Louise Casey's report 'Listening to Troubled Families' is distressing reading. She interviews 16 families summarising their life stories and including verbatim excerpts from her conversations with them. It will take you half an hour to read all 16.
All but one are interviews with women, although 4 of the 16 are two-parent families, we hear little of the men's histories, plenty of the women's. Theirs are like stories from a war zone - repeated abuse, rape, dozens of homes, in and out of care, false starts, rejections and dashed hopes, victims of crime - experiences that amount to serial post-traumatic stress and grief. In some of the interviews you can feel the fragmented memories of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. They have barely got over one misfortune before another befalls them, victims of bad luck. One of the most striking things is how little control any of the interviewees have had over the course their lives have taken. None seemed to have chosen to become parents at the time they became pregnant.
They are adults in crisis under enormous stress but still trying to be parents (blog 31st May 2012). It can take years of patient listening and 'being with' someone (such as a counsellor) as they repeat over and over again the memories of trauma, loss, shame and regret gradually making a coherent account and in the process gaining some control of them. They take enormous pride in their children's achievements, putting paid to the idea that these families lack aspiration.
A disproportianate number of the children have chronic health problems, learning difficulties or other special needs. These children have lots of medical appointments and need to be accompanied to them by parents, yet one of the objectives of the Troubled Families initiative is to get parents into work. How many employers are sympathetic to employees continuously taking time off for children's health appointments, school appointments, attendance at meetings to discuss children's behaviour or parenting training? The Troubled Families programme envisages appointing someone to coordinate all the services provided to each family, difficult to combine that and parents finding and remaining in employment.
Some of the interviewees have been seriously mislead by professionals - one parent thought her son was in a special class for gifted children when in fact it was a remedial class. How can parents be expected to work with the public services if they are not told the truth? It is not just a matter of rights but respect to inform parents what is going on with their children. Given that so many of the parents had spent periods in care when they were children, often with traumatic consequences, it is astonishing that they have any faith at all in 'helping professionals'.
These portraits are meant to represent an underclass that the popular press portray to be feared and loathed in equal part, and the coalition government tell us are responsible for society's evils and unnecessary or unaffordable expense and who therefore must be controlled or punished. The truth is very far from that portrayal.