This is the 5th 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:
- The introduction and findings from the literature review
- Staff interview, client survey and document review
- Synthesis of findings
- Synthesis of findings (continued)
- Summary and conclusion
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.
Summary and Conclusion
The extensive program of collaborative research that was undertaken explored post-separation counselling and mediation services offered by Uniting. It focused on three broad research questions:
- What does the existing evidence base identify as principles for best practice in terms of post-separation counselling and mediation services?
- How do Uniting’s counselling and mediation services achieve positive outcomes for its clients?
- How can counselling and mediation services measure the impact/outcomes of their services?
The research was implemented in three phases (Parts A–C), with data sourced from the existing literature, interviews with Uniting staff, an online survey of past Uniting clients and a review of Uniting policy and practice documents. Findings from the data analysis are discussed in greater detail in four separate reports:
- Contemporary evidence for best practice in post-separation counselling and mediation: A rapid review
- What describes and characterises Uniting services? Analysis of interviews with Uniting staff
- Uniting client experience and outcome: Statistical analysis of survey results
- Uniting’s policies and practice documents: Review of Uniting documentation
The research suggests that, while there is always room for improvement, Uniting is generally working to best practice, particularly in relation to practice that is flexible, facilitative and fit for purpose. Further, Uniting maintains and supports skilled workers and has a clear focus on the wellbeing of children. (
Below is a summary of the key findings for each of the research questions.
1. What does the existing evidence base identify as principles for best practice in terms of post-separation counselling and mediation services?
- Best practice is flexible, facilitative and fit for purpose.
- Practitioners are critical for best practice outcomes.
- Best practice is responsive to context and complexity and requires a nuanced appreciation of the factors that frame clients’ experiences and likely outcomes.
- Best practice needs to be able to meet multiple and often conflicting aims and objectives of diverse populations of clients.
a. How are these principles for best practice implemented within Uniting’s counselling and mediation services?
- Uniting appears to be generally demonstrating best practice.
- There are good policies and practice guides in place, combined with strong supervision.
- There is a clear focus on the wellbeing of children.
- There are good staff who are supported well.
- Hybrid models of mediation allow more complex issues to be addressed.
- Uniting has specialist expertise in the context of post-separation and offers a range of child- and family-focused services that are responsive to context.
b. How can current practice in Uniting’s counselling and mediation services inform best practice and its implementation across the sector?
- There is a focus on best practice and continual improvement.
- Uniting adopts a collaborative, flexible approach.
- There is a consistent focus on the wellbeing of children.
- There are experienced staff who reflect on practice.
- There are a range of models that can adapt to specific contexts.
- Mediators focus on more than the process of mediation.
- Uniting could undertake evaluations of innovative practice and share the results with the broader sector.
- The recent focus on outcome measurement has potential implications for other organisations.
c. What changes could be made to improve the alignment between best practice principles and service delivery?
- While there are clearly many examples of best practice, care needs to be taken to ensure that this is the case consistently throughout the organisation; thus, there needs to be a continued focus on processes for monitoring and support when practice is less than ideal or when staff are new.
- Continue to provide space and support for staff to critically reflect on practice and to explore innovation, particularly in complex contexts (e.g., engaging diverse families and men; domestic violence).
- Explore strategies for:
- recruiting and supporting diversity in staff without compromising quality
- prioritising safety (e.g., in cases of domestic violence) and providing intensive service delivery
- diversifying the voices in/of policy and practice documents
- creating practice notes to assist in addressing the complexities of practice
- increasing the focus on relationship-building and care for the other person in practice documents
- increasing collaboration while maintaining confidentiality.
2. How do Uniting’s counselling and mediation services achieve positive outcomes for their clients?
- By providing services that are aligned with best practice (see above).
- 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.
a. What are the main contributors to this performance?
- Highly skilled, flexible practitioners
- Strong support, training and supervision for staff
- A common focus on the wellbeing of children
- The availability of a range of models provided in a flexible manner and in response to the context
- Cross-disciplinary practice and collaboration
- A history of strong clinical leadership, a focus on clinical needs in decision-making and the availability of high-quality training
b. Are outcomes significantly better for particular clients, and if so, why?
- While the response rate for the client survey was too low to make definitive statements, there is evidence that outcomes do vary for different clients.
- Males were less satisfied and had lower perceptions of service outcome than females, and staff reported challenges in engaging and working with men:
- Contributing factors include a perception by men that the family law system favours women, the gender balance of staff and expectations of men in relation to outcomes (e.g., if they expect 50:50 care, they may be dissatisfied if, in the interests of the child, this does not happen).
- Domestic violence adds complexity of mediation and counselling and, as men are more likely to be perpetrators, engagement is more difficult and there are expectations of changes in behaviour.
