What is a Family Support Worker?

We spoke to Sally who has had many years' experience as a Family Support Worker for the Local Authority, the education service and the voluntary sector.

What do Family Support Workers do?

Family Support Workers generally begin by meeting with the family and doing an assessment of the family's needs. This isn't as formal as it sounds, it usually involves having a chat with all members of the family and sometimes the wider family to ascertain what are the family strengths, what are the family's needs, and what changes are required within the family to help it to run smoothly again.

The support worker will also need to obtain consent to share information and seek information from agencies involved with the family such as schools, health visitors, housing, and any other agencies that the family may have been working with. This allows the Family Support Worker to gain a complete picture of the family dynamic in order to put in place a plan of action.

One way that I like to look at the family is that every family is like an engine in a car. If all the parts of the engine are working well and running smoothly, the car is able to move in the right direction. If one part of the engine breaks down, this can have a knock-on effect and cause the whole system to breakdown. To put this in the context of the family system, a family is running really smoothly but very suddenly Grandma, who usually provides childcare for the family, becomes ill. This has caused Mum to have to give up work because she cannot afford childcare and now the family are struggling to cope financially. The family are behind on their rent and Mum has had to become a carer for Grandma. In this scenario a Family Support Worker will work with Mum to make sure she's getting all the benefits that she is entitled to. They may also help her to find employment that fits in with her family and support her to find appropriate childcare. They might also contact the Local Authority to provide respite care for Grandma and to help Mum to apply for Carers Allowance. The support workers are experts in seeing the stress points within the family and putting measures in places to ease those stress points.

How does a Social Worker differ from a Family Support Worker?

A Social Worker is usually assigned to a family where the child has been deemed to be in need or at risk of harm. Families who have been assigned a social worker as part of a child in need plan or child protection plan have to engage with the social worker until it is deemed that the child is no longer in need or at risk. Sometimes the family will work with the social worker and when the changes have been made or the child is no longer deemed at risk, a Family Support Worker may be assigned to the family to ensure that they still receive the support they need.

What are the benefits of working with a Family Support Worker?

There are many benefits to working with a Family Support Worker. Often when a family has reached a stressful time, they can't see a way forward, it takes someone from outside the family to assess the positives within the family as well as the stress points. It is really easy when you have several very difficult issues going on to feel that there is nothing that you can do and to feel quite helpless. The Family Support Worker can unpick what is going on and separate the issues, putting in several measures to support.

When I work with families, I always look at the strengths of the family first and I think this is really important. It is crucial to point out the many positives within the family and help them to see that the difficulties they face can be overcome. Family Support Workers often have a massive armoury in their tool kit including connections with other agencies such as housing, citizen's advice, children's centres, and schools. They also have a great deal of local knowledge as to which charities and organisations can also step in. As an example of this, when I was an Intensive Family Support Worker for a Local Authority, I was working with a family who were at risk of becoming "intentionally homeless". This was mainly due to the fact that Mum had mental health difficulties and also English was her second language and she did not fully understand the housing system. As I worked closely with housing and I worked in the same buildings as the housing team, I was able to quickly gain answers and solutions to the housing issue that might have taken the family a lot longer to obtain.

Family Support Workers can also write supportive letters to schools, housing and benefits agencies in order to ease the pressure of any given situation. They can accompany families to any meetings that they have been called to, such as attendance meetings at schools, Citizen's Advice appointments or any health appointments. They can advocate on behalf of the family and explain the difficulties that they are currently facing in order to give them some breathing space.

What did you like most about being a Family Support Worker?

I really liked the fact that being a Family Support Worker was consent based. This meant that the family was agreeing to work with me because they wanted to, not because they had to. Sometimes in the beginning, the families were sceptical about having a Family Support Worker which is completely understandable. It can be difficult to tell a stranger the personal details about your family and to admit that you are struggling. It is sometimes really tough to admit that you need support to overcome a difficult period in your family's lives. To me, gaining a family's trust, in order that they are confident enough to talk to me and allow me to support them was the greatest privilege. To know that you have supported the family through a difficult time even in a small way gave me huge personal satisfaction and I loved knowing that I have made a difference. My way of working was not to handhold a family but to give them the knowledge and tools to empower themselves to make positive changes. Sometimes all the family needs is to know that people are there for them and to give them the knowledge of services out there that can help them.

How do I get a Family Support Worker if I feel I need help?

A Family Support Worker is assigned to a family either by self-referral or by referral from another agency. Sometimes a school that your child goes to, a voluntary charity that you have had contact with or a doctor or health visitor might refer your family to a Family Support Worker. If you feel like your family needs support from a support worker, you can often self-refer your family. You would normally do this by contacting your Local Authority in the Early Help Team to ask for the service. Alternatively, there are charities that have voluntary support workers such as Homestart and Family Lives. Also, your child's school might have a Family Liaison Officer that you can work with.

What if I am a bit hesitant about having a Family Support Worker even though we are struggling at the moment?

This is perfectly understandable and it can be a nervous time when a family first meet the support worker. I would like to reassure anybody who needs support, Family Support Workers are very skilled, non-judgemental people who just want to empower your family to overcome the struggles that many families go through at some point. Also be comfortable in the knowledge that this is a voluntary service. If after chatting to the worker you feel it's not for your family, that's absolutely fine. Sometimes that initial chat or home visit with the worker may just give you some knowledge of the services that can help your family that you did not know about.

Here are some useful links about Family Support: