• Sue Bond-Taylor on care, family and ‘Getting with the Programme’

    Sue Bond-Taylor on care, family and ‘Getting with the Programme’


    Sue speaking at the event.

    A series of three Social Policy Association workshops, entitled ‘Getting With the Programme’, have been taking place, each examining different aspects of the government’s flagship Troubled Families Programme. Workshop One took place on 11th February 2015, hosted by Durham University, and focused on historical comparison and contemporary practice. Professor Roger Smith (Durham University) provided a useful overview of developments in this area, noting the persistence of policy concerns about ‘troubling’ families over time and identifying continuities and divergence between the Troubled Families Programme and earlier policies. Michael Lambert (Lancaster University) presented a historical paper identifying startling similarities between the current programme and that surrounding the 80,000 post-war families identified as a social problem in need of intervention. Aniela Wenham (York University) shared her research on young people’s experiences of their family’s involvement in ‘troubled families’ interventions, and the importance of protecting universal youth services to support young people facing adversity.

    Sue, Senior Lecturer in Criminology in the School, presented a paper based on her research within Lincolnshire County Council’s version of the programme. Entitled Tracing an Ethic of Care in the Policy and Practice of the Troubled Families Programme, this paper explored the perspectives of families supported by the service. Families tended to talk about the support they had received in terms of relationships of care: their key workers genuinely cared for the family members and they built strong relationships similar to friendship or family ties. They also felt like they were treated as individuals, rather than just a case to be managed, and that key workers took the time to understand and empathise with their specific circumstances and versions of family life. Without knowing it, these families were articulating a form of support characterised by an ethic of care, a moral framework originating in the work of Carol Gilligan (1982).

    An ethic of care is seen by Gilligan as standing in opposition to an ethic of justice. Whereas principles of ‘justice’ assume that human beings are rational, autonomous and self-serving, and therefore moral decisions require the pursuit of generalizable rules of conduct, applicable to everybody equally, principles of ‘care’ understand human beings as relational, as dependent upon and or responsible for the care of others (to a greater or lesser degree) across the life course. Moral decisions must therefore be individualised and situated within the specific contexts of human lives. In Gilligan’s research, it was the female participants who rejected ‘justice’ in favour of ‘care’ and spoke about morality in this ‘different voice’. Consequently, care ethics have had considerable impact in within feminist theory and in its application to the gendered division of labour.

    Sue’s research draws upon the work of Selma Sevenhuijsen (2004) who argued that care ethics should not just be reserved for the practice of delivering services, but rather needs to be articulated within policy contexts also. Policy documents, Sevenhuijsen argues, are “vehicles of normative paradigms” (2004:14-15) which configure ‘knowledge’ and construct social problems as particular kinds of concerns, demanding particular forms of governance. Focusing on two Troubled Families documents, Listening to Troubled Families and Working with Troubled Families, this paper ‘traces’  (Sevenhuijsen, 2004) the existence of care ethics within the Troubled Families Programme policy discourses and concludes that there is variation and contradiction to be found there.

    On the face of it, the model of family intervention advocated within the Working with Troubled Families document does reflect an ethic of care, describing the delivery of services characterised by empathy, compassion and attentiveness to need, building trust and honesty within relationships between key worker and family, and offering support which is situated and contextualised. However, alongside this, there is evidence of an ethic of justice, in the use of sanctions, conditionality and responsibilisation discourses.

    The model also sits uneasily alongside the Listening to Troubled Families report which purports to be attentive to the experiences and stories of families, but actually undermines families’ accounts (for example where they say they have been let down by services), deflects attention from key structural issues around poverty and disadvantage, and fails to engage with the significant gendered divisions of labour involved in ‘family’ practices and the extent of gender based violence experienced within these families.

    Sue also argues that the financial framework of the Troubled Families Programme threatens the ability of key workers to deploy care ethics within their work, due to the focus upon particular ‘troubles’ within the payments by results processes, the expansion of the programme to draw in larger numbers of families and the increase in caseloads for workers within a Family Intervention Light model. As the programme continues to develop, an ethic of care perspective offers us a useful framework by which we can assess the impact of policy upon the practice of supporting disadvantaged families.

    The presentations from this workshop are available from Durham University here and you can read Sue’s full paper here.


    Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological theory and women’s development, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

    Sevenhuijsen, S. (2004) ‘Trace: A method for normative policy analysis from the ethic of care’ in Sevenhuijsen, S. and Svab, A. (Eds) The Heart of the Matter: The contribution of the ethic of care to social policy in some new EU member states, Peace Institue, Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies.

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