Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation Services (Part 4): Synthesis of findings (continued)

This is the 4th 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.

Practice Approach and Model

Flexibility and Fit

Practice that is facilitative (i.e., focuses on process and problem, promotes self-determination, and is attentive to emotional needs) and flexible (i.e., not prescriptive or “one-size-fits-all”) were highlighted as being important in both the reviewed literature and the interviews with Uniting staff. Interviews with staff highlighted that flexibility is central to Uniting’s practice approach because, as one staff member suggested, “different things work for different clients” (01C). Although there are clear policies and procedures, practitioners generally felt that they can exercise flexibility in their approach, which allows them to adapt to the particular circumstances of the families they work with:

So we have quite flexible models and I think that’s one of the really unique aspects of working for Uniting is because we have clear policies and procedures each step, and we have had those developed to be really practical for practitioners to draw from. But we also know that families come in all shapes and sizes. (27M)

Flexibility underpinned many of the approaches used or recommended by the staff who were interviewed. Examples of flexibility include being able to use a variety of models or approaches to mediation; staff being given the time to build relationships with particular communities; the use of technology; the client-centred approach, whereby families are treated as being individual and unique; the number of sessions; and the fee structure. As one staff member suggested, it is important to “fit programs around the needs of people and tailor them to the needs of families rather than having a one-size-fits-all kind of approach” (07M):

The fact that it’s such flexible work to be determining what we need for each child, and for each child to have a different approach around what we do with them in that counselling room is one of the strengths, I think. Being able to have that freedom around to decide whether we see kids individually, which is what we usually do, or whether we bring the family in and do some family work or relationship work. To have that flexibility, to have those conversations with parents on the phone. (29A)

Flexibility was also discussed by practitioners in relation to the roles that staff undertake in their practice. Flexibility within practitioners’ roles was seen as important in promoting collaborative and cooperative practice. For example, in one office, staff spoke about being able to bring in a counsellor to a mediation session if something came up and the mediator thought it would be helpful to have some immediate input from one of the counselling or Anchor teams:

They’re better at explaining it [what would be helpful for the children], so we’ll go and grab [a counsellor] and say, “Have you got five minutes? Would you like to come in and introduce yourself to Sally and Fred Bloggs? They’re sort of wondering about, say Anchor, or they’re sort of wondering about CIP [child inclusive practice]”. So we’ve now started to do that routinely. (11M)

At times, staff stepped out of conventional roles for counsellors and mediators because they felt their client needed more support, and either other services were not available or a more flexible approach was required:

So that’s a challenge, when it goes beyond our role and we’re ringing around, and there’s really nowhere to refer to. So it’s how to support her to—you know, this woman is engaged with us. We can’t get rid of her now. So how to support staff to support clients that are probably a bit beyond their role. (33C)

The Allen Consulting Group (2013, p. 45) suggested that continuing to provide flexibility for responsive models of practice will help encourage a “no wrong door” experience of post-separation services and supports. These observations are consistent with earlier recommendations made by Kaspiew et al. (2009), who noted that initiatives that are designed to promote a shared commitment between mediators and other service sector professionals will improve the efficacy of services (FDR in particular) and the family law system in general. These interdisciplinary co-mediation models (often, at least historically, delivered by male/female pairs) have a history of use in Australia and overseas dating back to the late 1970s (Black & Joffee, 1978; Gold, 1984; Mosten & Biggs, 1986; Wiseman & Fiske, 1980). Co-mediation models have significant benefits—in terms of supporting diversified and specialised input, and helping to balance gender and power dynamics and input—but are also challenged by logistics, financial feasibility and issues tied to relational quality between workers (Smyth & Moloney, 2003).

Moloney et al. (2013) recognised that support in the post-separation space does not belong to any one professional group and there is no single approach. They suggested that progress towards better outcomes, especially for families with complex needs, is connected to the capacity of mediation and counselling services to link their service delivery response to other local services. Referring to the sentiments of Hollonds et al. (2012), the authors noted that what is increasingly recognised is the need for parallel processes and partnerships between practitioners across the family law system (particularly lawyers and counsellors) to work together in encouraging the same of their clients, with the common goal of advocating for the best interests of children (Moloney et al., 2013).

