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Testing new tools: why the new YEF grants round is focused on family support as a way of addressing youth crime and violence


27 Sep 2021

There is a strong logic to the argument that family support can help to prevent youth offending and violence, but little evidence as yet to back it up. As Donna Molloy explains, a new grants round from the Youth Endowment Fund will set out to fill this gap and test the potential of this approach to addressing the risks associated with youth crime.

Those who work to tackle offending and serious youth violence often argue that real solutions are to be found by focusing on the family context. This is an argument consistently heard from practitioners and academics alike. The Centre for Social Justice, for example, have long argued that supporting family relationships in order to prevent family breakdown is crucial as a way to prevent crime.

There is a persuasive logic to this. Positive family relationships are one of the most important factors in supporting children to thrive. When families are facing challenges, this can result in high levels of conflict, parents who struggle to give their children attention or show warmth, or emotional or physical abuse in relationships. And it can have a significant impact on children and young people’s development, mental health and behaviour – and ultimately the risk of becoming involved in crime and violence.

Yet, family-focused interventions are not a common part of the approach to addressing youth crime and violence. Now, new funding and evaluation from the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) could change that, and put family support squarely in the frame as an important, effective tool in the toolkit.

Understanding the potential of family support in addressing youth crime and violence

EIF has long championed the need for prevention and early intervention to be more central in children’s social policy, given its potential to improve children’s life chances across a range of outcomes. So we welcome this important investment in building the evidence base on the potential impact of family support in this area. Because while the quality of the UK evidence on ‘what works’ to prevent youth violence is currently weaker than we’d like, the evidence base for interventions that develop parenting skills, support families and strengthen relationships between children and their parents or carers is relatively well-developed. This is largely, though not entirely, because previous governments have recognised the potential of these interventions and invested in robust evaluation and testing.

Family-focused approaches, such as family therapy or parenting support, have good evidence to show that they can impact on outcomes which are predictors of violence and offending – for example, that they can improve parenting practices or child behaviour. Research on the long-term effects of these interventions is more limited, however, and so we don’t know if their short-term impacts have longer-term benefits in terms of affecting young people’s risk of involvement in future offending or youth violence.

To provide background for the YEF’s new grant round, EIF colleagues searched the literature to identify interventions with the strongest evidence. However, they didn’t find any parent education or training interventions evaluated in the UK with evidence of improving crime and violence outcomes. Encouragingly, the international evidence is stronger and does suggest that these approaches can reduce offending – but it’s crucial to find out whether this is the case in the UK.

This is why the YEF is now looking for parenting support and family therapy interventions that have been shown to improve outcomes that are predictive of youth crime, which they can test further to establish if these interventions can prevent offending. They will also be looking at whether interventions that have shown results for other groups of young people are as effective for the at-risk group of young people that the YEF is focused on.

Robust information about the potential of these family-based interventions in relation to offending and serious youth violence for the most at-risk young people could be game-changing. If the YEF’s studies show strong effects, this could significantly strengthen the case for increasing the prioritisation of these approaches in efforts to reduce serious youth violence both nationally and locally. Right now, these types of interventions are not routinely commissioned by organisations working in the serious youth violence space, where there tends to be a greater emphasis on approaches such as mentoring.

Robust information about the potential of these family-based interventions in relation to offending and serious youth violence for the most at-risk young people could be game-changing.

This is where the YEF can help and why the work of this grant round is so important. It will be providing support for projects who are interested in building preliminary evidence about the impact of their activities, and who might potentially move towards impact evaluation to see if their interventions improve outcomes for children.

Expanding the evidence on youth crime and violence

Understanding the potential of these interventions isn’t just about supporting biologically related families. It’s also important to understand the potential of supporting relationships between children in care and those who look after them, such as foster or kinship carers, and whether this approach can have an effect on child behavioural problems, placement stability and the likelihood of reunification with parents.

The YEF grant round will also provide an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the impact of interventions which support families affected by domestic abuse, and begin to explore whether these interventions can reduce the risk of young people becoming involved in violence. Again, there is a strong logic that providing extra support to young people who have experienced the trauma of living with domestic abuse could prevent them from becoming involved in violence themselves. Again, however, this is far from proven. There is a significant lack of robust evaluation of domestic abuse interventions in the UK. Many of the programmes and practices that are currently being used have not been evaluated for specific outcomes, or at all. In many ways this is not surprising, as carrying out high-quality impact evaluation is not something that can be expected of underfunded voluntary sector or community-run organisations. But this is too important an issue to lack knowledge about the impact of supporting children and families, and so central investment is essential in starting to develop the evidence.

As well as knowledge about what works, we also need to understand more about what works for whom, under what circumstances, and how different groups of families want to access support. The YEF’s focus on understanding implementation factors – such as how successful interventions are in reaching and engaging different groups of parents and retaining them in services – will also be important and build on the growing evidence relating to these issues.

Typically, when it comes to preventing serious youth violence, family-based approaches are not where the money is focused. While we cannot pre-empt what the YEF’s evaluations will eventually find, it is possible that this grant round could be the start of changing this. The knowledge we gain could also help to make the case for bringing support for families together, both nationally and locally. At the local level, this means bringing agencies involved in tackling serious youth violence together with colleagues in children’s services leading on family support to jointly prioritise effective approaches, for example through pooling resources and joint commissioning. And nationally, this could create powerful incentives for the Home Office to join forces with departments leading on family policy to help ensure this activity works to reduce serious youth violence.

The Youth Endowment Fund’s ‘A supportive home’ grant round is open for funding applications until 1 December 2021. For more information and to apply, please visit the YEF website

The summary review of the evidence, conducted by EIF, is published by YEF and available here.

About the author

Donna Molloy

Donna is director of policy & practice at EIF.