Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation Services (Part 1): Introduction to research and literature review

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

Between 2018 and 2019 Tamara Blakemore and I, with some colleagues from the University of Newcastle, (particularly Chris Krogh) worked with Uniting counselling and mediation services to explore best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation. Over the next few posts I will share the final report which summarised the research.

You can download the formatted report from here and you can read the executive summary here. Details of the research team and reference group, and how to reference the report are at the end of the post.

I have divided the report into 6 posts:

  1. The introduction and findings from the literature review:
  2. Staff interview, client survey and document review
  3. Synthesis of findings
  4. Synthesis of findings (continued)
  5. Summary and conclusion
  6. References

Best practice and trends in counselling and mediation services in NSW: A collaborative case study of Uniting. Summary and synthesis report

Uniting values a culture of evidence for, and from, practice and has a long tradition of supporting families to enhance their wellbeing and participation in the community including, importantly, through their post-separation counselling and mediation services. Post‐separation services play an important role in increasing parents’ focus on, and understanding of, their children’s needs after family breakdown (Brown, 2008). Further, they can support the development of more workable parenting agreements and increased or strengthened skills for future conflict resolution (Goodman, Bonds, Sandler, & Braver, 2004).

Uniting partnered with a team of researchers at the University of Newcastle to undertake an extended program of collaborative research to inform continuous improvement of post-separation services and to identify areas of innovation and implications for practice. The program of research—Best Practice and Trends in Counselling and Mediation Programs in NSW: A Collaborative Case Study of Uniting—was set in the context of the 2006 reforms to the Family Law system, including changes to the Family Law Act 1975 through the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006, and changes to the family relationship services system through the Family Support Program. At their core, these reforms and policy developments aimed to address the needs of parents and their children more effectively and with more sensitivity. With dual aims of decreasing adversarial conflict and increasing preventative support for families, parents involved in post-separation disputes have, since July 2008, been required to attempt family dispute resolution (FDR) before proceeding to court. Both intact and separating families are able to access a suite of information, referral, advice and support services.

The aims of the research included exploring the evidence base for best practice in providing post-separation counselling and mediation services, the fit between the existing evidence base and Uniting’s current practice, drivers and contexts of implementation and practice, and indicators of effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery. Using Uniting’s counselling and mediation services as a case study, a four-part research project explored three broad research questions and a number of sub-questions:

  1. What does the existing evidence base identify as principles for best practice in terms of post-separation counselling and mediation services?
    1. How are these principles for best practice implemented within Uniting’s counselling and mediation services?
    2. How can current practice in Uniting’s counselling and mediation services inform best practice and its implementation across the sector?
    3. What changes could be made to improve the alignment between best practice principles and service delivery?
  2. How do Uniting’s counselling and mediation services achieve positive outcomes for their clients?
    1. What are the main contributors to this performance?
    2. Are outcomes significantly better for particular clients, and if so, why?
    3. Are Uniting’s counselling and mediation services aligned to need?
    4. Are Uniting’s counselling and mediation services operating cost-effectively?
  3. How can counselling and mediation services measure the impact/outcomes of their services?
    1. What are the challenges and enablers (including structural, systemic and practice) in the measurement of effect/outcomes for clients of counselling and mediation services?
    2. What changes could be made to improve the measurement of impact/outcomes by Uniting’s counselling and mediation services?

The table below shows the research question investigated, an overview of the research tasks and methods used along with the collaborative processes that engaged Uniting staff in the research and encouraged staff reflection on implications for practice. (From here on, “Uniting” refers to Uniting counselling and mediation services rather than, unless indicated otherwise.)

Research phaseResearch question investigated and collaborative processesOverview of research tasks and methods used
Part AWhat constitutes the contemporary evidence base for best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation?Rapid review of 196 peer-reviewed articles and 79 other articles or documents
Part BHow does Uniting achieve positive outcomes for the families they work with?
Collaborative processes:
Workshop with reference group to discuss draft rapid review and survey results
Presentation and discussion at
Uniting staff conference
Semi-structured interviews with 36 Uniting staff
Part CHow can Uniting and other services measure the impact of their counselling and mediation services?
What does data collected tell us about the effectiveness and efficiency of Uniting services?
Collaborative processes:
Three workshops with 32 Uniting staff to present findings and to discuss potential innovation and outcome measurement
Online survey of 71 past Uniting clients
Review of 48 Uniting policy and practice protocol documents
Part DWhat are the implications of the research for the rest of the sector?
Collaborative processes:
Presentations at the 2019 Family and Relationship Services Australia National Conference
This report and conference presentations
Figure 1: Research process

This report provides a summary and synthesis of the findings from the research undertaken. The following sections of the report briefly summarise key findings from a rapid review of literature (Part A), interviews with Uniting staff (Part B), and an online survey of Uniting clients and a review of Uniting’s policy and practice documents (Part C). (More detailed reports are available for each of the components of the research.) A synthesis of key findings across phases A, B and C is presented, with the final sections of the report discussing outcome measurement and summarising the findings against the research questions for the project.

