The neighbourhood-centered approach – the key to strengthening family resources and identifying specific needs, even in turbulent times

By Dr. Ines Pamperl, Head of Medical Services, Youth and Family Office, City of Graz

The advantages of taking a neighbourhood-centered approach

All forms of assistance provided are based on actual client needs. The approach is designed to motivate clients while leveraging their available resources. Instead of focusing on individual shortcomings or a specific “case,” the approach focuses on the child and its family as a whole, as well as the domestic and broader social context in which they live. Family members are included in efforts to find solutions, and any assistance provided, which is tailored to individual needs, is evaluated and adapted on a regular basis. This allows for flexibility and timely responses to changing conditions. Implemented in individual case work as well as non-case-specific and cross-case work, the approach targets both primary and secondary levels of prevention.

By integrating several different non-profit actors, as well as other institutions and organizations into the spectrum of offerings, the assistance provided is more flexible and innovative.

Funding within the budget for Graz’s districts that is not tied to specific cases is another important advantage associated with the approach. In each area, participating private institutions act as partners and benefit from the planning reliability provided by the assurance of adequate funding. Costly one-off measures that can create a large number of labor-intensive cases requiring long-term assistance are thus avoided. The continuity of early prevention services is secured through the financial stability provided.

At the same time, protecting the child has the utmost priority. There are regulations in place stipulating action to be taken if a child is found to be at risk of harm.

An inclusive preventive approach

Providing information and assistance free of charge and as early as possible are essential to success. From birth onwards, easy-to-access counseling and support services along the chains of prevention are provided throughout a region.

Expecting parents can take part in offerings, free of charge, even before a child is born. As part of the program, they are provided a specially designed booklet in which they receive a stamp for each lecture or course they attend, and for each form of consulting assistance they take advantage of. These stamps can then be redeemed in exchange for vouchers provided by the city of Graz. These vouchers serve as a financial incentive for parents’ first visit to a parental counselling center as well. To make sure that mothers and fathers are prepared for parenthood with the information they need, specially trained staff members visit all parents of newborns in Graz. There are offerings targeting every stage in a child’s life. Parents with children up to the age of three can go to parent advisory centers that always have a physician on staff, and where they can get the advice and support they need. If special needs are identified at that point, a direct referral is made to social work and special services, thereby ensuring a seamless transition from primary to secondary prevention.

Families with children over the age of three, including adolescents of all ages, have ongoing access to low-threshold support and services. A variety of needs-specific activities and consultation services are provided in the city’s four urban districts. These include offerings and support for children from kindergarten to school age, as well as adolescents. Children and youth outreach services play an important role here. Particularly noteworthy are their offerings at youth centers and playmobiles, as well as their holiday and recreational activities. Offerings also include free talks and consultation services on a range of topics, including digital issues. Physicians at the city’s Youth and Family Office, who are present during parental consultations, are also responsible for working with school health services and overseeing social pediatrics, thereby ensuring an integrated approach.

Flexibility in turbulent times

Thanks to its innovative organizational approach and features, the city of Graz’s neighborhood-centered strategy proved highly effective during the pandemic. Remaining flexible and focusing on client needs, service providers were able to convert offerings in many areas to digital, telephone or hybrid formats. While several offerings and discussions were held outdoors, many were held indoors with extensive precautions taken to protect everyone’s health. It was therefore possible to maintain contact with most families. In some cases, online services reached more families than similar face-to-face services had before the pandemic. By being able to quickly identify special needs, programme coordinators could adapt assistance and support services appropriately.