This family is at breaking point - but there's no one to help

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Cathy Macdonald has slipped through the net and is free falling towards a major crisis. Her 12-year-old son has been excluded from school for aggressive behaviour. Her other son has left school at 17, is into drink and drugs and is threatening to leave his Skillseekers placement.

Her violent partner has disappeared, leaving Cathy struggling to make ends meet. Her 72-year-old mother has dementia and can no longer look after herself. Her pre-school daughter has chronic asthma and speech difficulties and attends nursery only in the mornings.

Cathy, a care assistant, is torn between her job, which she desperately needs, and trying to fulfil the needs of her family. A major breakdown is on the agenda and what will happen to her already vulnerable family? The professionals have seen it coming - her sons' headteacher, her mother's social worker and GP, her daughter's speech therapist and nursery teacher, the local police, her employer. Yet they have no alternative but to stand by and watch. The cross-agency support she urgently needs does not exist.

Cathy and her family are imaginary but the gap in pre-crisis provision is recognised by professionals and volunteers working with vulnerable children. Agencies in the north-east of Scotland have been trying to find ways of resolving the problem. In a series of meetings starting last summer and ending tomorrow (Saturday), a Partners in Learning project on "Supporting Vulnerable Children" used the scenario to highlight the need for collaboration involving education, health care, social services, voluntary organisations and the criminal justice system.

The meetings, organised by the Scottish Support for Learning Association, Children in Scotland and private sector sponsors, have been working on the assumption that vulnerable children need support rather than being discriminated against.

The largest forum was in Aberdeen when Tony Dessent, director of education in Luton, told delegates that there are many opportunities for collaboration. Among "areas of overlap" are assessment procedures, provision of information and support for parents, special educational needs and working with under-fives, already an example of best multi-agency practice.

Mr Dessent also stressed that parents, carers and children must play their part. That was backed by teenagers from Who Cares? Scotland who gave examples of the discrimination, frustration and isolation experienced by vulnerable young people too often regarded as "no hopers" by teachers and health professionals.

Bill Sadler, who organised the meetings for the SSLA, returns to the archetypal Cathy. "To us the Macdonald family has become the personification of the challenges facing all who work in the service provision sphere. In Aberdeen, the professionals and volunteers who discussed their role in supporting the various family members in their difficulties all came to the conclusion that as things stand we could do nothing to prevent Cathy reaching crisis point."

But Mr Sadler said he remains optimistic. "Everyone went away with a renewed determination to spread the word among their colleagues and try to improve their ways of working in partnership with other agencies."

He added: "Personally, I feel that the solution is to find ways of empowering people such as Cathy to seek help at a much earlier stage, and if this is not possible, to provide advocacy to support her in getting the help she needs. "

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