13th March, 2017

A life-changing service, which works with hundreds of the most disadvantaged families in Belfast each year, has been told it must close on 31 March.

Belfast’s Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS), is operated by Extern, the leading social justice charity. 47 staff members will be made redundant.

How it works
The service works with families who are known to several statutory agencies, and who have a range of long standing, entrenched and complex problems. Issues experienced by families supported by the service, include children on the child protection register, poverty, poor school attendance, mental health, suicide, anti-social behaviour, addiction - both in parents and children, and domestic abuse.

IFSS was a first for Northern Ireland when it was introduced in 2014. It offers a whole family approach, low caseloads and dedicated family workers. Workers are able to provide a flexible and responsive service at times when families are most in need of support e.g. evenings, weekends and early mornings.

The service, which works with more than 235 families a year, is jointly funded by the Departments of Health, Justice, Communities, Education and Economy.

Every Department contributes £360k a year, with the result that the service currently costs them each, 83p per child or family member, per day.

Impact of IFSS
Independently evaluated outcomes from the service, have seen:
• 31% of children who were on Child Protection Register at the time of referral being removed from the Register.
• A 67% reduction in the numbers of young people involved in offending or Anti-Social Behaviour
• 56% of children for whom school attendance was an issue, increasing their attendance rates
• 67% of families reporting improved family functioning
• A 99% service user satisfaction rate

Speaking about the decision to stop funding for IFSS, Charlie Mack, Chief Executive of Extern, said: “IFSS is a life-altering, and often life-saving service, which is seeing 50 per cent more children in Belfast being removed from the Child Protection Register, is keeping children in school, and is significantly reducing anti-social and violent behaviours.

“This decision is devastating, not only for the vulnerable and marginalised children and families we work with, but also for our dedicated and professional staff, who are to be made redundant.

“This is a decision which is also a completely false economy. For a paltry 83p per Department, per child or family member, per day, it is releasing capacity within the statutory agencies, has significant cost saving implications in the areas of justice and education, and is leading to less dependency on the public purse both now, and in the future.

“This project was created because it was identified that the existing supports were not meeting the needs of these ‘hard to reach’ and complex families. We have now been told that those supports, previously viewed as inadequate, are what these families are going to be signposted back to. Just days after people came out to vote for a better future, thousands of those most in need are being told they don't matter.”
“The most recent Departmental resource budgets for the five Departments, totalled £9.5bn. This equates to over £25m per day. We are asking for 83 pence per day, per child or family member.

“I have huge concerns about this. Should funding not be found to continue this service, the sad alternative is that Stormont will be casting a very long, and very dark shadow, over the lives of the most disadvantaged children and families in Belfast, for a long time to come. As a society, we cannot allow that to happen, and so Extern remains committed to working with Departments to ensure the continuation of this vital service.”

The NIPSA Union has organised a protest at Stormont today from 1pm to 4pm. Those who wish to show their support for families who need the service, and IFSS staff, are welcome to attend.

Extern will be using the hashtag #83pForMe? to enable people to express their concern about the closure via social media.