Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation Services (Part 2): Staff interviews, client survey and document review

This is the 2nd part of a report Tamara Blakemore and I did in partnerships with Uniting counselling and mediation services about best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation

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

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.

Part B: Achieving Positive Outcomes

Uniting report 2 to page_Page_08

The second phase of the research (Part B) explored best practice within Uniting by asking: “How do Uniting’s counselling and mediation services achieve positive outcomes for their clients?”

Interviews with Staff

Thirty‐six semi‐structured interviews were conducted with Uniting staff, including practitioners, supervisors and managers. At least three staff were interviewed at each of the eight Uniting counselling and mediation services offices (Campbelltown, Central Sydney, Fairfield, Gosford, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith and Wollongong/Nowra). The interviews examined how Uniting’s counselling and mediation services achieve positive outcomes for their clients. During audio-recorded interviews lasting between 41 and 91 minutes, the participants (28 female and 8 male staff members, most of whom were quite experienced) discussed the following topics and were encouraged to focus on those most relevant or of interest to them:

  1. their experience and what their work looks like
  2. what they hope to achieve in their role
  3. theories or models of practice that underpin their work
  4. strengths and limitations of Uniting’s approach to counselling and mediation
  5. challenges involved in their work
  6. impacts of their work and how these can be measured
  7. whether outcomes differ for different groups (e.g., Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families or families from culturally and linguistically diverse [CALD] backgrounds) and how their engagement could be improved.

Qualitative data analysis explored the range of opinions and experiences presented by participants and identified key themes. An important part of the process was ensuring the analysis and themes were consistent with the understanding of Uniting staff. This was done by obtaining feedback from the research reference group on an initial report, a presentation at a conference of all Uniting counselling and mediation services staff, three workshops with a total of 32 staff (13 of whom had not previously been interviewed) and presenting with Elke Pitkethley (from Uniting) at the 2019 Family and Relationship Services Australia National Conference (also attended by a number of other Uniting staff). The data analysis identified a number of findings that were consistent with those emerging from the rapid review, including the relevance and usefulness of the developed conceptual framework as a way of organising identified key themes. As such, in this report and in a separate report that provides more details of the staff interviews (“What Describes and Characterises Uniting Services? Analysis of Interviews with Uniting Staff”), the findings are organised and presented consistent with the conceptual framework shown in the previous post.

The key findings are presented below. (Supporting quotes are included in the more detailed report.) The findings relate to:

  • contexts of practice: increasing complexity, organisational ethos and change processes
  • practitioner role and purpose: focus of work, foundational frameworks or theory for practice, and the role of supervision in ensuring best practice
  • complexity of presenting issues: domestic violence, engagement of families from diverse backgrounds and resource imposts of best practice in complex contexts
  • practice approach and model: flexibility, mediation as intervention, work with mandated clients and specialist post-separation expertise (including considerations of confidentiality, subpoenas and work with independent children’s lawyers).

Contexts of practice

Providing post-separation mediation and counselling meant working in contexts characterised as challenging and complex. These contexts, which some staff believed were becoming more complex, influenced how practitioners approached their work, and the impact of their work.

Participants described Uniting’s organisational ethos, policies and practice guidelines as protective factors for clients and practitioners alike. Participants also emphasised the importance of quality professional supervision for best practice outcomes.

Practitioner role and purpose

Participants believed there was a strong foundation for their practice (including strong teams; excellent supervision; good practice, policies and guidelines; and Uniting counselling and mediation services’ reputation). Related to these were concerns about the potential impact of a recent organisational change process.

Participants described a focus on the wellbeing of children and clarity around their role and purpose. A range of frameworks, theories and foundations for practice informed their work, with family systems theory being the most common (particularly for counsellors).

Complexity of presenting issues

Some participants suggested their work was becoming more complex. Key areas of complexity included domestic violence and engaging families from diverse backgrounds, and participants spoke about the need for adequate funding and resources to respond appropriately.

Participants reported confidence in providing services in the context of domestic violence, but noted it was critical that there were nuanced and sensitive assessments of safety (including attention to dynamics of coercive control as well as physical safety) and that effective processes were resource-intensive (in terms of time, staff and skills) but had demonstrable benefits and positive outcomes.

The complexity of engaging with families from diverse backgrounds seemed to exist at multiple, and perhaps intersecting, aspects of practice. Factors identified as contributing to the challenge of working with complexity included the fit between cultural norms and practice models, language and communication needs, and clients’ experiences of structural and systemic disadvantage and distrust.

