. I am still the key professional person in the process but that doesn’t mean that I have to do everything.”

The scheme has seen good results in the borough so far, and has been commissioned by the council to run until 2019. In the past year, 23 children were “stepped down” from a child in need or child protection plan, which the council’s director of children’s services, Gillian Palmer, describes as “positive” in terms of outcomes.

The programme has also reduced costs, although saving money is not its priority, says Palmer: “It’s valuable volunteer support, is flexible, non-judgmental and complements the service provided by the social care team.”

Williams, agrees that VSF is an addition to statutory services and says volunteers are discouraged from seeing themselves as unqualified social workers.

“That is something that we make very clear, they are not volunteer social workers,” she says. “They are there as volunteers. They rarely have any contact with [the family’s] social worker and are managed by the project manager.”

The manager acts as the conduit between the volunteer and the social worker. Volunteers – who commit to a family for six months – record each weekly family visit and are expected to report to the project manager immediately if there are any safeguarding issues.

VSF is not unique; volunteer schemes are increasingly being developed across the country to support children’s services. Dave Hill, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, believes they will become a permanent feature in the sector.

He says: “Personally, I am very keen on the use of volunteers because I think children’s services are going to keel over if we are not very careful. I think the return on investment the volunteers offer and their early intervention work is absolutely key.

“We simply can’t afford to do as much child protection and safeguarding work and look after as many children as we do. I don’t think we have any other choice but to move in that direction.”

Source: The Guardian