Mediation as Intervention

When considering the form and function of mediation practice, a common distinction is made in the literature between “directive” and “facilitative” mediation practice (Baitar et al., 2012b; Charkoudian, De Ritis, Buck, & Wilson, 2009; Currie, 2004; Mayer, 2004; Riskin, 1996). These describe not only the style of work and what it looks like in practice, but also what is assumed to be the intended function or outcomes of that practice (Alexander, 2008). Haynes, Haynes and Sun Fong (2004) suggested that mediators, in general terms, tend to either intervene in relation to the problem or the process, depending on their understanding of their role and the intended outcomes of their work.

Mediators who focus on the process of mediation tend to seek a holistic understanding of the issue from the parties involved, draw out perspectives and viewpoints, and facilitate and empower participants to resolve the problem on their own terms (Alexander, 2008). A focus on process reflects a value of self-determination for those who are party to the mediation, as well as evidence that collaboratively designed, self-directed agreements are more likely to hold than directed ones (Moore, 2003). Beck and Sales (2001) echoed the value of mediation in terms of empowerment and self-determination, noting that allowing parties to draft agreements within laws of fairness, and providing opportunities for grievances to be heard, results in agreements that are more likely to satisfy both parties.

Baitar et al. (2012a, 2012b) emphasised that regardless of focus and approach, the perception that clients hold of the mediator as facilitative is essential and has a positive effect on wellbeing, independent of the outcome reached. Facilitative mediators are described as typically displaying interest-based and process-oriented problem-solving behaviours, and as being more impartial, empathic and informal compared with mediators who are often encountered by separating partners in a litigation-based system (Mayer, 2004; Riskin, 1996). Central to the conceptualisation of facilitative styles of mediation are the principles of self-determination and the primacy of the participants. As Field and Crowe (2017) noted, “the parties are the protagonists in the process—negotiating on their own behalf; articulating their own stories, interests, issues and concerns; and giving voice to the needs and interests of their children” (p. 85).

From a facilitative perspective, the mediator is expected to use a range of process and communication skills to enable the parties to engage in cooperative and collaborative bargaining. However, the authors also suggested that mediators have a central role and an ethical obligation in this process to support self-determination by being acutely aware of the barriers to participation, including the opaque underlying expectations and aspirations structured into mediation processes by the surrounding legal framework and its processes and practices (Field & Crowe, 2017).

Calls for process-oriented facilitative approaches were echoed by Bowling and Hoffman (2000, p. 21), who advocated for an ‘integrated model’ of mediation in which the mediator has significant opportunities to shape the interactions and discussions of the parties involved. They argued that the relationships of the parties to each other and to the mediator are fluid, and that the parties’ expectation that the mediator will be able to assist them in reaching a resolution contribute to the mediator’s influence (Bowling & Hoffman, 2000). A focus on process does not necessarily negate discourse about the problem; rather, because process is inclusive of all aspects of the mediation (including the agenda, language used, seating, and order and flow of questions), mediator orientation can shape what is discussed and how it is discussed (Alexander, 2008).

Uniting’s clear focus on the wellbeing of the child means that mediators act as “advocates for what is in the child’s best interests” (25CM), and mediators believe that it is important for best practice that they can focus on more than just the process of the work:

I think one of the great things about the way Uniting works in mediation is we don’t have a pure facilitative model. So we don’t purely say, “What is your proposal? Okay, well you haven’t agreed here. Are there any other ideas?” We don’t keep it at that level; actually we challenge, we weave children’s information in, we use development information, we ask them whether they’ve done that before. We ask them to think about communication differently, and we’ve always taken that approach. So in terms of our work, we are more of an intervention-type approach than other FDR providers. (27M)

Some mediators who were interviewed placed a greater emphasis on the importance of neutrality and impartiality and tried to focus mainly on the process without influencing the agreement. At times, this was connected to a recognition that mediators do not necessarily share the values and experiences of the families they work with, and mediators do not want to impose their own values on the outcomes:

Well, research says that you can’t be impartial—that you bring who you are to that role, and yes I do, but I would say that I would work very hard at not allowing my own beliefs, my own values, my own principles to get in the way of whatever I am doing or whoever I am working with. So for me it’s more about neutrality, not judging, not bringing any of my beliefs, values into the room, but just sitting with people, allowing people to be who they are and to be able to be at whatever stage of their development that they’re at. (36M)