Practice approach and model

Factors central to Uniting’s practice approach and model included: fit and flexibility, an ethos of mediation as intervention for child-focused outcomes, work with mandated clients, and specialist post-separation expertise. Flexibility was critical to responding to complexity, including decisions about which program or model would work best for clients and the number of sessions required. Uniting’s focus on the wellbeing of the child meant that mediators believed it was important for best practice that, at times, they acted as advocates for the wellbeing of children. The post-separation and family law context of services was suggested to be a defining area of specialist expertise for the service. Participants reported a range of challenges—including the expectations of, and from, clients engaging with services—in the complexity of their work.

Part C: Understanding Outcomes

Uniting report 2 to page_Page_10The third phase of the research project (Part C) explored the research questions: “How can Uniting and other services measure the impact of their counselling and mediation services?” and “What does data collected tell us about the effectiveness and efficiency of Uniting services?” Two research methods were used: an online survey of past Uniting clients and a review of organisational practice manuals and other relevant policy and plans related to the delivery of counselling and mediation services. Together these data sources provided informative insights into both the experience and delivery of services and potential individual, systemic and organisational drivers of service outcomes.

Client Survey

An online survey was developed by the research team with input from the research reference group from Uniting. The survey asked past clients of Uniting’s mediation and counselling services about their experience, outcomes and satisfaction with the service they received. Past clients of Uniting, who had previously identified their willingness to receive follow-up contact, were invited by email to complete the survey. The survey gathered data to explore perceived change and improvement across knowledge, skills, behaviour, confidence, connection and coping, as well as satisfaction with services received. Key concepts explored included satisfaction and a sense of achieved outcome. Outcomes explored were aligned with the Department of Social Services’ SCORE matrix content. Sensitive to Uniting’s context within the family law system, legal outcomes (regarding family law agreements reached and avoidance of family law court) were also explored. Outcomes assessed included perceived changes in relation to their child, their parenting, their own coping with family breakdown and their interactions with the other parent. Survey items were measured using categorical response and five-point Likert scales (strongly disagree to strongly agree). Descriptive and inferential statistical analysis included frequency counts, cross-tabulations, correlation analyses, independent samples t-tests, exploratory factor analysis and internal reliability analyses.

There was a relatively low response rate (10%), with 71 surveys being completed. Roughly two-thirds (65%) of the respondents were female and one-third (35%) were male. The majority identified as non-Indigenous (99%), of an Anglo Australian cultural background (79%) and aged 35–49 years (63%). At the time of their engagement with Uniting, around half (51%) were newly separated and 39% had transitioned into their single-parent role post separation. Most had either one (42%) or two (37%) children, and more than 60% reported having care either all of the time (35%) or at least half of the time (27%). This composition of care may reflect the gender disparity within the sample, the separation status of families (e.g., parenting agreements may not have been finalised for newly separated families) and the age of the children at the time of service engagement and separation.

Almost half (48%) of the sample attended Uniting services at either Parramatta (31%) or the Central Sydney office (17%). The majority of respondents (73%) used one service type, and the remaining 27% used two or more Uniting services. The most common service type used was mediation (70%), followed by Keeping Contact (28%). Consistent with the types of service most commonly used by respondents, the majority reported attending services 1–3 times. This was particularly evident for those attending mediation and/or child inclusive mediation, where 84% (= 42) and 88% (= 7) respectively reported attending 1–3 times. In contrast, 44% of respondents (= 3) who reported using the Anchor program identified having attended 10 or more sessions. Around one-third of respondents (34%) reported being court-ordered to attend services.

Following is a summary of the findings across reported legal, knowledge, skills and behaviours, coping and confidence, and satisfaction and connection outcomes. As discussed later in this report (and in more detail in the full report—“Uniting Client Experience and Outcome: Statistical Analysis of Survey Results”), the data analysis assisted in developing recommendations for future outcome measurement efforts.

Legal Outcomes

  • The vast majority (92%) of respondents reported that parenting agreements were relevant to them; however, the majority of respondents (73%) said a parenting agreement was not achieved as a result of their engagement with Uniting services.
  • Similarly, of the 72% (n = 51) of respondents who reported court processes as being relevant to their service engagement, the majority (78%) stated that they did not avoid going to court as a result of this engagement.

Knowledge Outcomes

  • Knowledge outcomes related to knowledge about the respondent themselves (self-awareness), the needs and perspectives of their children and the other parent (perspective-taking), and factors relevant to family breakdown (conflict management and the family law system).
  • Items related to self-awareness tended to have greater agreement than items requiring perspective-taking (particularly in regard to the other parent). Positive correlations were observed between all service outcomes related to knowledge, meaning that as knowledge in one domain increased, so did knowledge in another.

