RECRUITING HOST FAMILIES

Is the recruitment of host families still a relevant or practical response to the need to provide regular breaks for people with learning difficulties and their families? Des Hanrahan, Co-ordinator of FAILTE and Network First, St Mary’s, Drumcar, Co. Louth

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Is it still possible to recruit enough host families for people with learning difficulties whose families or indeed they themselves request regular breaks? In fact, is providing such breaks through ‘family-based respite’1 schemes still relevant?

There would appear to be an impression among service professionals that it is becoming more difficult to attract hosts and that this is resulting in a drop in the number of people using these services.

The evidence is somewhat anecdotal, although the recently published evaluation by Break Away tends to support this opinion (Break Away 2002). According to this review it has become increasing difficult to recruit new hosts, since the early nineties. The reasons given for this are changing family structures, fear of litigation, awareness of abuse issues and the increased participation of women in the workplace. This has led to a perceived decline in the overall pool of hosts. However, other factors may also be at work—including the changing role of social work, a profession that dominates the management layer of such services. There is also evidence (Hanrahan 1997) that this late 70’s response to providing what is still commonly referred to as ‘respite’, has been joined by other innovative ways of obtaining the natural breaks that all of us, including families with members with disabilities, require from time to time. Despite this apparent decline, there are some services that manage to maintain a relatively large pool of hosts.

In Sligo-Leitrim, Home to Home has retained a pool of about forty families2 who host both children and adults. This success is probably at the upper end of service provision nationally. However, we won’t know what the picture is countrywide until the results of a recently commissioned survey by the National Home Sharing Network3 are published.

In the North East, the figures for Break Away (the oldest and best known Irish children’s service) have dramatically declined since the mid-nineties. Indeed, this highly respected service is in danger of being discontinued altogether, in this region, if new hosts are not recruited. In contrast to this, a local County Louth offshoot of Break Away has continued to attract hosts throughout the nineties.

Founded in 1994, FAILTE, is run by the St John of God North East Service. Although restricted to hosting adults, FAILTE has managed to attract and hold onto a core pool of hosts. Last year (2001) there were 30 host households (families and single people) registered with the scheme. Recruiting occurred in 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2002, with 10, 9, 10, 8, and 9 households registering respectively. These figures were supplemented by a small number of Break Away families that have also registered with FAILTE in order to continue to welcome their guests as adults. This growth and consolidation has occurred at a time when the Irish economy and society have been going through huge change.

Why has FAILTE succeeded in these conditions? While the full answer may have to await further analysis or retrospective research, I suspect that there are many reasons. One may be the vigor of the FAILTE team, which has had a designated co-coordinator since its inauguration. Related to this is the emphasis placed and energy expended on retaining hosts, which is arguably more cost effective than recruiting. A further reason is probably the constant diversification of the targets of our advertising.

In the early years, FAILTE relied heavily on targeting ‘traditional’ families and received a good response from church-centered advertising. With the fall-off in church attendance4 to just half (Daily Catholic 1999) this outlet had become more restricted. In 2000, at the height of the economic boom, FAILTE tailored its press releases towards attracting people who had benefited materially from the flourishing economy, but who were looking for something more spiritually fulfilling. This past year, 2002, we placed emphasis on single people, and our campaign featured a host who is widowed. The resulting forty-eight enquiries represents the highest level of interest that we have received from the public. The previous record was twenty-nine enquiries in 2000- The number of completed application forms (17), also exceed the previous record (12). (See Table 1.) Among the applicants there was a noticeable prevalence of single people (including widowed, separated and divorced applicants) and people in second relationships. This may be due to social change5, as well as to our advertising focus.

In spite of the record number of enquiries, the number of households that actually completed our preparation course was just nine. This is no more or less than average. There was the usual attrition because to family illness, pregnancy, suitability etc. Ten of the enquiries chose to defer hosting until a more favourable time. Some felt unable to host an adult at this time because their own their children were too young. Others would have preferred to host children. Two enquiries were referred to services outside the catchment area.

It would appear that there are still enough people available throughout County Louth to maintain at least the present level of service to adults. To expand the service, we probably need to attract and retain those families that are better placed to host children. This increases awareness in the community and acts as a feeder (if only marginally) to the adult service. We also need to find out how our advertising attracted lots of enquiries and why so many of these people didn’t go on to apply to host.

One message is clear. The pool of people willing to host is small. Reaching them is vital. Time and money spent on good quality advertising is essential. So also is a retention strategy. The appointment of dedicated coordinators is necessary in order to manage these processes. Both FAILTE and Home to Home have demonstrated this.

Family-based ‘respite’, as it was originally constructed, is probably not the service of choice it once was. However, it still has a strong role as part of a menu for organising natural breaks for service-users and their families. The enthusiasm of the early Break Away pioneers needs to be rekindled, and also to be reconstructed if this form of late 70’s service provision is to remain relevant to progress. Sharing local ideas and local research is an important part of this progression.

FAILTE keeps records of how people find out about it, and what makes them apply to host or not. We hope to analyse this data in the New Year in order to inform our recruitment strategy. In the meantime, if there is any service provider out there who has carried out a similar or related exercise, we would love to hear from you.

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