Belfast Telegraph

Anger as Extern's family support group set to close

By Chris McCullough

A family support service in Belfast that works with hundreds of vulnerable children and their families has been told it must close on March 31.

As a result, 47 members of staff at the Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS), operated by Extern, will be made redundant.

The man in charge of the service laid the blame for the closure at the doors of Stormont.

IFSS works with families who are known to statutory agencies. Vulnerable children on the protection register, or who experience poverty, poor school attendance, mental health, have been affected by suicide, anti-social behaviour, addiction and domestic abuse are helped.

IFSS is jointly funded by the Departments of Health, Justice, Communities, Education and Economy. Each department contributes £360,000 a year, which works out at 83p per child or family member that the service works with each day.

Around 100 people attended a NIPSA union protest at Stormont yesterday to highlight the closure to the new MLAs signing in on their first day.

Extern chief executive Charlie Mack said a letter was received on Friday, saying £1.8m funding would not be made available for it to continue with the service.

He said the service had the support of DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Jennifer McCann, and that ministerial advisers promised the funding would be made available.

Mr Mack said: "We're disgusted, appalled and disappointed, especially because just 11 days ago we were told by Arlene Foster we had her support to carry on. We have consistently had support from across Sinn Fein and the DUP and we thought something could be worked out.

"I had to tell 47 people at 9am they were going to lose their jobs, but every one of them was more concerned about the families they support and what huge repercussions are going to follow for them. It's unbelievable that the first major budget decision that seems to have been taken is an attack on some of the youngest and most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland.

"It seems absolutely illogical that this decision has been taken and we can only hope politicians, who have already told us of their support, will get their act together and try to reverse the decision before it's too late. Should funding not be found to continue this service, the sad alternative is that Stormont will be casting a very long, and very dark shadow, over the lives of the most disadvantaged children and families in Belfast."

A spokeswoman from the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) said it had procured the service on a pilot basis for three years in 2014.

"The contract expires on March 31, 2017. The HSCB has, at no time given any notice of extension of the contract and has been actively engaged with Extern (the service provider) since January 2017 discussing the conclusion of the pilot," she said.

She added that support from Social Services will continue.

But Liz Greer, who has worked for Extern for 18 years, said: "We're being told Social Services will step in now, but what they did wasn't working, which is why we were needed in the first place."

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said: "Extern were promised before the election by both Sinn Fein and the DUP that they would do their best to find this funding, but almost two months later we see that saving this service was not a priority for them. If this vital service closes, then where do these families go?"

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