Amelia Gentleman, the ‘Guardian’ bio tells us, ‘writes on social affairs’ and ‘won the George Orwell prize 2012’. So she’s the perfect person to look into ‘troubled families’ for the Guardian, by following Julie Cusack, underclass fixer, on her rounds in Manchester.
Let’s have a look at one. You won’t be too surprised by the details, if you've been paying attention to this blog:
Sometime after midday, Daniel Smith, 19, gets up from the sofa, where he has been sleeping beneath a grey, coverless duvet, and races upstairs to his mum's room, which is open because in a fit of unexplained fury last week he kicked the door off its hinges. The door is leaning against the wall, waiting for someone to fix it. He rummages through some papers on the windowsill and finds an appointment letter for a meeting with the Work Programme, the government's initiative to get people off benefits and into jobs.
When he sees the time of the appointment (11am) he swears and curses the programme officials because he has missed it. His mother, Estelle, who is lying on her bed in a pink leopard-skin onesie, looks at him kindly but doesn't say anything. Tara, the oldest of his three sisters, who is dressed and sitting on the bed, leaning against her mother's knees, stroking the family's black-and-white cat, says maybe he should call to try to rearrange. Daniel shouts that his benefits are going to be sanctioned and stamps downstairs in a fury, but does not make the call.
Another sister, Sadie, comes in with a friend, with KFC meals for lunch, which they unpack on Estelle's bed. As they eat they examine a framed picture of an older brother's soon-to-be born second daughter, captured in the fuzzy black-and-white outline of the medical scan. A grandmother and an uncle are smoking downstairs and no one wants to sit with them in the grey fog they've created. It has been snowing on and off all morning, but there is no money on the gas meter so the heating is off and everyone complains about the cold. After a while Estelle goes to the kitchen where she makes a start on the washing up.I suspect that description, ghastly as it may be, won’t be entirely unfamiliar to some of the police bloggers. Families with, shall we say, a casual attitude to hygiene and work, where they spend their money on fripperies and then complain about being unable to afford necessities, where its always someone else;s fault? They must, sadly, be common in some areas...
There is so little drama in this terrace home, where Estelle, a single mother, lives with four of her six children, that it is hard to understand how this household features on the troubled families list.Really?!? Well, what would you say, Amelia, if instead of living in some social housing area, they were to move in next to you?
When Cusack sets out the scale of the problems which existed here 18 months ago, it becomes clearer why they were identified as in need of support, although it's not clear that the root of the problems is, as Cameron put it, "a culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations".I repeat myself: Really?!? What else is it?
"Mum struggled to understand her responsibilities as a parent," Cusack's report on the family states. "She presented with a low level of understanding and potentially an undiagnosed learning disability. The children had taken on the role of parenting and decision-making."And the response and remedy to this situation is... ah, well, read on:
When the family was first put on the scheme, they were about to be evicted from the home where they had lived for 15 years because the house had become a meeting point for young people who would drift in and out throughout the evening until the early hours, without asking Estelle if she minded. Neighbours objected to the noise and chaos which spilled from the front door.
Police were investigating allegations of sexual assault by men who visited the house, against two of the daughters. Estelle faced prosecution because Sadie's school attendance was at a rate of just 7%.
Sadie, 15, had been excluded on a couple of occasions and had taken to cutting her arms when she felt stressed (which was often). The police were also involved because of alleged cruelty to animals; two dogs and 10 of the family's 11 cats have been removed.
"Much of the property was covered in animal faeces and flies," Cusack's report states. Four of the children had been taken into care a few years earlier because of their living conditions and concerns about neglect, and the youngest remains on the child protection register. When Cusack began working with them, two of the children were very underweight, and at least two were being bullied at school because (and she struggles for a sensitive way of putting it) "they were not managing their hygiene".Utterly sickening. And note that the animals at least are rescued from this hell, except for one poor unfortunate cat (perhaps acquired since the raid?).
Since Cusack's involvement things have improved considerably. The concept of a family intervention programme – which is the preferred model for turning these families around – means the key worker is intensively involved in their life, liable to make unannounced visits four or five times a week to begin with, any time between 7am and late at night.In short, she’s become their State-employed parent. Remember: this is supposed to be a step forward.
Clearly Cusack's work is unfinished. Although they are no longer on the point of eviction and the antisocial behaviour has disappeared, Daniel still has rages, and no one seems to know why he kicked down his mother's door.
Cusack challenges him about his missed appointment and tells him firmly (while his mother remains silent) that it is not acceptable to call the jobcentre workers "dicks", when it was his fault he missed the appointment. She wonders if he has some mild, undiagnosed learning difficulties.Of course! It can't possibly be that he's a child brought up with no boundaries, who has been allowed to develop into a surly, arrogant and rude adult! It must be that he just can't help himself!
So, she’s not even a real parent to this dysfunctional bunch, she’s an enabler and excuser.
… the family is well-disposed to Cusack and very grateful for what she is doing.
"At first I didn't want to know," Estelle says. "I thought she was going to be like the social services, quite snotty. But Julie's office is much calmer. They talk to you with more respect. They put a lot of effort in."Another hallmark of the underclass, this demand for unearned respect. What is there to ‘respect’ in the family’s lifestyle?
Sadie says she refused to go to school after years of being told by other pupils that her clothes smelt bad.
"It made me feel really bad. Sometimes I reacted really badly. I'd seen my sisters being bullied, but I was not going to let it happen to me," she says; she fought back, was excluded and refused to go.
With Cusack's help she has transferred to a school which specialises in helping unwilling pupils, her attendance has risen to around 35% and last summer she took a maths GCSE. She thinks she got an F, but Cusack tells her this was still an achievement worth noting.There are no words, are there?
To be continued. I was going to dip in and out, but there's so much here (presented as if this scheme was a success story), that I just can't, and I think it's just too big for one post..