Fear over future of charities

STEVE DOWNES Hundreds of children and young people with complex problems could be left to fend for themselves because of a funding crisis that is threatening the future of a host of Norfolk charities.

STEVE DOWNES

Hundreds of children and young people with complex problems could be left to fend for themselves because of a funding crisis that is threatening the future of a host of Norfolk charities.

The crisis has already seen a hard-pressed voluntary group forced to turn away a number of anxious young people seeking crucial advice and counselling.

A shortage of cash and a surge in the number of people seeking help for issues like drug abuse and family breakdown are being blamed for the situation.

Last night, charity leaders called for government help to support the sector, which contributes millions of pounds-worth of work and fills numerous gaps in the statutory provision.

They said it was “heartbreaking” for staff to have to ignore the cries for help of so many vulnerable young people.

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Victoria Smillie, director of Mancroft Advice Project (Map) in Norwich, said: “Finding funding to continue delivering these essential services is becoming increasingly difficult. The situation is parlous. Critically important services are at risk of closing.

“We are getting more and more young people coming through, and there is an increased complexity and severity of needs.

“If things don't improve, local charities could go under and the services will not be there.”

Ms Smillie said the problem was “coming down from the very top”, with Chancellor Gordon Brown's tight cash settlements for government departments and local authorities putting pressure on the services they buy from the voluntary sector.

Prof June Thoburn, UEA emeritus professor of social work, is a trustee of Break in north Norfolk, and Families House and the Hamlet Centre in Norwich.

She said: “The real problem is that the government is encouraging the voluntary sector to take on more work and gives more money, but then it withdraws the money.

“Norfolk has got real problems. There's a huge growth in need - more drug and alcohol abusing parents, more domestic violence, more ADHD among children, more refugees, more people with mental health problems, more single-parent families.

“The government has got to back up its strategy of involving more voluntary groups. If not, some of the groups will go under.

“We are not able to meet the needs, and we all have long waiting lists. Children will suffer. More children will come into care and more children will be abused.”

Aliona Laker, general manager of Families' House in Norwich, said the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) had withdrawn £66,000 to fund a “crucial” supervised contact project which allowed children to meet estranged parents in a safe environment.

She said: “If we lose this, I'm very worried about the effect on the children's mental health.”

She said there was also a £100,000 shortfall in funds for the charity's family support service, after the Parenting Fund - which helped establish the service - withdrew its help.

Ms Laker said: “If nothing changes we will run out of money. I'm using reserves to pay my workers.

“It's impossible to manage our budgets. We will have to close the cases and transfer them to goodness knows where. There's nowhere for them to go.”

Ms Smillie said 1,000 people aged from 11-25 visited the Map centre at Chantry Road every month for services including counselling, and information and advice on sexual health, benefits and housing.

There are around 90 counselling sessions per week - which has doubled in eight years as demand has surged.

There is currently a waiting list of 93 young people - and 115 have been turned away in recent weeks. On one day last week, 40 people had their requests for help rejected.

Other factors contributing to the problems include a drop in the amount of charitable giving by companies and individuals, and cost-cutting pressure on organisations which commission services from the voluntary sector, including Norfolk County Council.

Richard Draper, chief executive of the Benjamin Foundation, which provides support services to children and young people in north Norfolk, said: “There's a massive level of need.

“The voluntary sector tries to fill the gaps left behind by the public sector. There's a real danger that unless the services we provide are clearly on the radar of the public sector, the services will shrink.”

He said it was becoming “more and more difficult” to access funds for work, and added that there was “massive pressure” on organisations.

Dr Peter Brambleby, director of public health at Norwich Primary Care Trust (PCT), said he had seen a “rise in need” among young people, and there was “pressure” on all the caring agencies.

He said: “I don't think we've yet realised the full potential of the voluntary sector as an efficient and effective solution to some of these needs.”

He acknowledged that the sector could “usefully use” more money.