Expert Opinion

Many of our experts are adopting a new approach to working with Priority Families in our City. They are co-ordinating help and support for the whole family. Below is our series of 'expert opinion' pieces from those who are putting our Priority Families 'way of working' into practice...

Leroy Aitcheson

Youth Offending Team case manager Leroy Aitcheson tells us why his background as an engineer - plus his experience of working with families - have given him an ideal insight into the Priority Families way of working

I started my working life as an engineer at Raleigh. But I was also running a youth club and one night a teenager tragically died outside the club. It made me realise that I wanted to do more to help people. And so I reached a point where in the same week I was offered two different jobs: one at the Royal Ordinance Factory and one as a residential worker at a National Children's Home. I took the job at the children's home.

But I've found that working with people isn't much different to engineering. In engineering you have cogs and equations but you have to methodically work through a problem and you apply that principle in the job we do now. I've always been a process person. The real difference now is you have to be flexible. It's not static: in families there needs to be flexibility.

Over the years I have worked in Mental Health, Probation Service, Social Care, and Residential and have worked at the Nottingham Youth Offending Team since 2000 firstly as a Preventative Worker and now as case manager. My experience has been varied, from family and advocacy work to case management and mentoring. However, the one constant has been the involvement of families. Whatever my work, it has always involved the family at some stage.

What is important is having professionals who are engaged with each member of a family - and with each other. These professionals could individually offer support and guidance to those members of the family, but it doesn't work when you have professionals talking about the same family but not hearing each other at certain stages - it might be a telephone call that is made from one agency to another agency, but not everyone is hearing it. When you have review meetings, people then say, "I didn't know about that - I wasn't aware."

My experience is that this is now a better way of working. When Priority Families was developed it was just a natural progression for me to apply for the post of Accredited Practitioner. People might think that this is just another project that will come and go - but we're here and people need to realise that this is the way we need to work.

Importantly, it's no different to how we've been working. In the YOT, we have case management meetings which you can argue are like Priority Families meetings. The difference is that in the YOT I wouldn't have capacity to work with the family holistically, I would only be working with the young person who has committed an offence. Within the Priority Families model, the case manager will handle that, my role is to incorporate everything that is going on in that family and work out how we can assist the family to make changes in their lives.

Jean Faulkner

Jean Faulkner is a Family Intervention Project Practitioner. With a background in education Jean is working with primary schools in the city

My relationship with families has developed massively over the years - especially with hard-to-reach families.

When a child has been permanently excluded, the family doesn't know what's next. They often get stuck in a certain mindset as generations of their family have come through the same system.

I want to find out why they are the way they are and what I can do to help - or where we can go as a whole city partnership to help these families move out of that way of thinking.

Parents can build a trusting relationship with me and will open up. It's crucial because these families have had lots of doors closed on them. For me it's a chance to open up and give these families the chance they deserve.

Relationship building is the way forward, through the Priority Families way of working. And that's not just with the families: over the years I've had to work hard to build trust with other agencies by being honest and open and not trying to jump through too many hurdles at once but by taking it one step at a time. The Priority Families way of working definitely does that through the Family Plan. Small steps are often needed - and that was a massive learning curve for me because you feel like you want to change the world, but it's not done as quickly as that; you have to break it down to realistic steps so that families believe that they can also achieve that.

My passion is that our families need to know that we are here for them. Schools can't get it right every time because they have other pressures. In this new role, for me to go out to schools and guide them in the direction of us all working together and maybe seeing it in a different light, I think this is good timing.

My message to schools is that I'm here to come on board and give them a new way of thinking; I want schools to see that if we all work as a unit together in the whole of the city we're going to break barriers that we have maybe never done before. I want to be a part of assisting us all working together.

I know that some schools feel isolated and I don't want them to be isolated. I've been contacting schools to get a named person for me to link in with; I'm quite happy to go in and talk to staff - the more who know about Priority Families the better. As a city, we pride ourselves on early intervention - and with Priority Families, we're delivering it.

Ginette Ferguson

PC Ginette Ferguson, who worked as a Beat Manager in Sneinton, is a Priority Families Accredited Practitioners

I first found out about Priority Families when I went on the three-day training. It sounded interesting, so I even dragged one of my PCSOs along too so we could find out more.

The training covered lots of things that were relevant to my work and to the families on my beat. We learned a lot about the way that we have to put families at the centre of everything we do and support them to make changes in their own lives.

It made a lot of sense to me - although I had a lot of questions - as I could see the difference this approach would make to the lives of the families I deal with every day.

I've been in the force for 21 years: first in St Ann's and for the past ten in Sneinton and have been a beat manager for 12 years so many of the families I've come across would fit the description of a 'Priority Family'.

I'm aware that the whole issue of 'Troubled Families' was first raised after the riots in 2011 when it became clear that something new had to be done to help those families with many different problems, like crime, anti-social behaviour and unemployment. For me, Priority Families is about helping and empowering people to make changes to their own lives.

We have to break the intergenerational cycle where certain values (or lack of values) is being passed from generation to generation. We have to change people's attitudes by helping them to make that change themselves. We have to be persistent as these families are hard to engage and have complex issues and needs.

When I've told people at work or on my beat about the Priority Families Programme, they have all been really interested and said what a difference it makes - and also how well I will fit my new role of Accredited Practitioner. I'm really looking forward to getting started. Since the training, I've tried to apply a lot of the principles to my work.

I've always been a big believer in working in a family-centred way - you have to make sure you understand every issue in a family that might be driving them towards crime or domestic violence. And in particular, you have to be ready to change your own way of thinking.

One of the biggest barriers we can come across is other professionals who are used to working in a certain way and don't want to change. You can't be like that. I'm a big believer in Restorative Justice and sometimes you will come up against people who think it won't work because it's new or it's different. Priority Families is the same.

We need to make changes and work together, across the partnership, to help our families. We need to be a bit more open minded and do it differently!

Karen Eaves

Karen Eaves, seconded from the Educational Welfare Service is a Priority Families Accredited Practitioner

My first involvement with the Priority Families Programme was to identify a Priority Family - one of my families who met the criteria for poor school attendance, antisocial behaviour and worklessness in their household.

At first I couldn't see what the difference was going to be between the Priority Families new way of working and the Common Assessment Framework (CAF). I thought that it was just going to be another government initiative - I thought that this probably isn't really going to last too long.

But when I went on the Priority Families training I realised that I would be working with families intensively; with assessments on each child and each member of the family. That's when I realised that this could make a real change to the families we're working with.

Normally as an Education Welfare Officer I would be focused just on attendance. So when I went out to meet the family, I would have a conversation with mum about supporting and improving attendance but I would not really be focusing on the other social problems that might be affecting the family.

So the difference is that before I was very child focused, now I'm family focused. Before, I would have regular meetings but they were all about improving outcomes for the child, whereas Priority Families is about improving outcomes for the families as a whole.

I've enjoyed working as a Family Partnership Worker. So far I've come across very few barriers. Everyone in the multi-agency meeting has their own little bit to do, which you are co-ordinating around the family, so they need to come back to you with information.

I feel very rewarded as a professional by the Priority Families way of working. I've seen the difference it's making to my families - and not just me but other people have seen the difference too: schools have seen it, and so have the alternative provision. Schools now have me as a link - as a point of contact. In the past they would have tried to directly contact the parent and that could take days or weeks, whereas now they can contact me. It's more streamlined. I can get through to the parent because I have that relationship with them. And I can encourage the parent to maintain that relationship with the school.

My experience of working as a Family Partnership Worker has been about developing my listening skills; listening to things that families say, that perhaps they don't really hear themselves. It's helping them to change their lives.

I'm one of the first Priority Families Accredited Practitioners, which will be very different. I think it will give me more control over my cases. I'm really looking forward to the challenge.

Bernadette McNiffe 

Family Partnership Worker Bernadette McNiffe is a CAMHS Practitioner in emotional wellbeing (see video in the links menu on the right)

I was one of the first practitioners to go on the training for Priority Families. I read about it and researched it on the internet and the more I read, the more I kept seeing the word 'families'; it wasn't saying adults or children, it was saying 'families' all the way through.

My background with emotional wellbeing is that you see a lot of children who are brought in by their parents for behaviour issues or their emotional health, but we never got the opportunity to work with the parents or the carer - and that's the difference with the Priority Families model. You are looking at the family as a whole: and with that comes the opportunity to work with parents to think about their upbringing, their life story. So nobody is in isolation.

This is also a model that doesn't blame any particular person in a family. You can use the model so that you are not homing in on, for example, dad's drinking or that the parents are having difficulty looking after the children and maybe not doing it to the best of their ability at this moment because of other factors such as housing or unemployment.

With the Priority Families model you can record all of the elements of the family's story. And that's what works for me.

You can often visit a family that already has eight or nine agencies working with them. But you can go in with your Priority Families hat on and introduce yourself to the family in a different way. Often people are saying 'this family isn't engaging' but this model gives you an opportunity to build a professional relationship with the family and then go into meetings with parents to help explain things and look at other ways of working.

All families have got a story. Priority Families gives you the chance to write another story with the family; to give them another start. It's about hearing the family story in a very angry or upset way and then working with them or holding their hand to get certain things done for them and being confident about what you are going to be able to help them with.

Because I go in with the model of Priority Families in my head, which is easy to follow, I can go in and say, 'Yes you've had social care, yes you've had this worker and that worker, but I'm coming in now with this model, this way of looking at things'. And that really helps.

For me Priority Families is a chance for us to say we are looking at families differently now - a new way of working - especially as Nottingham City is investing its time and resources in the Priority Families model. So as practitioners, we also need to invest into this.

We need to look at the whole family and change the way we work and operate. This gives you an opportunity to hear the whole family's life story and their journey in a more holistic way.

Jonathan Shaw

Jonathan Shaw, Multi-Systemic Therapy Team, and former case worker with the Youth Offending Team (see video in the links menu on the right)

My initial impression of Priority Families was that it sounded like a lot of things that were already happening and wouldn't make a big difference at the grass roots level - it was to do with policy and funding and not really how we work with families.

Then I had my training. The bit that was new to me was looking at the family as a whole because my work in probation and youth offending was about working with one individual and very much focused on that one individual's problems and needs.

You look at them within the context of the family but your focus is that one person and that one person's goals - which is simpler in some ways, but is limiting as it is very difficult to affect change in that one individual without looking wider at what is going on in the rest of their lives and in particular in their family - for a lot of people it is their big focus in their lives.

If there are overriding issues that the family have then it is very difficult for that person to move on as an individual when there are still wider family issues going on.

It is a common issue for young people: in the Youth Offending Team we might see a young person for half an hour a week, but the amount of time they are spending at home with their families is always going to be much, much more. The influence that that environment has on them is very strong.

So the training shifted that whole family focus to working as a family unit and that role of co-ordinating support around that family. As a Youth Offending Team worker you are usually one person sat round the table at a multi-agency meeting - you are rarely the person who is co-ordinating it.

One case that I managed with the Priority Families model was a young offender who was on bail. The family was identified as a Priority Families because of housing issues, anti-social behaviour and substance misuse. It's clear there were a range of issues affecting the whole family. The new role sat well with me - family intervention work. It had a profound affect on what I do in my job.

I worked very collaboratively with the family. I made it clear to the mum that she had a lot of power in what this intervention was going to look like. They were used to professionals coming in and out - mum said that people would come, complete and assessment and they wouldn't see them again. Then six months later someone else would come in and do an assessment and nothing ever changed.

I was honest with them that I was their point of contact but I wasn't going to be the person that would make the changes. I wouldn't be making the repairs on their home; I wouldn't be turning up on a Saturday with a toolkit and paintbrush - but this was an opportunity to get the people round the table who could make those changes.

It was a challenge for the family who were so used to being negative about each other and their situation; it was a challenge for the agencies by asking: what is it that the family want? What strengths have they got within the family to improve their situation? Actions were set out for different people around the table. It created a support network around the family of people who continued to support them.

It is a way of working that is successful for families. It's a way of engaging families who have struggled to engage previously. It's part of a change in the way of working that the city is adopting. Priority Families, Signs of Safety - it's part of that way of working with families. It's an inevitable change now - it's the way things are going: because it works.

It is empowering for the family. One of the things that worked for my family was telling the mum that 'You're the experts on your family'. We aren't there to tell them how to change but we wanted to listen to them about how they were coping so far, what they wanted to achieve and what we had to do to empower them to get there. That's quite a different approach to the traditional way of working.

The impression that a lot of people have of Priority Families is that it's another team - or that it's a package of resources that they can tap into to use with their families. That's not my experience. It's a way of working across our partnership. It's empowering for you as a worker.

There's no magic bag of resources attached to it - you are still working with the same resources as everyone else, but it's a way of identifying new ways to work with the family to change their lives.