- Families from diverse backgrounds (including cultural, sexuality and people with disabilities) appear to be underrepresented.
- Contributing factors include the Western nature of practice models and difficulties engaging families.
c. Are Uniting’s counselling and mediation services aligned to need?
- Some services are limited by funding (e.g., some programs are only funded in some locations).
- As indicated, there is potential to engage a wider diversity of families.
d. Are Uniting’s counselling and mediation services operating cost-effectively?
- As a consequence of shifting research priorities, minimal data was collected to address this question.
- The time and effort needed to engage marginalised families and those facing complex challenges mean that extra resources are needed for this work than for families who simply come through the door.
3. How can counselling and mediation services measure the impact/outcomes of their services?
- Uniting has undertaken 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.
- This collaborative work has the potential to maximise the value of outcome measurement for Uniting by informing continuous quality improvement, responding to funding requirements and demonstrating the value of service innovations for sector leadership and future funding.
a. What are the challenges and enablers (including structural, systemic and practice) in the measurement of effect/outcomes for clients of counselling and mediation services to this performance?
- Challenges to the measurement of client outcomes exist across client, practice and organisational contexts.
- For clients, these include creating brief tools that will be completed by clients and that consider gender, culture, sexuality, ability and context across factors of access, participation, engagement and success.
- Perceptions of services and outcomes are influenced by external factors beyond Uniting’s control (e.g., men who feel the family law system favours women).
- There are differing views within the organisation and the sector about the types of measures that should be used (e.g., some staff prioritise measures that are quantitative, validated and objective, and that do not rely on self-reporting, while others advocate for more qualitative measures that reflect people’s individual experience and recognise the broad range of potential outcomes).
- Challenges identified by staff include deciding what to measure, 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.
- Staff suggested that following up with clients to explore longer-term effects may be difficult, partly because families typically use the services at a particularly difficult time in their lives and may not want to revisit the experience. The client survey had a low response rate (10%), despite numerous reminders.
- Outcomes measures ideally reference the complexity of the client’s presenting circumstances (and hence contextualise the change achieved), as well as the client’s expectations and identified needs.
- An outcome measurement that does not reference client circumstance as a baseline for change will be at risk of observer bias and client dissatisfaction.
- The collaborative approach that Uniting has taken with its staff to foster a culture of outcomes-focused practice holds considerable promise, especially if this extends to, and includes, the voice of clients. Collaborative design and the development of inclusive and responsive outcomes measures are likely to maximise their effectiveness.
b. What changes could be made to improve the measurement of effect/outcomes by Uniting’s counselling and mediation services?
- Uniting has made considerable progress towards the design and development of an outcome measurement framework that staff feel is meaningful to their work.
- Considerations include the capacity of the organisation to be responsive to the variety of challenges identified above within funding requirements.
- Potential future directions for survey measures are noted in the discussion of the online survey.
- Consideration could be given to including client perspectives in baseline assessments and goal setting.
- Consideration could also be given to including client perspectives in the future design of outcomes measures tools in order to increase their accessibility, use and usefulness to practice.
It should be remembered that most of the staff interviewed in Part B of the research were experienced staff, and some had played major roles in developing models of practice and supporting other practitioners. On limited occasions, interviewees spoke of examples of work that were not best practice. Any organisation has variations in the skills and experience of staff, so processes are needed to provide extra support to those who need it. It appears as though Uniting has these processes in place, particularly through strong supervision.
Despite these concerns, the research suggests that Uniting counselling and mediation services are built on a very solid foundation and have much to contribute in terms of best practice. At times, anecdotal information that was incidental to the research reinforced this perception. At the 2018 Family and Relationships Services Australia National Conference, one of the researchers attended a presentation on the national trial of CFDR and asked if there had been variations between sites. The authors of the CFDR evaluation suggested that, based on the whole trial (and not just what was reported in the evaluation), the Uniting sites were the most successful.
It is clear that Uniting is an innovative organisation that encourages staff to critically reflect on practice. Issues raised in draft reports about outcome measurement have already been addressed, and as part of their ongoing work, the Uniting Research and Social Policy team is collaborating with the counselling and mediation services to create new outcome measures. It is this type of commitment to best practice that places Uniting counselling and mediation services in a good position to continue providing high quality services to families facing separation.
The references for this report are in the next post.
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:
- Best practice in counselling and mediation services: A collaborative case study of Uniting (Summary)
- Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation Services (Part 1): Introduction to research and literature review
- Post-Separation Counselling and Mediation Services (Part 2): Staff interviews, client survey and document review
- Building relationships
- Engaging Aboriginal fathers
- The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent
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