Cambridge Grand Challenges Psychology student Catherine Jones spent 4 weeks visiting different Familjecentralen; ‘Family Centres’, in Skåne, which is the southern region of Sweden to learn about Swedish policy on families and the different occupations at the family centres.

Catherine told us about her positive experience working with the family centre communities, and how she might use this to translate the learnings towards her interest in working with families.

“I chose to do this fellowship to gain work experience of working with families in a very applied setting and get a different perspective from my PhD.  Family centres provide integrated support for families and cater to the needs of families as they prepare to have their child, their newborn, and then infants and children up to 6 years-old, when responsibility is then transferred to the school nurse. They have several different elements; firstly, the ‘open preschool’ which is a stay-and-play facility for parents (or other caregivers) and their children. Secondly, paediatric nurses are a central component of the family centre and all children registered at the centre are invited for regular check-ups from birth until 6 years old alongside receiving vaccinations. The third ‘leg’ involves either one or two social workers who help the families. Family centres also provide pre-natal care through check-ups and advice from midwives for pregnant women.  Some family centres have a fifth leg which includes a dental nurse, whose focus is to help children learn how to keep their teeth healthy through a combination of educating on how to eat well and how to effectively brush their teeth.

My aim was to gain work experience in a setting that provides support to families. I am really interested in families because I study UK stay-at-home fathers for my PhD, however I wanted to have some experience separate to the academic setting in which I research these families. I wanted to explore the different professions that all work together in family centres. It was fascinating to observe the role of a social worker, to see how they not only provided support to parents and families who were really struggling, but also how they used preventative measures by running parenting classes and advising families on good parenting practices from even before the baby is born. This could be a career which would fulfil my interest in families, but in a more practical way than the research I am currently conducting.

There was also the aim to observe the management side of family centres, to learn more about the jobs of those who run the centres and create the initiatives that are put in place. My supervisor for the placement was in such a role, which was one of the aims of the activity; to discuss how new initiatives are implemented into the family centres and the interaction between the local government and the centres. Thus, I was also the interested from a political side covering policy. For my undergraduate degree I read Politics, Psychology and Sociology hence this fellowship provided an opportunity to touch upon some of the topics I hadn’t used in a few years. I was interested in finding out more on how the government policy in Sweden outlines how healthcare and social services interact with families, and the values they place the most significance on. From the collaborative aspect, one of the aims was that I would explain to the family centre staff the way support works in the UK, to compare with Sweden and take part in hypothetical conversations on whether the UK could move toward a system of using family centres.

The fellowship achieved my aims and even went beyond expectations. I feel like I have real insight into the different professions at the family centres, and what is required of you for each role. The social worker’s role is one that I found really interesting, and the way the social workers act in Sweden is very different from in the UK – having the open-door policy at the family centre means a whole range of families are seen and interacted with, rather than just the families who are struggling most in society. The importance placed on prevention from an early age was evident, and from talking to the staff at different family centres, they felt that the government was trying to take a long-term perspective on child development and well-being.

It was fascinating to learn more about the different occupations associated with family work, including how emphasis is placed on dental care from very young and not just in dentist surgeries but through family centres, too. I also felt I learnt a lot about the value of interdisciplinary collaboration from these centres and how effective communication between the nurses, social workers and preschool teachers can help build a better understanding of a family’s life and how each member of the team at a family centre can be part of a support network for that family.

I had many conversations on how the family centres work, what needs to be improved, and how society needs to work in order for the family centres to help families. A theme of these conversations was considering the different structures of support in the UK and Sweden and a hypothetical discussion of how the UK could adopt these family centres. It’s interesting to reflect upon this at a time when the UK has a lot of political uncertainty. Something the family centres are doing well at is helping families who have just moved to Sweden from all over the world to get the help they need from the family centre and empower them to make the most of the opportunities available to them in Sweden. I had many eye-opening conversations with migrant families who had recently moved to Sweden. Often, they had just moved to Malmö a few months ago and were settling in, trying to get a social security number and become a permanent resident. The family centres or open preschools offered a vital source of support to these families.

The family centres had adapted to the needs of the families, hiring translators for Arabic, Punjabi and Urdu amongst other languages too, so that the families could access support even without knowing Swedish. The family centres run Swedish language classes for beginners (mostly taught in English) and the children are able to play or stay with their parents; a very flexible situation, as the official Swedish language course, SFI, does not allow children to be with their parents, making it necessary to have access to some form of childcare in order to attend the course. The families moved because of a variety of reasons – for some, their partners were still working abroad, so they were adjusting to life in Sweden alongside missing the support from their spouse, which is a very difficult situation to be in. Fortunately, the staff at the family centres were so welcoming and very supportive, and thus helped the families understand the network of support in place for them.  In the UK, we will likely soon have a society where it is harder for people from the EU to reside in the UK post-Brexit. These families might feel like outsiders. Perhaps structures of support such as family centres would provide the facilities and help these families may need to feel welcomed into the community of families, as well as families from all over the world who come to live in the UK.

Something that will stay with me from the family centre visits is the utmost importance of multidisciplinary approaches; not just in academia but in the health and social services too. The ESRC tries to encourage inter-disciplinary projects as much as possible, and it was interesting to see that vision reflected amongst the Swedish family centres; that to provide the highest possible quality care, professionals from all different areas have to work together to help a family. It was also a really useful exercise in meeting numerous new people everyday and learning to communicate effectively, so I could ask questions to the staff and parents to learn as much as possible and make the most of my time in Sweden. I picked up a little Swedish, but also it was a good lesson to learn on being conscious of communicating well. During my time in Sweden, I met some families who are really struggling, especially those trying to navigate a very ill child or those with developmental disorders, which means numerous trips to the hospital and difficulties communicating with their child.

These experiences not only showed me the determination and love these parents show, but also how the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ really helps those in Sweden who are struggling; the family centres provides that ‘village’ of nurses, midwives, social workers and preschool teachers that hold up parents during the bad times and are there to celebrate with them during the good times. It’s something I think that UK policy should learn from. Lastly, I gained confidence in not being scared to make the most of every opportunity given to me; deciding to do an fellowship has led to a really fulfilling experience and I highly recommend it to other ESRC students, especially those who can’t find an ESRC-organised fellowship that appeals to them – go out and find your own opportunity! “

Catherine Jones worked with family centres in Sweden from September to October 2018

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