Part A: Evidence for Best Practice

Uniting report 2 to page_Page_06

The first phase of the research project explored the research question: “What constitutes best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation?” For the purposes of this rapid review of literature, “best practicewas understood in terms of what is known to work, for and with whom, and in what circumstances. Best practice was understood as the interplay between “evidence for practice” (methods with a proven track record of success) and “evidence from practice” (practitioner knowledge, skills, abilities, insights and wisdom).

Rapid Review

A rapid review method (similar to Khangura et al., 2012) was used to produce a succinct, but in-depth, discussion of evidence. Rapid reviews are an accelerated way of synthesising evidence from existing literature and is particularly suited to policy and practice contexts (Featherstone et al., 2015). The strategy for the literature search focused on peer-reviewed studies, grey literature and relevant government reports that identified best practices and quality outcomes in counselling and mediation in a post-separation space, but not the factors that influence the experiences and outcomes of families’ post-separation (a linked but separate phenomenon). The review focused primarily on sources from Australia and New Zealand spanning the period 2000–2018 (with seminal works and key international comparisons included where appropriate). In total, the review identified more than 300 sources of information, with 275 examined for relevant themes. The majority (n = 196) of the 275 articles reviewed were peer-reviewed articles, with the remainder mainly being reports (especially to government agencies), books, book chapters, conference presentations and one PhD thesis. Of these, 112 discussed the practice of mediation or FDR, and 62 discussed post-separation counselling and support.

The conceptual framework shown in Figure 2 was developed to represent and organise the findings of the rapid review. It identifies that an important, overarching and consistent theme of the literature reviewed was that client context matters to post-separation counselling and mediation. Responsive to client context were the key themes of practitioner role and purpose, complexity of presenting client issues and need, and practice approach and intervention. These key themes are suggested to be interconnected and to collectively inform best practice outcomes, especially when practice is flexible and adaptive to client context.

Figure 2: Conceptual framework

Findings

Full details of the findings from the rapid review are presented in a separate report: “Contemporary Evidence for Best Practice in Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation: A Rapid Review”. The key findings are summarised below.

Practitioners are critical to best practice

  • 27 articles reviewed described factors relating to practitioners –their role and purpose and the provision and practice of family counselling and mediation (FDR) services.
  • How both family counselling and mediator practitioners understand the objectives and intended outcomes of their work is identified in the literature as a key, but contested, issue that can influence the form and function of their work.

Best practice is responsive to context (& complexity)

  • The circumstances of clients and the issues they bring to post separation counselling and mediation vary from low to high levels of complexity.
  • 133 sources reviewed were in-depth descriptions of context, and the complexities and challenges faced by mediators and counsellors in the post-separation space. Literature reviewed included 62 sources with a specific focus on violence and a further 71 related to inclusive practice.
  • The safety of those engaged in post-separation services and supports was identified as critically important. It was emphasised that when, whether and how appropriate risk-mitigation strategies and suitable models of care are implemented is influenced by how practitioners construct, understand, assess and screen for conflict, violence and safety.
  • A key consideration and challenge identified in the literature is the need for practice to meet multiple and often conflicting aims and objectives of diverse populations of clients. Best practice is sensitive to contextual complexities experienced by diverse populations and is holistic, respectful and responsive to these.

Best practice approaches and models of intervention

  • A total of 115 sources described models, approaches, perspectives, frameworks or skills for practice in the post-separation space.
  • The existing literature regarding specific models or approaches to post-separation counselling and mediation is highly descriptive. Few models and approaches have reported rigorous evaluation data (with the exception of some approaches to mediation, particularly in the context of family violence, and the adaptation of existing psychoeducation programs to the post separation space).
  • Promising practice profiles promote the adoption or strengthening of particular skills (e.g., motivational interviewing or emotional intelligence) or more joined up, collaborative or coordinated approaches.

Continued in the next post: Staff interviews, client survey and document review

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. https://www.uniting.org/content/dam/uniting/documents/community-impact/research-and-innovation/Best_Practice_Trends_in_Counselling_and_Mediation-Summary%20Report.pdf

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 from 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. Best practice in counselling and mediation services: A collaborative case study of Uniting (Summary)
  2. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  3. Name.Narrate.Navigate: a program for young people who use violence in their families
  4. “I try and make it feel more like a home” – families living in caravan parks
  5. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  6. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups

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.
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