An important strategy in maintaining a level of neutrality and impartiality, while also allowing other information to be presented that addresses the best interests of the child or other important issues, is the use of approaches such as CIP, hybrid models (involving a counsellor and a mediator) and legally assisted mediation:

But then you’ll have a client that will be so sensitive to bias that we have to draw back and go, “I can’t even put that neutral information there about what two-year-olds can cope with without a parent believing that’s biased in favour of, or against, or whatever”. So we use hybrid models with the therapists. We use child inclusive practice with a consultant so that we can say, “Well we’re going to be quite facilitative because look over there, here’s some information that someone has done. They’re not doing it because they’re biased; they’re doing it because your kids said this”. (27M)

These types of approaches allow mediation to address more complex issues and contexts where straight mediation might be inappropriate (e.g., where there is a history of domestic violence) or where there are other issues that mean the parties need more support to reach agreements that are just and that protect the interests of the children.

The online survey of past Uniting clients indicated that mediation assisted clients to develop skills and resolve issues. Respondents were asked to identify skills and behaviours that they acquired or strengthened as a result of their engagement with Uniting services. These included skills and behaviours relating to parenting, conflict resolution, communication, coping and stress management, and decision-making. Overall, 43 respondents (61% of 71 completed surveys) reported that they had developed one or more skills. It is important to note that some respondents attended more than one service, and that there was a small sample size (particularly for some services). Of the 50 people who attended mediation services, 60% (= 30) reported an increase in one or more skills—most frequently conflict resolution and decision-making skills. Similarly, five of the eight respondents (62.5%) who reported having attended child inclusive mediation services said they had developed one or more skills. The skills most likely to be identified as being developed were conflict resolution skills and communications skills (37.5% each). While not the specific focus of the intervention, these results highlight the potential for the process of facilitative practice to achieve outcomes broader than those set in mediation.

Authentic Engagement

Evidence from the rapid review, interviews with Uniting staff and the survey of past clients identified the challenges of finding and forming a strong engagement, particularly with men and families from diverse cultural backgrounds (as discussed above). In the survey, satisfaction and connection outcomes were assessed as related indicators of client engagement, service efficacy and likely relational rapport between the service provider and the respondent. Overall, male respondents were less satisfied with the service they had received and were less positive about the outcomes compared with the women. There were moderate-to-high positive correlations between all client satisfaction and connection outcomes, meaning that as satisfaction and/or connection in one domain increased, so did satisfaction and/or connection in another. Particular practice factors found to influence client satisfaction were feeling that their needs were heard (r = .82, =< .01),[1] feeling that their children’s needs were heard (r = .77, =< .01), feeling that they were better at hearing their children’s needs (r = .79, =< .01) and feeling that things were better for them and their children overall (r = .85, =< .01). High correlations between factors demonstrated that each factor greatly influenced clients’ overall satisfaction with the service they received from Uniting. Thus, they are important factors to focus on when providing services to clients. Another important finding was that respondents agreeing that they would recommend Uniting counselling and mediation to others was also highly positively correlated with feeling that their needs were heard (r = .79, =< .01), feeling that their children’s needs were heard (r = .76, =< .01), feeling that they were better at hearing their children’s needs (r = .79, =< .01) and feeling that things were better for their children (r = .86, =< .01).

Thus, the findings suggested that clients are more likely to be satisfied with the service they receive and more likely to recommend Uniting to others if they feel that their needs and the needs of their children have been heard, if they are better able to hear their children’s needs and if they feel that things are better for them and their children overall.

Specialist Service Provision

The findings from the literature review, interviews with Uniting staff and survey of past Uniting clients identified the importance of the specialised context of post-separation services. These include working with mandated clients (who often have differing expectations regarding service delivery and outcomes) and practice considerations such as confidentiality, impartiality and neutrality in practice.

