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Parents in the amber zone

27 September 2019

Rebecca Paveley explores a parenting programme about intervention


DAVID believed that he had let down his 13-year-old son in every conceivable way. He was an alcoholic, and had not seen much of his son for months because of his heavy drinking. He was not surprised to end up in HM Prison Wandsworth.

It was there that he was offered the opportunity to join the Kids Matter programme, which seeks to build the confidence of parents. Nervous and insecure at the beginning, he stuck with it, and began phoning his son. But, as a family day approached, he became anxious and almost refused to meet his son.

The programme facilitator at Wandsworth, Katri Rasmussen, takes up his story: “On the family day, David and his son ran to hug each other. They spent the morning talking and spending time together. Several months after the end of the programme, he told us that his relationship with his son had been completely transformed through Kids Matter.”

RUN by volunteers from churches, Kids Matter is a parenting programme aimed at people who are unlikely to encounter the Church in other ways. Its clients are not reckoned to warrant intervention from social services. But, as government funds decline, and amid the closure of up to 1000 Sure Start centres founded by New Labour, they may be in danger of slipping through the net..

One of the programme’s founders, Dr Eli Gardner, says that she tells participating churches to “close the door behind them, and go out into the community and find the parents that need them”.

Her co-founder is the head the single-parent ministry at Holy Trinity, Brompton, Marika Osmond. Other names from Holy Trinity are behind the programme, including Prebendary Nicky Lee, who, with his wife, Sila, founded the marriage course and the parenting-children course, now offered around the world.

Although some of the hallmarks of HTB courses are evident in the Kids Matter programme — which is based, in part, on the parenting-children course — others are not: there is no meeting over a meal or explicit talk about the Christian faith, no lecture or video followed by discussion.

AUSTERITY cuts mean that many vulnerable families now have nowhere else to turn. Yet the cost of not intervening early is huge. A study published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this year found that, in neighbourhoods where Sure Start offered high levels of service, visits to hospital for treatment of injuries fell among all children of primary-school age, and by one third of all 11-year-olds.

Amid the research that underpins Kids Matter are guidelines published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which suggest that parenting programmes follow social-learning theory, be at least five sessions long, and involve role-play and homework.

Run over the course of six sessions, Kids Matter programmes are offered currently in partnership with 41 different churches all over the country. Wandsworth is, so far, the only prison, although there are hopes that it might expand into others. In community settings, women are more likely to attend, many of them single parents. Dr Gardner is developing a new programme, Babies Matter, which will focus more on the relationship of couples expecting their first baby.

A clinical psychologist by background, she spent 25 years working in the NHS with families from disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds. She has seen the need for parental support grow in the past decade, as posts have been cut. Health-visitor numbers have fallen by a quarter since 2015.

“Only one in three referrals to children’s services will get followed through,” she says. “This means that a large number of children, about whom there were concerns, do not get seen, and their problems can get worse if left. So, the question now is: how else can we help those families currently in the ‘amber zone’ before they reach the ‘red zone’ and need much more help?”

THE programme offers practical parenting skills, but its main focus is on building parents’ confidence in their ability to bring up their children. The thread running throughout the programme is the parent’s own well-being. The idea is that helping the parents benefits the children.

“We don’t target children with particular difficulties: rather we reach out to parents who are struggling with adversity, as we know that living in poverty puts huge stress on parents and children, and can result in a wide range of social and emotional problems,” Dr Gardner explains.

She argues that, even were the Government to invest much more in early intervention for disadvantaged families, the Church — positioned as it is in every community — should be responding to families in crisis as part of its everyday mission. “Jesus gave a mandate to the Church, not the State, to serve the poor.”

Finding the parents who need help requires a broad partnership approach, using the network of schools, community centres, and medical centres. Dr Gardner recognises that those who may be willing to come may not be those most in need, although, in some areas, families are being referred by social services, and others are being suggested by teachers in local schools.

IN BRISTOL, Joanna Bacon has run three programmes with those already on the fringes of the church community, but is now branching out to run programmes in a school where teachers have helped to recruit parents.

With a background as a GP, she has seen first-hand the challenges that disadvantaged families face. Her own experience as a mother had prompted her to help. “I’d had the church around, and enough money, a supportive, stable family, and a good Bible-study programme to help me, and I remember thinking: how did people cope if they didn’t have all this support, if they were on their own?”

KIDS MATTERA Kids Matter meeting at St Luke’s, Millwall, on the Isle of Dogs

Many of those who attended the programmes had not experienced good parenting themselves. “When you ask the parents: ‘Who encouraged you as a child?’” Dr Gardner says, “there is often a deathly silence. The programme often leads to an awareness that they can do things differently, which is wonderful to witness.

“They are doing their best to keep safe, solvent, and housed. One of the things that often changes as the programme progresses is just the awareness that, when you shout or call names, or do not cuddle your children, it matters. It affects children in an adverse way, and there are kinder, more effective ways to discipline children that will help them flourish.“

Dr Bacon agrees. “It is not atypical that someone would turn up and not be able to raise her eyes to look at anybody. I have seen them transformed just by being listened to, hearing other people’s experiences, and learning new skills to help them parent their children. That is what keeps me going: seeing the difference that the programme makes.”

THE six sessions are delivered through discussion in small groups in which parents can get to know each other and support each other. The middle sessions of the programme deal with the nitty-gritty of parenting dilemmas such as homework, routines, and other flashpoints. But the introductory session asks parents to consider what a good family looks like; the last session asks parents about their values and traditions, and what they want for their children.

Leaders can talk about faith traditions in their family setting, and this encourages others to open up about their faith and culture. Leaders report that almost all are happy are to do so.

But there is no teacher-pupil relationship. Instead, leaders encourage a peer-to-peer sharing of vulnerability, hopes, and frustrations.

“The reason our parents enjoy the group is precisely because of the lack of judgement,” Dr Gardner says. “We take the position that we are all parents together. No matter our backgrounds, what we share is worrying about our kids, loving them, wanting to do better, getting angry and frustrated with them, feeling failed or disappointed or guilty. These are common to all of us. . .

“It is our vulnerability that is the secret ingredient.”

The evidence from the first 18 months of the programme seems convincing. In feedback, 88 per cent of parents say that their hopes were met, nearly 96 per cent say that the course was helpful, and more than two-thirds say that they are playing more with their children, managing them better, and encouraging them more.

VICKI followed a Kids Matter programme earlier this year. She is parenting her three children under the age of ten with a partner, although the demands of work — she works weekends, and he works Monday to Friday — mean that they have very little time together as a family.

She says that the programme has helped her to stop and think about the amount of time she spends on chores. She now plans to spend more time with the children. It is the first parenting programme that she has undertaken, and, without the existence of a crèche, she would not have been able to go.

“It was really nice to be able sit down and chat with other parents in the same position. For me, I am always so busy with chores and jobs that I don’t have time to think about spending time together with the family. The programme helped me to do that.”

She would recommend it to other parents. “My kids are well behaved, and I don’t have any trouble that way; but it gave me some useful tips, and I think it would really help parents facing more difficult situations.”

Kids Matter offers a way to build long-term relationships and breaks down barriers between individuals, but also between churches and the wider community, Dr Bacon. says. “The programme shows people in the community that we are ordinary human beings with an extraordinary faith, which is with us in the nitty-gritty of life.”


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