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Local charity’s help for young families at risk from Council’s spending decisions

Since 1987 Home-Start Kennet has been working in to give focused, flexible support to families experiencing stress and who have at least one child under five.  Families are referred to Home-Start mainly by health visitors, but also by social services, army welfare and GPs.  Some families seek help themselves.

From outside, many problems may seem small, but they can easily develop into the type of problem that disrupts family life and endangers relationships: “My volunteer goes with me to the Children’s Centre – it’s good for my son, it does him good to socialise. I stick to my talking to my volunteer – I find it hard to talk to other people.”

The charity is now under serious threat from Wiltshire Council’s cuts in funding.  The Council is well aware of the charity’s work as its employees refer families in their care to Home-Start.

For 2011-2012 the Council cut half their previous year’s annual grant of £49,000. And for 2012-2013 the grant will go entirely.  Home-Start Kennet is urgently seeking alternative sources of funding.

Already the uncertainty about funding is taking its toll. Up to this month twenty-four families have been supported this year as opposed to forty-one by September 2010.  Home-Start Kennet currently has twenty-five active volunteers on its books, as opposed to thirty-four last year – some volunteers are finding the country’s current economic climate too much for them.

‘Early intervention’ has been one of the key social policies for several years now – typified by the last government’s Sure Start scheme.  In the words of the coalition government “It is common sense that intervening early to stop problems developing has to be the best way of preventing bigger and more expensive problems.”

Home-Start has a national umbrella organisation which has supported local branches since 1973. Out of its 334 branches across the United Kingdom, five – including Swindon – have been closed down due to funding cuts by local councils.

Forty more branches are at risk of closure – including the Kennet branch.  The South Wiltshire branch will also be losing its Council grant in March 2012.  Together the volunteers working for these two branches’ give about 15,000 hours free service a year – even at the level of the minimum wage that equates to some £88,000 worth of time.  For a council to waste that sort of sum is quite a serious decision.

Funding from central government is still in place for early intervention programmes – although reduced by 11%. But it is government policy not to ring-fence such spending, so councils can use their share as they want and cut what they wish to cut.

Sara Holden (pictured left) is leading Home-Start Kennet’s fight for survival.  She is chairman of the branch’s trustees.  She worked for thirty years in social services - most of that time in Swindon - and now lives in Marlborough: “If we don’t replace the greater part of [Wiltshire Council’s] £49,000, we shall either have to contract significantly or close.”

One of the unknown factors is the development of the Ministry of Defence’s new super garrison.  If Home-Start has to shrink, it may need to withdraw from helping those in the Devizes and Marlborough areas and concentrate on the Tidworth area’s army families – especially if that is what new funders want.

What sort of young families benefit from Home-Start’s help?  Sometimes they have difficulties settling into a new area.  The mother may be recovering from a traumatic birth experience.  There may be domestic violence.  They may suddenly find themselves living in rural isolation. They may be faced with chronic illness or disability. Or the father may be working away from home – especially true of military families.  “We can help them learn to cope and be resilient.”

Why is Wiltshire Council turning its back on local voluntary charities as they’ve already done in the provision of Sure Start children’s centres? It seems they want to deal with fewer and much larger organisations. This puts them on a collision course with the government which is spending a great deal of energy promoting its localism and ‘big society’ agendas.

Sara speaks very highly of the volunteers who have been parents themselves and who have to take a two-day a week training course over five weeks.  Their training covers all the fundamentals of social care and ensures volunteers can work effectively and professionally.

Sara Holden told Marlborough News Online that some volunteers have overcome their own troubled backgrounds and now want to help others.

Sara has heard it said that the kind of work Home-Start does should be done by grandparents or neighbours. But she cites a case where a young mother in some trouble could not confide in her mother or her neighbours, but found great comfort in talking confidentially to her Home-Start volunteer – who had be-friended and encouraged her and was at much more of a distance and more approachable.

The Home-Start organisers keep careful track of the volunteers’ work and support them with regular supervision.  As Sara says: “They make sure they do not get too involved so they really can be a help to their families.”

The average cost of supporting each Home-Start family is about £1500 which is lower than local authorities’ costs for comparable social services.

Quite apart from the value they know the charity brings to local people, two things make the current uncertainty about its future especially galling.  First, it’s clear that the government’s general cuts programme is putting increasing pressures on young families and creating ever more complex problems to be resolved.  This will undoubtedly increase the demand for Home-Start Kennet’s services.

Secondly, Home-Start Kennet and South Wiltshire could, in about a year and with the help of the central Home-Start organisation and the assurance of funding, expand throughout the county. As Sara Holden told Marlborough News Online: “We know there’s the demand, in the long term there’d be no problem in finding volunteers – we already have volunteers contacting us from outside our own area.”

Want to volunteer?  Know someone who wants to donate to a charity that helps children and their families?  You can contact Home-Start Kennet on (01672) 515686 – ask for Senior Organiser Mrs Bel Crompton.

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