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Inter‐parental relationship support services available in the UK: Rapid review of evidence

The nature and quality of the couple relationship between parents has been found to significantly impact on the health and wellbeing of children. In particular, frequent, intense and poorly resolved inter‐parental conflict has been identified as a key factor affecting children’s long‐term health and wellbeing, while also adversely affecting wider aspects of family functioning including parenting quality. In What works to enhance inter‐parental relationships and improve outcomes for children the Early Intervention Foundation worked closely with Professor Gordon Harold  at the University of Sussex to distil the evidence of why relationships between parents are so critical to how children fare. Inter‐parental relationship support has therefore become a key focus of early intervention for children, to prevent parental conflict adversely affecting children’s welfare and future opportunities. Poverty, and the stress this causes to parents, has also been found to increase relationship difficulties, meaning that children in low‐income households are at greater risk of negative outcomes caused by inter‐parental conflict. Parents in poverty also have increased risks of relationship breakdown, which in turn can increase poverty and negative outcomes for children.

The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) was founded as an independent charity and What Works Centre in July 2013, to champion and support the effective use of early intervention for children with signals of risk. In so doing, we hope to reduce the human and economic costs of late intervention, which is needed when problems become entrenched and difficult to reverse on the journey from childhood to adulthood. EIF in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has developed a major programme of work which explores how the quality of the relationship between parents impacts on children in or at risk of poverty. Importantly, this work includes couples who are living together as well as those who are separated. This report forms part of this programme of work and focuses on the current nature and extent of relationship support services available to parents in the UK, with a particular focus on services available to families in or at risk of poverty.

Relationship support services appear to be significantly underdeveloped in the UK compared with other countries such as the United States. While the review did identify a range of different types of services available, these are predominately provided through the voluntary sector and there remains a lack of statutory support
available. Services also appear fragmented across different statutory sectors, making it hard for commissioners, let alone parents, to understand what support is available. If we are to reduce the impact of damaging parental conflict on children’s outcomes, there needs to be substantive growth in UK provision of effective relationship support alongside more robust evidence to determine ‘what works’.

This review highlights the fact that most relationship support services still tend to focus on the couple relationship, and do not explicitly address child outcomes. The
idea of supporting parent relationships as a means of positively improving child wellbeing and parenting is still in its infancy, and has not yet been adopted by most service providers and commissioners. In addition, few relationship support services target families in or at risk of poverty, which is problematic given that these parents are more likely to be stressed, experience relationship problems and higher levels of conflict.

There are significant barriers to the uptake and implementation of relationship support services highlighted in this review, including the social stigma of seeking early help for relationship difficulties, as well as the cost, uncoordinated nature of service provision, inflexible hours and travel distances. Importantly, many of the barriers
identified are likely to disproportionately affect families in or at risk of poverty, who are already an underserved group within the relationship support sector. Services also need to do more to better engage other disadvantaged groups, including black and minority ethnic (BME) families, disabled couples, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples, separated and single parents, and fathers.

However, there is a great deal of potential to better embed a focus on inter‐parental relationships within statutory services: in particular, how to intervene early to prevent relationship difficulties between parents before they become severe, entrenched and impact on children. Health services and parenting programmes offer an important avenue to recognise early signs of relationship distress and support parents. Key points of transition such as having a new baby, the child’s transition to school and during separation and divorce offer important opportunities to target such services. Multi‐agency partnership working to identify signals of risk, reach parents in services they more readily access, and refer them to the right support, could provide a key strategy to reach families in poverty and on low incomes. In addition, specialist services adapted to target particular groups, such as BME parents or fathers, have been shown to effectively access parents that are more vulnerable. Recent government announcements about renewed investment in inter‐parental relationships, including the innovative Local Family Offer sites, provide a crucial foundation to expand services and improve child outcomes in this emerging area of policy and practice.

The purpose of this review was to determine the extent to which relationship support services have been mapped in the UK, to what degree child outcomes are being targeted, and the extent to which families in or at risk of poverty are being prioritised. It presents an overview of the current landscape of inter‐parental relationship support services in the UK, in order to help develop our understanding of what is available, for whom, and the gaps and barriers to delivery. This is an initial step to a better understanding of the nature of current UK provision, with further primary research needed to deepen this knowledge, including the impact of services and learning on what works in effective delivery.