Some staff who were interviewed suggested that one of the things that sets Uniting apart from other family and relationship services is its focus on offering a range of child- and family-focused services within the context of family law and post-separation. Uniting’s expertise in working with families in the specific context of family law and post-separation, as well as their ability to offer a suite of programs, is important:

I think the biggest strength, compared to all the other organisations in the family law sector, is they have this really good lens of working in family law and understanding of the court system, families that are going through separation and what is needed by families in the process of separation and after. You know you start with mediation, and then you try some therapy—if that doesn’t really work then you go to the family courts. So I think they have a really good family law lens, which is probably a strength and it is a well-known in the industry as one of those organisations that would be very good in this—for family law counselling. We have a suite of counselling programs, so families can come here and have a number of different interventions (e.g., mediation, children’s counselling, group work and individual counselling). (32A)

For the Uniting counsellors who were interviewed, working with involuntary or mandated clients who had been ordered to attend counselling by the court could be a significant challenge, particularly in relation to engaging them and dealing with resistance. Some staff suggested that working with mandated clients could be “grinding” and that it took its toll on workers. But at the same time, there could be benefits in working with mandated clients, especially in relation to people receiving counselling and support who otherwise would not have been willing to attend. Around one-third of respondents to the online survey (33.8%) reported being court-ordered to attend services, with the most common service attended being mediation. As noted in the discussion of the gendered differences between survey respondents, it appears as if male and female respondents had differing expectations of service outcomes and hence reported different levels of satisfaction with the outcomes achieved.

A common and contested issue facing parents post-separation is the division of time that comes with shared care. Parkinson (2014) highlighted that while there is no set definition of what shared care means, there is widespread agreement that it need not mean equal time. As Parkinson noted, guidelines or presumptions surrounding shared care as equating to equal time can feed into an agenda of parental rights or adult notions of equality that are antithetical to the development of child-focused arrangements. The appropriately described “conundrum” for practice supporting families post-separation is that the developmental needs of young children for healthy attachment fostered by consistency, reliability, stability and connection can be undermined by frequent transitions and the absence of either parent typically involved in shared care (Kelly & Lamb, 2000; McIntosh & Chisholm, 2008).

The challenges for practice were well articulated by Fletcher and Visser (2008):

The affective burden carried by parents seeking assistance from mediation, counselling and related services presents a challenge for staff since, most commonly, their task is simultaneously to acknowledge the difficulties faced by each parent, while focusing on the goal of developing satisfactory child-focused parenting arrangements. (p. 54)

As identified in the rapid review, confidentiality has long been considered crucial to the felt safety, sense of trust and likelihood of authentic engagement between individuals and support services, and has long been accepted as inherently important to mediation (Harman, 2011). However, as demonstrated by the staff interviews, it is highly complex in the post-separation space. As staff identified, Uniting has “very strict guidelines on how to report back to court” to ensure they do not “put the client in trouble” (19C), which some staff believed was important:

We’ve got really good ethical reasons why we hold strong with [the policy on confidentiality]—like not providing reports. For us, that’s a real strong practice guideline because it’s safe, it needs to be safe. Many of the children have had some little moments where they’ve said something to one of the child inclusive lawyers and then it gets thrown out in court and then one parent will hold it against the child. “You told them this”. It’s had huge impacts on these children so they come in very nervous and scared and we can reassure them it doesn’t go outside that room. They just suddenly feel like, “Oh, I can feel safe here and I can talk about things I can’t with anybody else here”. So it’s really important. (04C)

But other staff, while recognising the importance of confidentiality in creating a safe place where clients can speak openly, suggested that it also creates a dilemma at times, especially in relation to the wellbeing of children:

We’re very limited in what we can share if there are other people working with a family. Sometimes they might find that a bit of a problem. Look, we can be a little bit more flexible where there are safety concerns, but generally speaking there’s very limited information that we can give … I can see why it is like that, but I do think there could be some room for some more flexibility there, that it could be helpful at times to be able to share more information where different services are working together with a family. (05AC)

Different Models

In the reviewed literature, a total of 115 sources described models, approaches, perspectives, frameworks and skills for practice in the post-separation space, most of which were highly descriptive. Promising practice profiles promote the adoption or strengthening of particular skills (e.g., motivational interviewing) or more joined-up, collaborative or coordinated approaches.

As discussed above, the staff who were interviewed identified that one of Uniting’s strengths is that it offers a range of child- and family-focused services. Not all models are offered in each office, mainly due to the differences in funding for each office (e.g., only some offices are funded for the Post-Orders Parenting Program called Keeping Contact). When discussing how they work, staff reflected on their evolving thinking and approaches to work, as well as the perceived effectiveness of different models of practice. Among the participating staff, there were, at times, varying opinions about some of the models, with some staff thinking a model was quite effective, and others having doubts.

An example of a model for which there was a range of opinions was Keeping Contact, a specialist therapeutic service for enmeshed and high-conflict families, who were usually court-ordered to attend the program. While some staff thought Keeping Contact was a “powerful” (01C) or even “brilliant” model (15C), others had concerns (e.g., regarding its rigidity or open-ended nature) or wondered about its effectiveness. The online survey of past Uniting clients found that half (50.0%) of the 20 respondents who had used Keeping Contact said they had developed one or more skills, with 30% improving their parenting skills, 30% improving their communications skills and 25% improving their conflict resolution skills. In considering these results, it should be remembered that the families who use Keeping Contact are generally experiencing entrenched conflict, which makes it a difficult context to work in. As one practitioner suggested:

The Keeping Contact work is particularly difficult because of the—I guess the high level of animosity between the people that you’re trying to bring together onto the same page in order to make things better for their kids. So you’re dealing with that highly conflictual, almost like, “I’m going to disagree with my ex-partner just because that’s my default position because they’re my ex”. (01C)

At times, the different opinions about programs appeared to result from different understandings about how the model was implemented. This may indicate differences between offices or highlight the emphasis that staff place on flexibility and the ability to adapt to the specific contexts of families.

Uniting staff spoke positively about collaborative models of mediation and counselling, including CFDR, a pilot program that had worked with families who had a history of domestic violence. CFDR (Field & Lynch, 2014) exemplified the value of collaborative practice and acknowledging that complex needs of clients experiencing family violence are best met in ways that are responsive to need and not by any one profession or single approach (Moloney, Kaspiew, DeMaio, & Deblaquiere, 2013). CFDR assessed risk and safety through the determination of a “predominant aggressor” among the parties and an emphasis on perpetrator accountability. Identifying the predominant aggressor involved considering the context and pattern of the violence, the history of the violence in the relationship, which person had been exerting power and control over the other, which person was fearful of the other and whether any violent behaviour on the part of the victim was in retaliation against the predominant aggressor or in self-defence (Field & Lynch, 2014). At a minimum in CFDR, the perpetrator was required to acknowledge that a family member believed that domestic violence was relevant to working out future arrangements for the children (Field & Lynch, 2014).

A key component of the CFDR mediation model was the legal advocacy and support provided for the parties. The CFDR model emphasised access to independent legal advice for victims at three distinct stages of the process: before mediation, to ensure informed consent to the process and/or alternatives to mediation and coaching; during mediation for advocacy and/or support; and after mediation for safety and support, making the agreement legally binding, and for advice in the event of a breach (Brown, Batagol, & Sourdin, 2012).

While facilitative and focused on self-determination, the CFDR model acknowledged that the self-determination imperative of the mediation process can work against hearing the voices of vulnerable parties (Field, 1996, 2004, 2006, 2010). This is because family mediation requires vulnerable parties to negotiate on their own behalf, and this task is complicated by the fact that experiences of violence can significantly affect a survivor’s capacity to clearly identify and articulate their own needs and interests, to argue rationally for outcomes that can satisfy those interests (and those of their children), and to be creative in generating options to resolve the dispute (Field & Lynch, 2014). Barriers to CFDR can include constructions of family violence, organisational policy and operational practice, as well as inherent “culture clashes” between professions—particularly lawyers and other practitioners (Hollonds et al., 2012; Kaspiew et al., 2009).

Within Uniting, there is strong support for CFDR, and staff spoke highly about its potential to make a difference in quite complex cases:

Highly successful, highly resourced, and also highly expensive in terms of the way that the government sees what we do [but not] in comparison to what it would cost to send them through the family court. (27M)

Outcomes and Outcome Measurement

Outcomes models of practice, now required by many funding frameworks, emphasise the link between program goals, activities, outputs and outcomes. Understanding the outcomes of service and support delivery in the community sector has long been acknowledged as both a necessity and a challenge (Suarez-Balcazar et al., 2003). Interviews with Uniting staff found that they are generally confident that their work is achieving outcomes; that is, that it makes a difference to client wellbeing. Some staff said they were able to see change (e.g., within a session or in the way in which families interacted) or that families had told them that things had improved. Other ways in which staff know they have made a difference are when they receive thanks such as “a little card or gift” (13AC), when clients finish up but return some years later for further support, and when families are referred by another family:

