Living with adversity: a qualitative study of families with multiple and complex needs Research with families in Northern Ireland

3 women talking at kitchen tableThere is a growing emphasis on the need for more effective early intervention to help support families who have multiple and complex needs. Recent research (Devaney et al, 2013) suggests that the majority of serious child abuse cases involve families where parents are experiencing multiple problems.

We undertook an indepth study of 17 families with multiple needs who were receiving support from Barnardo's or NSPCC services. The research asked parents about their own experiences of adversity during childhood and as an adult, as well as the experiences of their children. It also asked what support they had received.

This research builds on the findings of a review of the international literature published in 2012.

Authors: Mary Anne Webb, Lisa Bunting, Rachel Shannon, Donna Kernaghan, Caroline Cunningham and Teresa Geraghty.
Published: 2014

8 broad areas of adversity emerged during the literature review as key factors related to multiple adversities and negative outcomes:

    • poverty/debt/financial pressures
    • child abuse/child protection concerns
    • family/domestic violence
    • parental illness/disability
    • parental substance abuse
    • parental mental illness
    • family separation/ bereavement/ imprisonment
    • parental offending/anti-social behaviour.

During the research further areas of adversity were identified:

    • housing instability
    • poor school attendance
    • parental unemployment
    • parents with low/no educational qualifications
    • household and/or caring responsibilities during childhood
    • social isolation and hard to reach families
    • Northern Ireland conflict
    • adversity in the wider family. 

Research with the families also found:

    • most participants had experienced some degree of adversity in childhood, including poor and often abusive relationships with their parents. However for others, their problems only started after a traumatic event in adulthood, particularly if they did not receive appropriate support from services at the time.
    • traumatic events such as family separation and/or domestic violence typically triggered other problems such as homelessness, financial difficulties, mental ill-health, reliance on alcohol and social isolation. These problems would accumulate over time and impact negatively on parents and their children.
    • the majority of participants were accessing multiple services across the voluntary and community sector and a range of statutory agencies such as social services, education, health and criminal justice.
    • a lack of coordinated and integrated provision meant participants often struggled to engage with a multiplicity of professionals and services.
    • the majority of participants believed that engagement with social and other services had led to some positive outcomes for their family, although most still had unresolved problems and may be vulnerable to further difficulties.
Tables and figures 2
Acknowledgements 3
Structure of the report 3
Chapter One: Introduction 4
Chapter Two: Methodology 11
Chapter Three: About the study participants 15
Chapter Four: Prevalence and experience of adversities 21
Chapter Five: Contact with social and other services 54
Chapter Six: Conclusion - key themes and reflections 74
References 85
Appendix One 90

Please cite as: Webb, M.A., Bunting, L., Shannon, R., Kernaghan D., Cunningham, C. and Geraghty, T. (2014) Living with adversity: a qualitative study of families with multiple and complex needs. Belfast: Barnardo's Northern Ireland.

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  1. Devaney, J., Bunting, L., Hayes, D. and Lazenbatt, A. (2013) Translating learning into action: an overview of learning arising from case management reviews in Northern Ireland 2003-2008. Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS).