Cllr Siobhan Baillie is a family law solicitor and a councillor in Camden.
Destructive and acrimonious conflict between parents put children at greater risk of emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. Children may develop behavioural difficulties, become aggressive and difficult.
This is as obvious as it is hard hitting. We all know that effing and blinding around children is a bad thing and systems are in place to help children exposed to domestic violence but the full spectrum of inter-parental conflict has not been a focus in services.
Households filled with silent simmering resentment and families where parents (together or separated) are coldly freezing each other out, are likely to see children experience poor outcomes too. The radio show, the Archers, shone a light on the steady decline of a parent’s mental health and ability to make child focused decisions where the mother was suffering coercive controlling behaviour at home. Councils know that being unemployed over a long period negatively affects mental health and relationships, but the wellbeing of a child of workless parents and that child’s future prospects may be forgotten in the job application merry-go-round.
As one senior council director explained to me, if councils do not try to spot and tackle all forms of inter-parental conflict during interactions with families – money spent on a child’s education, health and building resilience could go down the drain.
In 2015, the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned a pilot study with the Innovation Unit and relationship research organisation, OnePlusOne, to embed tackling parental conflict in existing services and test the outcomes with 12 local authorities.
Professor Gordon Harold’s report for the Early Intervention Foundation helpfully collates and reviews decades of research, together with hard data from neuroscience dealing with how conflict between parents affects a child’s brain. Through the Local Family Offer, the Innovation Unit and OnePlusOne have created tools and training packages to assist the DWP to:
- communicate the need for this work;
- help front line practitioners deliver a new approach to their interactions with families;
- develop a cost benefit framework for local authorities.
Understanding that relationship distress is almost three times as prevalent in workless couple-parent families, the Local Family Offer has directly influenced the Government’s paper, Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families.
The pilot local authority sites are convinced by the evidential need to tackle parental conflict. Penny Mansfield CBE, Director of OnePlusOne explains ‘the aim should always be to pick up the signs and act swiftly, not pick up the pieces’.
The councils established that it is not just social workers who see relationship distress. Employment and housing advisors are just as able to pick up the signs but they often do not feel confident to start difficult conversations. All front line practitioners need to feel empowered to ask questions sensitively, sign-post to other services where necessary and feel emotionally protected themselves.
Council directors from Newcastle, Croydon, Dorset recently attended a seminar to talk about their experience with the pilot. We heard how they used local data to work out where tackling inter-parental conflict would have the greatest impact and amongst many examples, the skills were embedded into services for the first 1001 days of a child’s life, a whole system approach with mental health, housing, training for fathers and general education for practitioners.
I know that most councils are working hard to create resilient stable families and would love to implement a fully joined up system concentrating on children’s outcomes, if that is lacking. In my career as a family law solicitor, I have seen the devastation of parental conflict and would welcome every council taking on this work. However, the reality is that local government funding is tight right now.
The Local Family Offer has demonstrated though that councils can improve outcomes for children by tackling inter-parental conflict without heavy handed interference in residents’ lives. I was also relieved to find that there is no need for an expensive overhaul of teams or a rebrand of services. There are many ways to install the learning and raise awareness with existing workforces.
Therefore, if councils do only one thing, consider this work when planning to update training for frontline practitioners and if funding is limited, start with practitioners in departments that interact with adults. The children teams are often already experienced in having difficult conversations and always have both eyes open to risk. Offering to develop skills and a child focused perspective to adult services will embed the approach for the long term.