Around 30 years ago I worked in a service in Brighton called Intermediate Treatment, which was an alternative to custody for teenagers. It was intensive work; trying to create the spaces for the young people to find the resilience and capacity to reflect on the choices they made, and discover how to make more positive choices to avoid falling into the criminal justice system. But it was enjoyable work; every so often a wee spark of new thinking would burst into being and a different path became possible.
Over the two years I was involved, the 9 young people I had the privilege of journeying with made big changes and new, significant, positive choices. Sadly, the whole programme was then shut down because, despite all the evidence of its positive impact, it was not possible to measure the number of crimes which had been prevented – a measure the Government wanted to use. It was a policy made for political purposes (to get elected) that frankly defeated what should have been the real political purpose – to reduce the number of people limiting their capacity to flourish by entering the criminal justice system.
Sadly, a narrative of harsh penalties for truculent children was then, and in many ways remains, the political and public narrative despite all the evidence of its very limited effectiveness; though I would qualify that by saying there are some very clear exceptions among the Scottish politicians involved in this debate across the political parties.
That story is a parable for the challenge of preventative work. We know early intervention works but what we know to be true intuitively and what we can measure are not usually the same thing. One of the big challenges a preventative approach faces is not only to simply be effective, but change the way those charged with calling them to account understand what we can define as a success. This requires shaping their thinking; influencing them to be more willing to accept the qualitative evidence from those taking part, over the quantitative approach which edicts all to a of life based by numbers.
Sometimes it appears counting is possible in prevention, but that still misses the real work of prevention. Cyrenians Homeless Prevention Service is one example. We offer support for financial difficulties, legal problems with tenancy, conflict with landlords and a whole number of others challenges which were in danger of putting folk over the edge. We know that last year we worked with 203 individuals and families in danger of losing their homes and we know 92% of these were prevented from becoming homeless, which is our quantitative evidence of success. In my view however, the really powerful work this service does is still not the thing that is counted. Our most powerful work comes after the presenting symptom is dealt with. We spend time digging under the problem to identify its root cause. We will take up to six months looking at how those we are journeying with can be enabled to make stronger, wiser, more informed decisions so they don’t find themselves in the same place again.
We may count the number of immediate evictions we stopped but in truth, that is only the start of the prevention journey. It is the repeated events we help stop by changing the way those we journey with feel about their capacity to be in charge of their own destiny, by increasing their understanding of the issues they face and their skills to deal with them. And we are always there when they need us to share their journey a little longer. For we know change takes time and we all stumble a bit on the way.
The troll is, if we spend too much time counting the stumbles and not enough time reflecting on the journey, we’ll never get the answers we seek to what really works when it comes to prevention.
17 May 2017