You do a great job of looking after your own family but there are times when you need extra help or advice. Welfare support is there to take care of every army family. Jill Misson reports…

When your family is hit by a crisis, you need to know there’s a safety net to scoop you up, wherever you are in the world.

During a posting in Canada, Caroline Jones had to undergo emergency brain surgery. Her husband Graham says: “I was traumatised and overwhelmed with how I would manage to take care of my children, be at the hospital and cope with day-today tasks. My welfare team and colleagues stepped in immediately and took up some of the burden.”

The global pandemic has made a challenging time even more stressful. Caroline says: “COVID-19 was making it difficult for my mum to enter the country, however, my husband’s chain of command got involved so she was able to fly over to be with me. Our unit welfare officer (UWO) maintained regular contact and was on hand to provide any further assistance and support. We never expected the wealth of care we received and we will forever be in their debt.”

Your family will hopefully never go through such a traumatic event, but you don’t have to reach crisis point to access a range of support from a network of organisations.

Who to turn to?

While the welfare team is there to support you, not all families know what they can ask for help with. In our survey in 2019, 40 per cent said they didn’t understand what the UWO’s role is. Captain Lorraine Dotchin from the station welfare office at Denison Barracks in Hermitage explains:

“The UWO can help with many issues ranging from low level enquiries about Service Family Accommodation (SFA) to wellbeing matters such as bereavement, mental health and isolation, by making a referral to the Army Welfare Service (AWS).”

There was positive feedback in the survey with UWOs described as “friendly and approachable” or “compassionate and nonjudgemental”. However, some living away from camp felt unsupported, one spouse said: “Soldiers are encouraged to buy their own homes, yet once this has been done, their families are forgotten about as they are no longer within the unit’s orbit.”

We can’t counsel but we can share a brew and biscuits, be a listening ear and let people know they’re not alone.”

All soldiers are required to check in with their welfare officer when assigned to a new unit to make them aware of their personal circumstances.

It’s important for families to manage their expectations, Captain Dotchin says: “We’re effectively a signposting service. There are many aspects of personal and patch life which the team have no jurisdiction over and in which we can’t intervene. We can’t counsel but we can share a brew and biscuits, be a listening ear and let people know they’re not alone.”

AFF’s manager devolved nations Emma Perrin understands the demanding role of the UWO: “The amount and complexity of cases they are dealing with each day means they really do have an unenviable role; they are juggling so many things.

“This is where the relationship with AFF comes into its own as we can provide relevant, up-to-date information and
hopefully resolve issues at an early stage by working together.”

Army Welfare Service support

Referrals to AWS can be made by a UWO or other professional such as a health visitor, medical officer or social worker. Alternatively, a serviceperson or spouse/partner can self-refer to the Intake and Assessment Team. This will be followed up by a call with an army welfare worker who’ll explain the code of confidentiality and its exceptions and a future work plan will be identified using a multi-agency approach where possible.

Lt Col Kevin Fitchett from AWS says: “AWS is very good at reflecting on our practice, processes and training needs to ensure the best support and outcomes for our service personnel and their families. “Where required, we seek additional training and development and so have specialists trained in the field of domestic abuse and safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.“As well as unit welfare teams, we work closely with local services, organisations and schools to ensure communities are well supported.”

Encouraging engagement

While some families feel able to seek help and know who to approach, others feel more hesitant or don’t know what support is available to them.

In Folkestone, where there’s a large population of Gurkha families, AFF has enlisted a local volunteer. Amanda Bridges speaks to spouses and soldiers at social functions to encourage them to engage with welfare support. She says: “I’ve helped them to overcome barriers and empowered parents to make informed decisions about their children’s education – seeking support with SEND, for example. What would really help these families is having access to interpreters and information in their first language.”

Bringing families together

Local welfare events that bring the community together can be a great boost to morale. Emma Jones had a great experience in Wimbish, she says: “There was a seamless link between the HIVE, welfare, SSAFA committee and amazing volunteers from the patch. There were coffee mornings, Christmas markets, Halloween parties as well as family tea at the cookhouse. Everyone looked out for each other and mucked in.”

However, the AFF survey highlighted the demand for more inclusive events for spouses who work full-time or don’t have children and for teenagers.

Over the summer, the South West Community Support team worked with a group of young people to support their transition to secondary school.

This started virtually, via Zoom sessions, addressing anxieties around COVID-19 and making new friends.

The programme then moved on to socially distanced outdoor activities providing an opportunity to build positive relationships.

Reviewing welfare

Although there’s a comprehensive welfare package in place, the army recognises that there’s always room for improvement. AFF sits on the army’s welfare working groups to feed in your evidence. Welfare provision has been reviewed 27 times since 1975 but has not changed significantly.

Lt Col Will Robinson from the Personnel Policy Branch explains the need to update the offer: “Our service families play a very important role in supporting our personnel and so ensuring that the support we provide them is fit for purpose and meets their increasingly diverse needs is key.

“Published in March 2020, the latest review highlights areas requiring attention including the consistency of support provided across the army’s units and formations and a much more dispersed family base.”

Work on implementing the recommendations is now being undertaken. Lt Col Robinson says: “Reviews, surveys and feedback are a very useful mechanism for understanding how we are doing and if we fail to act as best we can on those issues raised, the impact can be significant.”

Living in our shoes

In January 2019, Andrew Selous MP conducted an independent review to consider the diverse needs of families in the modern-day armed forces and to assess whether the current offer is meeting these needs.

The published report, Living in our Shoes, outlines more than 100 recommendations, ranging from the urgent need for investment in poor quality SFA to the establishment of affordable childcare facilities and a commitment to ensuring military children are not disadvantaged in their education.

Access to welfare support was a key concern and from conversations with service personnel and family members, it became clear to the review team that stigma remains a large barrier to seeking help.

The report noted: “There is clear reluctance to be seen as a ‘welfare case’: the very term ‘welfare’ conjures up connotations of being a failure, being unable to fend for oneself, or being needy.”

The report authors praised the honesty of those they spoke to in the course of their research and concluded that change is needed: “Military families are primarily uncomplaining and do not seek publicity for their concerns.

“Some of these recommendations require investment and a willingness to review traditional ways of working. However, many can be implemented fairly easily and speedily if there’s a will to do so.

“By unlocking the door to improved communication directly to families, much of the stress associated with military life can be reduced.”

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