Theoretical definitions of family support have been translated into statutory guidance and legislation. In the Children First document, family support is defined by a description of the dimensions of family support:

Family support services may be offered at three different levels. These are: services specifically directed at children; services to support the family and services to enhance the friendship and support networks of the child and his/her family. (Department of Health and Children, 1999, p. 60)

It has been suggested that the family support movement reflects more a set of values than a defined programme strategy (Whittaker, 1993). These values include recognition that family care giving is a complex task and that the relationship between parent and professional is one of partnership. Parents are active partners in the search for the formal and informal supports necessary to carry out the difficult task of parenting.

The three-stage prevention model proposed by Hardiker et al. (1993) provides a conceptual framework for the analysis of family support:

  • Primary. At the primary level, problems are at the stage where they are common to many vulnerable groups and intervention is aimed at localities and communities as well as individual families. Methods of intervention can include networking, health promotion, social education and parenting programmes. Their objectives include, for example, good enough parenting and healthy lifestyles

  • Secondary. At the secondary level, the client who is in acute crisis is the target for help. The focus is on individual and family work to prevent family breakdown. Methods employed might include family therapy, child protection work and enhancing family functioning

  • Tertiary. At the tertiary level the client who has chronic long-term problems is the target for intervention. The work is rehabilitative with the aim of reducing institutionalisation, facilitating re-integration and enhancing coping.

A major debate has recently emerged in Britain about how policies and practices in relation to child protection integrate with and are supported by policies and practices that are concerned with family support (Parton, 1996). With in excess of 160,000 child abuse referrals annually in the UK, the child protection system can soak up scarce resources leaving little for family support and child welfare. Clearly, when a child abuse referral is received, intervention is located at the secondary level as child investigative procedures are operationalised. A return of a child home on trial and the monitoring of that child’s welfare is work at a tertiary level. Family support services can also be provided alongside such statutory work at both these levels.

Models of family support services are various. In many cases, family support services are based in a single location at a family centre where families attend. There is a considerable body of research into family centres in the UK (Gibbons, 1990) and within Northern Ireland (Higgins et al., 1998). Within the Republic of Ireland there has been a growth in local resource centres for families based in local neighbourhoods. One such neighbourhood centre is based in Letterkenny, where the NWHB has converted two adjoining local authority houses. Some family centres provide outreach home visiting services, but at-home family support is also provided by independent visiting scheme, often by a voluntary organisation. Within the UK, Home-Start is a national organisation that utilises volunteers, who are normally parents themselves, to visit families in need containing a child or children younger than 5 (Van der Eycken, 1982).

A refinement of the term family support has occurred in North America because of researchers’ scepticism about the effectiveness of parental enhancement schemes to achieve lasting change. As a result, the term family support has been used to describe core services that are accessible to all, and the term family preservation services has been introduced to describe specifically:

Family focused, community based services that are designed to help families cope with significant stress or problems that interfere with the parents’ ability to nurture their children or to maintain the safety of their children within the family. (CDF, 1994, p. 14, quoted in Bogues & McColgan, 1997)

Home visiting programmes for families with children in the USA have been reviewed and a minimum set of standards has been recommended (Roberts et al., 1991). These recommendations are: that the focus of services be shifted from individuals to families; that it be recognised that changes in one individual in the family must be viewed as potentially affecting all family members; and that the family must be considered as part of a larger system of extended family, work and community, all of which should be taken into consideration when working with the family.



Manktelow, R. (2003). Delivering Family Support Services in Rural Ireland. Child Care in Practice. Vol.9 No.2 pp 140-141








































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Department of Health and Children (1999). Children First: National guidelines for the protection and welfare of children. Dublin: Stationary Office
Gibbons, J. (1990). Family Support and Prevention: Studies  in Local Areas. London: HMSO
Hardiker, P. Exton, K. & Barker, M. (1991). Policies and Practice in Preventive Child Care. Aldershot: Avebury
Higgins, K.; Pinkerton, J. & Devine, P. (1998). Family Support in Northern Ireland. Perspectives from Practice. Belfast: The Centre for Child Research
Parton, N. (1996). How can we Rebalance Child Protection and Family Support. London: Routledge
Roberts, R.; McLaughlin, G. & MulveyL. (1991) Family support in the home: lessons from pioneer programs, Children Today, 20, pp. 14-17
Van der Eyken (1982). Home-start: A four Year Evaluation. Leicester: Home-start UK
Whittaker, J. (1993). Changing paradigms in child and family services: challenges for practice, policy and research, in: H. Ferguson, R. Gilligan & R. Torode (eds.), Surviving Childhood Adversity; Issues for Policy and Practice. Dublin: Social Studies Press.