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Financial pressure is greatest challenge facing families

The most common challenge for families is worries about financial pressures and the rise in the cost of living, a Family Review by the children’s commissioner for England has found.

Children's commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza

The Family Review, which is based on research from a Literature Review, a Call for Evidence, commissioned surveys on family life and support, The Big Ask, analysis of existing survey and administrative data, a series of roundtables, focus groups, and interviews, and Calls to Action, found that the most common worries were financial, due to the increase to the cost of living, and concerns about childcare, particularly for families with very young children.

“38% of parents said it was fairly difficult or very difficult to make ends meet. By comparison, 24% of adults without children said it would be ‘very or fairly difficult’,” said the Family Review.

Lone parents and households with more than two children were significantly more likely to find making ends meet difficult, compared to households with two parents and households with one or two children.

Families frequently mentioned the pressure of childcare on family life, particularly the need to juggle childcare with work life and other commitments. These pressures varied over the course of a year and was understandably higher during school holidays.

The Family Review shows that 53% of families had used some form of childcare, rising to 60% for families where the oldest child was under 5 years old. Regionally, households in the London were most likely to use childcare (66%, compared to 40% in the East of England). Households of a higher socio-economic grade were also more likely to use some form of childcare (60%) compared to 43% for lower socio-economic households.

“Some families face challenges that undermine the protective effect of family. Some are much more serious than others, for example domestic abuse is much more serious that parental conflict, and most are on a continuum,” said the Family Review.

Parental conflict is defined in the review as ‘conflicts that occur between parents or carers that are frequent, intense and poorly resolved’. The children’s commissioner reveals that 12 per cent of children experience parental conflict and studies have shown that those who experience parental conflict are at a higher risk of problems with their behaviour, self-esteem, anxiety, academic progress, physical health, and social relationships.

The Family Review highlights that concerns about domestic abuse towards the parent is the most common factor identified at the end of Children in Need assessments, and this affected 168,960 children in England in 2020-21.

It warns:

  • Young people who lived through domestic violence between their parents at age three reported 30% higher than average antisocial behaviours at age 14.
  • Domestic abuse can destabilise a child’s life, as they may need to move home multiple times to stay safe, disrupting their schooling and friendships.
  • Research found that children who experienced domestic abuse faced barriers to accessing support.
  • Furthermore services to support these children were often based upon time-limited funding, meaning services provision was precarious.
  • Access to services was also dependent on parents’ engagement.
  • The research also highlighted that coercive and controlling dynamics were not considered enough in work with children, despite these forms of abuse having a significant effect on children.

WillisPalmer’s Head of Practice, Lucy Hopkins, said: “Incidents of domestic abuse rose significantly during lockdown. In fact, in April 2020, just one month into the first lockdown, calls to the Domestic Abuse helpline rose by 25% and visits to the national domestic abuse website increased by 150%.”

“The additional pressures on families were significant, and financial concerns, health worries, being isolated from family and support networks all played a part, resulting in some families experiencing new or increased issues around domestic abuse, substance misuse or mental health problems,” said Lucy.

Lucy raises further concerns that given the Family Review highlighted that financial pressures were among the main challenges for families, as the cost of living escalates it could lead to an increase in domestic abuse within families.

Recent research by Refuge has found that the increased cost of living is acting as a barrier to victims of domestic abuse leaving their partners. Worryingly, the research revealed that some women have returned to perpetrators as they cannot afford to live alone or as a single parent. This situation is only going to worsen as the cost of living crisis impacts families further.

The children’s commissioner’s review also highlights that there were approximately 478,000 children in England living with a parent with alcohol or drug use dependency in 2019 to 2020, which equates to approximately 4% of all children in England. It is estimated that parents make up around half of people starting alcohol and drug treatment each year. However, data shows that most alcohol dependent parents (80%) and parents who are dependent on heroin (60%) are not receiving treatment.

The review warns that children with a parent or carer with substance misuse problems can experience negative outcomes as substance misuse often coexists with other family stressors, such as housing or financial instability, parental physical and mental health difficulties, and crime.

The review goes on to outline how there are 219,190 children in need in England (1%) because of abuse or neglect, with 50,010 children on child protection plans meaning that they are at risk of suffering significant harm.

“The impact of child abuse and neglect on children is profound, and associated with worse mental health, educational outcomes and social outcomes. Sometimes it will be possible to work with families to keep the children safe, but for many of these children it will be necessary for them to live away from home in order to stay safe,” said the report.

Mental and physical illness, unstable accommodation and homelessness, being a refugee are also challenges that undermine the protective effect of family.

“Research has highlighted the impact of a combination of mental illness, parental alcohol or substance misuse and domestic abuse on the instance of child abuse and neglect leading to children needing to be taken into care. The causes and best responses are complex and will depend on the family and their circumstance. Most of the issues identified here are more pervasive than we might imagine,” said the Family Review.

“When adults engage with support services, for example drug or alcohol treatment programmes or adult mental health services, they are often treated as individuals, without a focus on their wider family life. This means services are not taking into account the impact of a person’s condition on their wider family, nor are they recognising the particular role the wider family is taking to support these individuals, or where this support is lacking. This is partly because of a lack of join up between social care services for adults and children. Understanding that people exist as part of families, and not as isolated individuals has the potential to transform our public services and is something that will be examined more in Part 2 of the Review,” Part 1 of the Review added.

Lucy Hopkins added: “The review is right to urge a wider focus on families as a whole rather than focusing on an individual as often, as the review highlights, families can be a source of support and treatment through these types of support services can often impact on the whole family. It is so important that as professionals we look at the family as a system and consider how that system is impacted upon by changes and concerns that affect individuals within that system.”

“As a result, WillisPalmer has developed the Multi-disciplinary Family Assessment and Systemic Family Assessment to bring different professionals together for the purpose of undertaking a joint assessment, considering the impact of parental issues on the children who are potentially being affected.”

“By focusing on the family as a whole, greater outcomes for children can be achieved,” concluded Lucy.

Part 1 of the Independent Family Review

Working Together For Children

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