Someone reports to be doing things differently with their child or I see the way that they talk about their child’s behaviour or their ex-partner’s communication … So, when I see more flexibility and less rigidity in clients, that’s when I know we sort of are going on a good path. Also, I suppose where if you know a child hasn’t been seeing a parent and then they are and that seems to be safe contact, and this parent who was maybe saying that that parent was unsafe for a long time is now actually not engaging in that dialogue because their anxiety has lowered through this process, then it actually—things going okay. So, when I see relationships being repaired and functioning. (20C)

With due caution given to limitations of the sample size and the response rate across client populations and service type, the survey of past clients also identified areas of growth and change across outcomes measured. The survey explored outcomes consistent with the Department of Social Services’ SCORE matrix, recognising that clients’ life circumstances change as a result of increased knowledge, skills and changed behaviour, and changes are sustained by increased coping, confidence and connection. Legal outcomes (regarding family law agreements reached and avoidance of family law court) were also explored. Outcomes were assessed in relation to changes perceived and reported by the respondents regarding their child, their parenting, their own coping with family breakdown and their interactions with the family law court system.

On average, survey respondents did not identify knowledge gains as a result of their engagement with Uniting. However, positive correlations between different knowledge areas showed that gains in one area of knowledge were associated with gains across other types of knowledge. Gains in knowledge related to the self were more common than those related to perspective-taking in relation to the other parent.

The acquisition or strengthening of skills (and behaviours) relating to parenting, conflict resolution, communication, coping and stress management, and decision-making were assessed for respondents across all service types. The most common service engagement for respondents in the sample was mediation, where skill-building may have limited attention and focus (particularly in the minds of participating families). In comparison, for the small number of respondents who reported having used the Anchor program, 67% (=6) reported an increase in their parenting skills, 56% (=5) reported strengthening their coping and stress management skills, and 56% reported an increase in their decision-making skills. Likewise, 43% of respondents (=6) who attended adult counselling reported an increase in their coping and stress management skills. Gender effects were observed among correlations for skills (and behaviour)-based outcomes. For the 46 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 other skills. For male respondents, there was only one moderate positive correlation (=.41, =< .05) present, whereby the greater the increase in decision-making skills, the greater the increase in conflict resolution skills, and vice versa.

Outcomes relating to improved coping and confidence were explored through perceived and reported increases in coping and confidence for the respondent and their parenting and co-parenting interactions post-family breakdown, as well as their interactions with the family law system. In general, respondents tended to indicate a lack of growth in confidence and connection across these factors. Exceptions to this were improvements to respondents’ own coping in response to family breakdown and feeling better able to help their child respond to the same. Increases in these two areas were positively correlated with growth across other areas of coping and confidence.

As identified above, 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. Survey items were also assessed for increases in both receptive and expressive empathy[2] (driven by connection) in relation to “being able to hear” the needs of others and “feeling heard”. In total, eight survey items related to satisfaction and connection outcomes. On average, respondents tended to disagree with each of these statements: only two of the eight outcomes were above the midpoint of the five-point Likert scale. Consistent with other outcome domains, 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.

It should be noted that there were a number of indications that at least some respondents focused on negative experiences. For example, seven respondents (9.9%) strongly disagreed with all of the relevant questions based on the five-point Likert scale, and one respondent indicated that she based her answers on the more negative of two different experiences.

Fifty-five respondents (77.5%) reported that parenting agreements were applicable or relevant to them; however, the majority of these respondents (85.5%) said a parenting agreement was not achieved. Similarly, of the 51 respondents (71.8%) who reported court processes as being relevant to their service engagement, the majority (78.4%) stated that they did not avoid going to court as a result of this engagement.

Understanding these perceived and reported outcomes requires a nuanced appreciation of not only the methodological issues noted, but also the connections between contexts of service delivery, complexity in presenting issues and differing expectations of service delivery and outcomes between and across families. Also relevant are considerations of what could and should be measured, in what way and what constitutes a quality outcome for families.