Skills and Behaviours Outcomes

  • Skills and behaviours relating to parenting, conflict resolution, communication, coping, stress management and decision-making were assessed. While 61% of respondents reported that they had developed one or more skills, only 28% reported gaining or strengthening any one of these identified skills (and behaviours). This may be because the majority of respondents reported primarily having used mediation services.
  • Gender effects were observed among correlations for skills- and behaviour-based outcomes. For female respondents, there were moderate positive correlations between all skill increases, meaning that if the respondent reported an increase in one skill, they were likely to report an increase in another skill. For men, there was only one positive moderate correlation (r = .405, p = <.05) present, whereby the greater the increase in decision-making skills, the greater the increase in conflict resolution skills, and vice versa.

Confidence and Coping Outcomes

  • Outcomes relating to improved coping and confidence were assessed for the respondent, their parenting and co-parenting interactions post-family breakdown, and their interactions with the family law system. There tended to be greater agreement with items related to their own coping and confidence compared to items related to co-parenting interactions and interactions with the family law system (which may be connected). Mixed results were observed in relation to reporting on coping and confidence in parenting. There was a trend towards reported increases in child focus, but less so in regard to safety, assisting the child to cope and the child understanding what is happening.

Satisfaction (and Connection) Outcomes

  • Satisfaction and connection outcomes were assessed in the client survey as related indicators of client engagement, service efficacy and likely relational rapport between the service provider and the respondent. Items that related personally to the respondent and their own feelings of being heard, hearing their child and being satisfied with services provided were more likely to be agreed with than questions related to hearing the needs of the other parent and, perhaps relatedly, satisfaction with parenting agreements reached and feeling that things are better for them.

Document Review

Uniting report 2 to page_Page_12

Uniting’s counselling and mediation policy and practice documents were reviewed for their overall alignment with, and coverage of, the funding body’s requirements as expressed in the Families and Children Activity Administrative Approval Requirements (FaC Requirements). In addition, the documents were examined for the ways in which they might contribute to Uniting addressing some of the challenges identified through this research. Forty-eight documents were reviewed, starting with an assessment against the elements of the FaC Requirements and then consideration in relation to known broader issues (e.g., alignment with child protection requirements) and relevant aspects raised in the rapid review and the staff interviews.

The review found that:

  • The Uniting Policy Framework provides a well-structured policy-making model that ensures consistency and reliable coverage of important policy elements.
  • The documents reviewed were consistently aligned with this model.
  • The FaC Requirements are covered thoroughly, although there is a gap in the area of demonstrating internal and external stakeholder engagement where these are required.
  • The documents are primarily clear, direct, easy to follow and written in plain English. They are highly accessible for a particular band of literate professionals.
  • The documents could better reflect the diversity of practitioners and client populations that Uniting is seeking to engage.
  • The documents also demonstrate their appreciation of the changing and diverse contexts of practice, which practitioners articulated was a challenge of their work.
  • Practice documents may be shaped by an emphasis on risk management, leading to a tendency to have a transactional tone, rather than attention to relationship-building or care for the other person.
  • In addition to the existing function of the documents, there is an opportunity for further work including:
  • facilitating relationship-building in practice
  • articulating how the procedures and policies align with Uniting’s values, ethics and principles
  • attending to the complexities of context
  • leading the way in extending Uniting’s engagement with diversity.

Seven general suggestions for continuous improvement arose from this document review:

  1. Ensure that each Document Development Reference Group enables membership from participants reflecting a diverse range of perspectives.
  2. Include details of the people or positions that were in the Document Development Reference Group for each policy document.
  3. Consider (and experiment with) whether diversifying the voices in/of the documents might be one step in the process of facilitating engagement with more diverse communities.
  4. Consider including an opening statement for each document demonstrating the alignment between the policy or procedure documents and Uniting’s values and principles.
  5. Add a statement about context to each policy document to complement the existing statement about purpose and the proposed statement about alignment with values and principles. Context may include differences of geography as well as the changing social context of practice or the different issues that people who access services are facing.
  6. Explore the possibility of practice notes (which assist practitioners to translate policies and procedure into practice) on a range of topics that particularly address the complexities of practice.
  7. Create some clearer statements about Uniting’s commitment to being a learning organisation and identify different mechanisms within procedure documents for information gathered to inform individual practice development, enabling supervision relationships and organisational learning.

Continued in the next post: Synthesis of findings.

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. Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation Services (Part 1): Introduction to research and literature review
  3. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  4. What can you do when someone you know is experiencing domestic violence?
  5. What are authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved and authoritative parenting styles?
  6. Postcards from Practice: Initial Learnings from the Name.Narrate.Navigate Program

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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