Chronic relationship instability is one of the key causes of the problems facing many British families today, a new report has revealed.
The report, Listening to Troubled Families, written by Louise Casey, who was appointed head of David Cameron's task force to look at ways at improving tackling Britain's most troubled families, found that such families were often chaotic.
The task force was established in the wake of last year's riots in London.
The study focused on problem families who have already been the subject of a family intervention unit. Of the parents interviewed, 11 out of the 16 were under 18 when they had children.
Under the Troubled Families programme, the Department for Communities and Local Government will pay local authorities up to £4,000 a family on a payment-by-results basis if they reduce truancy, youth crime and anti-social behaviour or put parents back into work.
The study found: “Many families we spoke to were extended networks of half siblings and stepsiblings; mothers had taken on step children, some of whom had children of their own; biological fathers were absent; new boyfriends came and went; some children grew up in and out of care.
“Extended family networks, traditionally viewed in society as positive influencers, in these cases tended to be characterised by instability and chaos, with new arrivals often being frightening and bringing trouble with them, or affecting existing stable relationships.”
According to the report, changes in the family structure “only seemed to exacerbate the problems a family had”.
Children from previous relationships were cited by some families as causing problems – sometimes because it involved mixing teenage children from previous fathers with small children from new relationships.
The report said: “In some cases there are clearly negative consequences for children growing up in these structurally unstable families, especially where the instability is accompanied by violence. As one interviewee described it the children grew up ‘seeing hell’. One mother reported that her son slept with a knife under his pillow for fear of his stepfather.”
The majority of the families spoken to in the report described absent biological fathers and fathers “taking a very casual approach to parenthood and relationships”.
“For example, as soon as the relationship between the parents breaks down, the father disappears from the family never to be heard of again,” it said. “Commonly, the women also described short casual relationships which lead to pregnancy and a child, after which the fathers are rarely around.”
According to the report the prevalence of child sexual and physical abuse in many of these families “was striking and shocking”.
“It became clear that in many of these families the abuse of children by parents, siblings, half siblings and extended family and friends was often a factor in their dysfunction. Some discussed it as if as it was almost expected and just a part of what they had experienced in life,” the report said.
It added: “What was clear is that children often had not been protected by their parents. In many of the families the sexual abuse repeated itself in the next generation; not necessarily by the abused as perpetrator (particularly if the abused was female), but by others in or around the family. There were also incidents where families talked about incest.”
Miss Casey told The Daily Telegraph that the Government needed to challenge taboos and change lives.
The cost of these families is estimated at £9 billion in benefits, crime, anti-social behaviour and health care.
Miss Casey says that the state must start telling single mothers with large families to take “responsibility” and stop getting pregnant, often with different, abusive men.
“The responsibility is as important as coming off drugs, coming off alcohol, getting a grip and getting the kids to school.
“So for some of those women the job isn’t to go and find yourself another violent, awful bloke who you will bring a child into the world with, to start the cycle all over again.”
She said: “Yes, we have to help these families. But I also don’t think we should soft-touch those families. We are not running some cuddly social workers’ programme to wrap everybody in cotton wool.”
She recently visited a family court, where she watched a young woman lose her ninth child to care. The woman, a drug addict, was expected to get pregnant again and the State would intervene again to take the child away shortly after birth.
Another mother called her child a “nightmare” following yet another call from his school complaining of bad behaviour. “You’re the nightmare,” Miss Casey interjected to the shocked woman.