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What Works for 'Troubled Families'

posted 14 Dec 2012, 23:42 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 13 Jan 2015, 19:08 ]

A report from the United Kingdom Department for Communities and Local Government, 'Working with Troubled Families', has examined evidence gathered from academic publications, local evaluations, practitioners and families about what works to make a positive difference for troubled families. 'Troubled families' are defined a 'those that have problems and often cause problems to the community around them, putting high costs on the public sector' (p.9).

The report outlines five family intervention factors:

  1. A dedicated workers, dedicated to a family
  2. Practical 'hands on' support
  3. A persistent, assertive and challenging approach
  4. Considering the family as a whole - gathering the intelligence
  5. Common purpose and agreed action
These intervention factors resonate with the findings of our evaluation of the Kaitoko Whānau (family support workers) initiative, and with what we have heard anecdotally from whānau (Māori family) navigators involved in the Whānau Ora (Māori family wellbeing) initiative. What makes these navigation initiatives stand out is that they provide whānau with an alternative to services that they have not been able to access, that have made them feel less than human, or that have misunderstood their issues and their priorities and cared little about their aspirations.

My aim in this post is to think through our own understandings in light of the UK findings.

1. A dedicated worker

The UK report (p.17) states that 'much of the success of family intervention work is due to the skills of individual workers, both in building an honest and productive relationship with a family and influencing the actions of other agencies around that family'. Kaitoko Whānau are skilled at establishing whakapapa (genealogical) connections with whānau (Māori families) as they are often from, and living in, the community in which they work. It is from this foundation that respectful and trusting relationships are built, and whānau are able to share the full story of their circumstances (whereas they may only have told small parts to various agencies).

2. Practical 'hands on' support

The UK report (p.21) states that 'an initial focus on practical help… is important in starting to build the relationship with families'.When Kaitoko Whānau begin to work with whānau they are often providing support that helps whānau move out of a crisis (e.g., intervening in homelessness). The ability of Kaitoko Whānau to work alongside whānau to make something positive happen, where previously whānau may have been at a loss of who to turn to or how to get help, strengthens their relationship with whānau.

3. A persistent, assertive and challenging approach

The UK report (p.23) describes the persistence of intervention workers when families are not interested in being helped. We did not find this in our evaluation of Kaitoko Whānau, as the whānau being helped often sought out the Kaitoko Whānau when they were in crisis or had no-one else to turn to. Persistence is however a characteristic of some Māori health educators or navigators who are determined to reach those in their communities who are not managing their long-term conditions well. This is about being assertive and challenging because they care about the health and quality of the life of those they are trying to reach.

4. Considering the family as a whole - gathering the intelligence

In the UK report a focus on the whole family sets family intervention workers apart from those services that are delivered to individuals. Kaitoko Whānau work with whānau because it's in their job description, their name, and in their very nature to do so. Whānau are the building block of Māori society, and the current Whānau Ora (Māori family wellbeing) initiative is a strong acknowledgement of this. This initiative is not just about navigating whānau to the services they need, it is about strengthening whānau connectedness and inclusion. The Kaitoko Whānau  achieve these goals.

5. Common purpose and agreed action

The UK report (p.27) states that 'through family intervention, families and their problems are 'gripped' and a plan of action for resolving them developed and agreed'. We found that Kaitoko Whānau walk alongside whānau and help them both plan and achieve their goals. They are patient and consistent in their support of whānau, and as a result whānau have been helped to access services and motivated to change their lives in line with their own goals and aspirations.

Organisational backup

Absent from the UK report was an acknowledgement of the importance of the organisation that supports and defends the work of family intervention workers. Kaitoko Whānau are supported in their work by the credibility and reputation of the organisations they work for. These organisations work in strength-based ways with whānau and communities, and the Kaitoko Whānau are encouraged to do the same. Our evaluation report states that (p.xi)

It was clear that a unique whānau-centred approach was emerging from an organic, collaborative relationship between host organisation, Kaitoko Whānau worker, community, hapū [sub-tribes] and iwi [tribes]. Kaitoko Whānau were clear that a whānau-led, solution-based services means exactly that. Validating whānau perspectives of their situation, supporting whānau to identify their needs, encouraging whānau to make steps forward and drawing up plans that clearly illustrate what whānau are saying, were the hallmarks of the Kaitoko Whānau whānau-centred approach.


Kennedy, V., Paipa, K. & Cram, F. (2011). Evaluation of the Kaitoko Whānau initiative. A report prepared for Te Puni Kōkiri. Auckland: Katoa Ltd.