Best practice in counselling and mediation services: A collaborative case study of Uniting

Best practice and trends in counselling and mediation services in NSW (cover of report)

Last year Tamara Blakemore and I completed a project with Uniting NSW exploring best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation, and the summary report has just made available on the Uniting webpage. The full report—Best practice and trends in counselling and mediation services in NSW: A collaborative case study of Uniting—is available here.

The project involved  a rapid review, interviews with 30 Uniting staff, a survey of people who had used Uniting counselling and mediation services and a review of Uniting’s counselling and mediation policy and practice documents.

The following is a brief overview of the report. You can download the formatted version, find it on  Pages 4-5 of the full report or read the text below the image.

Summary of Best Practice and Trends in Counselling and Mediation Services in NSW

Uniting values a culture of evidence for, and from, practice and has a long tradition of supporting family wellbeing through their post-separation counselling and mediation services.  Together with a team from the University of Newcastle, Uniting have undertaken an extended program of collaborative research exploring best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation.

What does existing evidence identify as best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation services?

Rapid review of the available evidence identifies the following best practice principles for post-separation counselling and mediation services:

  • Best practice is flexible, facilitative and fit for purpose
  • Practitioners are critical for best practice outcomes
  • Best practice requires appreciation of factors that frame client’s experiences and likely outcomes (i.e., it is responsive to context and complexity)
  • Best practice meets multiple and often conflicting aims & objectives of diverse populations of clients.

How are these principles implemented within Uniting’s counselling and mediation services?

  • Staff receive quality supervision while working to good policies and practice guidelines.
  • The organisation and its staff have a clear focus on the wellbeing of children.
  • Specialist expertise in post-separation experience supports responsive child and family focused practice.
  • Innovative hybrid practice models support complex issues to be safely resolved.

What could improve alignment between best practice principles and Uniting’s work?

  • Continued focus on monitoring and support of staff.
  • Continued space for reflective practice especially around complex cases.
  • Considered recruitment and retention strategies for quality staff.
  • Adopting a diverse, inclusive and relationship driven focus for policy and practice guides.
  • Emphasising safety and increasing collaboration

The diagram below identifies  good best practice adapts to context. Best practice occurs when skilled practitioners share a common understanding of their role and purpose and have access to practice models and approaches to respond to presenting issues of varying complexity.

3 triangles with background

How Uniting are leading the way …

  • By modelling a focus on best practice and continual improvement.
  • By embracing an ethos of collaborative knowledge development for practice
  • By demonstrating the value of collaborative, holistic and flexible practice approaches flexible to fit context
  • By valuing reflective practice approaches that includes outcome measurement for quality assurance.

How do Uniting’s counselling and mediation services achieve positive outcomes for their clients?

Uniting achieves positive outcomes for their counselling and mediation services by providing services that are aligned with evidence-informed best practice principles.

Positive outcomes are most likely when:

  • Practice is flexible, facilitative and fit for purpose
  • Practitioners are highly skilled and well supported
  • Individuals are effectively engaged and have positive working relationships with the practitioners

Uniting’s 7 keys to successful client outcomes

  1. Highly skilled practitioners
  2. A common focus on child wellbeing
  3. Strong support and supervision for staff
  4. Flexible approaches and models of practice
  5. An ethos of collaboration and collaborative cross-disciplinary work
  6. A history of the availability of high-quality training
  7. A history of strong clinical leadership with a focus on clinical needs in decision making

Are outcomes for particular clients significantly better and if so why?

With due caution given to small sample size, results from survey of past clients suggests differences in self- reported outcomes:

Men were less satisfied and reported poorer outcomes than women, factors contributing to this could include: a perception by men that the family law system favours women, the gender balance of staff working with these men, and the expectations men may hold about possible and probable outcomes of their service engagement.

Families from diverse backgrounds (including cultural, sexuality and people with disabilities) appear to be underrepresented in survey respondents. Contributing factors to this may include the Western nature of practice models and challenges of creating accessible services.

How can counselling and mediation services measure the impact/outcomes of their services?

  • Uniting are undertaking extensive collaborative work with staff to build a shared understanding of the intended outcomes of the services delivered and how these are best operationalised and measured. Fostering a culture of outcomes focused practice holds considerable promise, especially if this extends to and includes the voice of clients. Key considerations for effective outcome measurement update and value include those relevant to the client, practitioner and the organisation. These are shown at right.
  • This work can maximise the value of outcomes measurement for Uniting; informing continuous quality improvement and demonstrating value of service innovations for sector leadership.

Considerations for effective outcome measurement

For clients: Brief tools are needed that consider gender, sexuality, culture, ability & context that measure access, participation & success.

For staff: Staff identify challenges in what, how and when to measure outcomes

For the organisation: Outcomes measures ideally reference baseline context and client goals which may not fit organisational remit.

Areas for further investigation…

(1) Alignment to need:

  • Opportunities exist to engage with diverse family groups and men, which will require thinking about the fit for purpose of existing models of practice.
  • Not all services are available in all areas (due to funding) which may limit capacity to adequately meet place-based need,

(2) Adequate resourcing:

  • Targeting services to engage marginalised families will require more time, expertise and resources.

The citation for the full report is:

Blakemore, T., & Stuart, G. (2020). Best practice and trends in counselling and mediation services in NSW: A collaborative case study of Uniting. Summary and synthesis report. Uniting.

While most of the research was done by Tamara and me, Chris Krogh did the document analysis and we were supported by Amanda Howard, Shaun McCarthy and Milena Heinsch for the University of Newcastle. The research assistants were Elizabeth Sinclair, Alex Madafiglio and Stephanie Hardacre.

The Uniting Research Reference Group members were Tom McClean, Duncan Cameron, Pauline O’Neill, Margaret Nimac, Amanda Rolfe, Rochelle Arellano, Andrew Spaulding, Elke Pitkethley, Joe Schumacher and Lisa Robinson.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  2. Domestic violence, family, friends and neighbours
  3. What can you do when someone you know is experiencing domestic violence?
  4. What are authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved and authoritative parenting styles?
  5. Parenting for a better world
  6. 12 principles of a problem solving approach to conflict resolution

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Being an academic, Families & parenting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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