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Safe Families for Children

Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme Evaluation Report 56

Safe Families for Children originated in Chicago, Illinois, in 2003, an innovation of the Christian charity: Lydia Homes. It provides vulnerable families with 3 types of family support: respite for the children to live away from home for short periods; friendship for the main carer, usually the birth mother; and resources to help make the family home a healthy environment for children. All 3 family supports are provided by volunteers recruited from the Christian church. The programme has spread to several U.S. states.

In 2013, businessman and philanthropist Peter Vardy, and the CEO of the Vardy Foundation, Keith Danby, started a charity with the aim of bringing Safe Families to the majority of English local authorities, starting in the North-East of England.

Safe Families was introduced to Dartington Social Research Unit (DSRU) in 2014, leading to rapid analysis of its potential. It was claimed that the U.S. model of Safe Families diverted children away from state sponsored foster and residential care. The previous evidence for this claim is mixed and difficult to verify, given the differences between U.S. and English child welfare systems. Early evidence from the programme in England suggested that it had the potential to support many vulnerable families at low cost, including a significant proportion of those children that were on the edge of the care system. This early evidence also found that:

  • the programme did not evangelise on behalf of the Christian church
  • the initial transfer of the programme from the U.S. to the North-East of England had realised a steady stream of volunteers
  • the programme fitted well with local government’s need to forge new relationships between public services and civil society
  • the real benefit to local authorities would be in the potential to reduce the flow of children into foster and residential care
  • the programme was scalable.

Using the support from the Department for Education’s Innovation Fund, DSRU and Safe Families collaborated to develop and scale the programme. Five innovations emerged from this work. First, the programme would focus on 2 categories of children: those in need of what local authorities call ‘early help’ (Category 1) and those on the edge of care (Category 2). The goals were to reach 15% of the children aged 0-10 years of age coming into care and to reduce the overall flow into care by 10% in each user authority. Second, the effectiveness of the programme would be boosted by it arriving just in time to stem the crisis that led carers to seek support from local children’s services and not, as typically happens, several weeks later. Third, using the classic Rogers’ scale strategy, it was planned to introduce the programme to 16% (n=24) of the 150 English local authorities within 12 months, using evidence and user recommendation to pull in the other 84% of authorities. Fourth, in line with DSRU’s traditions, it was decided to subject the intervention to rigorous evaluation, to estimate impact on flows of children into care; birth parent outcomes; child outcomes; volunteer and user satisfaction. Armed with rigorous evaluation, we were able to trial a new financial model for introducing innovation at scale, called a Public Social Partnership (PSP). Fifth, we introduced seminars on the management of system dynamics to help participating local authorities reap the full benefits of children diverted from the care system.

This report, which covers the period January 2015 to March 2016 seeks to answer 3 primary and 2 secondary research questions:

  • does Safe Families divert the flow of children into foster and residential care by 10%?
  • is there any evidence of increased stress on birth parents or other primary carers whose children are supported by Safe Families?
  • is there any evidence of impairment to the well-being of children supported by Safe Families?
  • does Safe Families reach needy families in a timely manner?
  • is the programme scaling in line with the Rogers’ strategy described above?