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Dame Clare’s blog

Dame Clare Tickell, Chief Executive of Action for Children, is Expert Group lead on our third theme of Children and Families.  Here she explains how issues for children, young people and their families connect with women’s homelessness.

Estimates suggest that up to 1 million children in the UK[1] are at risk of being trapped in the same cycles of deprivation and neglect as their parents.

Homelessness is part of this vicious cycle.  Many homeless women have experienced traumatic childhoods, and as a result are at risk from violence,  substance abuse and  mental health concerns. These can in turn bring about parenting difficulties leading to problems for their own children.  It is understandable that many women with these experiences struggle to engage with and trust the services who seek to help them and their children. Getting the right support, from the right people, at the right time must be seen as a positive option by vulnerable mothers, rather than something to fear.

To break the cycle requires effective intervention and prevention at the earliest possible stage. That is why I am pleased to be involved with the Rebuilding Shattered Lives campaign.

Within St Mungo’s services alone, almost half (46%) of the women St Mungo’s supports are mothers. Many of these women have had more than one child. Homeless women need personalised support to care for their children, rather than furthering a cycle of social exclusion and homelessness.

Early intervention is highly effective both on a personal level for those affected and also  for society as a whole, not least in terms of the billions potentially saved in health, welfare, justice and care costs. Alongside crisis intervention, we need to invest more in targeted preventative services.

Across sectors, we also need to support stable and trusting relationships between professionals and vulnerable mothers in order to improve outcomes. We need to better recognise the skills and abilities they do have and nurture both the parent and the child’s sense of being capable, resilient and able to achieve their potential.   Working effectively with vulnerable mothers will help improve their children’s life chances.

Early intervention services require adequate and sustainable funding. Yet despite widespread public and sector support, we have seen preventative services being cut or de-prioritised.  Local authorities are facing impossible decisions. 

We know a lot about the issues for homeless women and their children, but we need to hear more about the solutions. What new approaches could housing providers and support agencies adopt to prevent the stresses and triggers that lead to children being neglected? How can family members, friends and wider social groups create a better support network for women who are struggling with parenting?  How can we ensure the multiplicity of agencies often involved with families do not bombard, overwhelm or alienate families? Finally, how can we ensure mothers don’t feel disempowered or incidental to decisions made about them or their children?

St Mungo’s Missing Families research found that resuming contact with their children was the primary recovery goal for many women. What more can agencies do to support homeless women to address substance misuse problems or develop their parenting skills to help them reconnect families where possible?  Knowing that children and young people too often receive insufficient support after they have returned home from care, what more can be done? Finally, how can homelessness agencies, alongside children and health services, better support women who become pregnant whilst in their care, and ensure the best possible outcome for both mother and child?

We need a national debate on the needs of vulnerable women and their children and the Rebuilding Shattered Lives campaign provides that opportunity. I am looking forward to the conversation and hearing more on innovative practice, particularly from those who work with both homeless women and their children.

[1] Estimate based on Oroyemi, P, Damioli, G, Barnes, M and Crosier, T (2009) Understanding the risks of social exclusion across the life course: families with children, Nat Cen/Cabinet Office; 4%–7% of children are caught up in ‘long-term multiple disadvantage’, these families are more likely than others to have four or more children. Action for Children; Children England; Family Action (2010) “The Smart Money: Making tomorrow better for children and families” http://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/uploads/media/29/10757.pdf