Outcome Measurement

The characteristic challenges of outcome measurement in the post-separation practice context described above were echoed in the sentiments of Uniting staff who were interviewed. There was a fairly widely held belief among participants that outcome measurement was difficult, “tricky” or complex. One of the major challenges identified was deciding what to measure and determining “what constitutes improvement” (26CM). For example, interview participants suggested that while reaching an agreement in mediation can be an indication of a positive outcome, there are also limitations because an agreement or parenting plan that is not honoured may be less successful than a mediation in which the parties fail to reach an agreement but improve their communication. Likewise, keeping a family together is not always a positive outcome in counselling (e.g., where children are exposed to domestic violence):

The fact that people can put something down on paper or come up with a verbal agreement and walk out the door doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes a successful agreement or outcome for that family. But agreements can fall over as soon as you walk out the door. People who don’t make agreements in mediation sometimes later informally make arrangements that last a long time. (07M)

Other challenges include difficulties in following up with clients to explore longer-term impact, how to measure aspects like emotional intelligence, the variety of services/processes and potential outcomes, limitations of self-reporting, and the subjective nature of many outcomes. Some staff suggested that a longer-term outcome measurement is particularly difficult because people often use Uniting’s services at a particularly difficult time in their lives, and they do not want to revisit the experience later:

What I find really difficult is that when people come to us, they come to us at such a vulnerable and emotional time in their life … Their feedback is three to six months after having service, and usually they’ve moved on so far that they don’t really want to remember this stuff, so it’s really difficult. In short, the work we do is so complex and intricate, and it’s at a very difficult time in people’s lives, so it’s really hard to get, I feel, an accurate outcome to how much you’ve helped. (26CM)

Reflecting debates in the wider sector (e.g., Claes et al., 2015; Epstein, 2009), a few staff emphasised the potential value of measures that are more quantitative, validated and objective, and that do not rely on self-reporting. Others advocated for more qualitative measures that reflect people’s individual experience and recognise the broad range of potential outcomes. Again, reflecting the broader debates, some staff felt there would be value in having consistent and formalised approaches to outcome measurement across Uniting, while others would prefer more practice- and practitioner-driven approaches:

I actually think if there were some review points along the way that caused practitioner reflection and also allowed you to think about the family, so you did a three, six, nine, 12-month review where you actually assessed how they were going according to some sort of criteria, that maybe that might keep a bit more shape in the program and keep us a little bit more accountable. (20C)

Well who is it [formal assessment tools] helpful for? It’s not helpful for the client—an assessment tool about outcomes—because they’re already telling us that they’re feeling better; now they have to fill in a form. So the helpfulness is for us to get funding, isn’t it? At the end of the day we’re not assessing them to help them. (Anonymous)

Since the interviews, the Uniting Research and Social Policy team have held staff consultations about outcome measurement and are working towards a tool that can be used across the counselling and mediation services. To support these efforts, the usefulness of the items used in the client survey were considered. Exploratory factor analysis was conducted on the main factors theorised in the survey (outcomes for children, outcomes for respondent, parenting outcomes, co-parenting outcomes and satisfaction with Uniting services). It identified item redundancy and low internal reliability and loading in 11 out of 23 survey items. Strategies for a future survey measurement are detailed in a separate report (“Uniting Client Experience and Outcome: Statistical Analysis of Survey Results). In summary, the deletion of redundant items (and, in one instance, the merging of two items into one) could reduce the survey size and associated client burden while increasing measure validity and reliability.

In addition to demographic data, service engagement details and outcomes measured by categorical response (e.g., those regarding the type of skills acquired or strengthened, whether a parenting agreement was reached and whether clients avoided going to court), a total of 12 survey items related to client, child, parenting, co-parenting, satisfaction with service received and parenting agreement reached are suggested for consideration in any future outcome measures survey. The suggestions made are shown in the following table alongside details of the survey distributed to past Uniting clients in Part C of the research program.


[1] Descriptive and inferential statistical analysis is presented in the full report about the survey and includes frequency counts, cross-tabulations, correlation analyses, independent samples t-tests, exploratory factor analysis and internal reliability analyses.

[2] Receptive empathy is being able to identify the emotions of others, and expressive empathy is the ability to convey that understanding to others.

This is continued in the next post: Summary and conclusion

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. What are authoritarian, permissive, uninvolved and authoritative parenting styles?
  4. An interactive exercise exploring parenting styles
  5. The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution
  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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