Year in review 2016-17: Informing policy and practice
Applying scientific knowledge of what works in parenting and family support is a focus of our work and expertise. Putting evidence into action, however, is not a simple linear process. The complexities of the policy environment can make it challenging to put research knowledge to best use. In this process, we act as a facilitator, an intermediary and a trusted advisor, working with policymakers, organisational leaders and practitioners to apply evidence to their own contexts and challenges.
Our 2016-17 achievements included:
1. Building internal capacity
As governments at all levels increasingly require the programs and services they fund to be based on robust evidence, more agencies are seeking our help. They seek us out because of our track record in building organisational capacity to use evidence and our commitment to continuous quality improvement and sustainability. This record has seen us included in the Australian Institute of Family Studies industry list as a preferred provider in this space.
Some examples of how we have delivered value to agencies are outlined below.
WINDERMERE CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICES
Our existing relationship with Victorian-based agency Windermere Child and Family Services prompted the agency to seek our help in meeting the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) criteria on evidence-based programs.
Working with four of the agency’s community partners and acting in the role of ‘critical friend,’ we provided a wide range of advice, from identifying key research and theories to inform their programs, to providing support on program evaluation. Our partnership with these organisations is ongoing as we help them continue to build program evidence. One of the community partners has already successfully applied for further AIFs funding as a result of this work.
In 2016-17 we conducted an evaluation of Mother Safe Child Safe, a program run by Connections UnitingCare in Victoria to help women and their children experiencing family violence. We used precision outcomes mapping to identify crucial outcomes for the evaluation. Our analysis showed that the program was delivering positive outcomes for both mothers and their children, such as: reducing family violence, improving emotional and/or mental health and community connectedness. Our evaluation expertise helped Connections staff build internal capacity to continue evaluating the program.
CENTACARE GERALDTON, WA
During the year we also began to evaluate the Staying Connected program, a group program run by Centacare in Geraldton, Western Australia (WA), to help parents manage their parenting role during separation or divorce. We have helped the agency clarify the critical outcomes to assess in the evaluation and supported its staff through the evaluation process. We are continuing to work together on a rigorous evaluation process, which Centacare has committed to as a feature of delivering evidence-based services to its clients.
MELBOURNE CITY MISSION
Our work with Melbourne City Mission during the year involved helping them identify a range of tools that staff could use to best measure the impact of their services. We also worked with staff to build their skills in collecting and using data to improve their practice, confirming the value of evaluation, and its practical implications.
2. Supporting better outcomes for children in out-of-home care
The New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) is currently trialling a Quality Assurance Framework to give caseworkers access to reliable and comprehensive information about the safety, permanency and wellbeing of children in out-of-home care. The Parenting Research Centre played an expanded role in trialling this framework during 2016-17.
The framework aims to enhance children and young people’s wellbeing by giving caseworkers access to data which they can use to inform case planning with the ultimate aim of enhancing the services offered to children and their carers. Information is gathered from a range of sources including the children themselves, carers, FACS and other government agencies in the health and education sectors. These details give caseworkers a more comprehensive picture of what is happening in a child’s life.
As well as supporting the implementation of the framework in three non-government organisations – Burrun Dalai Aboriginal Corporation, Key Assets Australia and New Zealand, and MacKillop Family Services – we are providing intermediary support for the trial in three FACS Community Service Centres on the Mid North Coast: Kempsey, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie.
Working closely with agencies, we are helping them implement the framework. This will inform how the framework is adapted and scaled up across New South Wales in the longer term.
3. Evaluating policy and program initiatives
INTENSIVE FAMILY SUPPORT SERVICES, QUEENSLAND
This program of work saw us enter into a partnership with the Queensland Government Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services, to evaluate the service outcomes and state-wide implementation of Intensive Family Support (IFS) services. Our research partner in this project is the University of Queensland.
IFS services have recently been implemented across Queensland as part of major reforms in services to vulnerable families. These agencies provide intensive case management and support for families with complex needs in caring for their children. Some families for example, are at risk of entering child protection and some are experiencing family violence.
Our evaluation work on this project involved multiple analyses and comprehensive consultations with departmental and IFS staff as well as parents and carers. The evaluation will provide feedback to the department on the implementation of these important service reforms.
CONNECTIONS UNITINGCARE, SCHOOL ATTENDANCE SUPPORT PROGRAM
During the year, Connections UnitingCare in Victoria commissioned us to co-design an evaluation of its School Attendance Support Program, which focuses on improving children’s school attendance and connection to their school community. Working with the entire family, the program aims to sustain family engagement with education to improve future outcomes and prospects for the child.
We measured program outcomes in terms of implementation, client engagement and impact. Positive outcomes included improved child resilience, increased school attendance, improved family engagement with schools, and improved ability of parents to respond effectively to their children.
4. Knowledge synthesis supporting policy decision making
Answering key questions about ‘what works’ through identifying, synthesising and contextualising evidence can be an important part of the decision-making process in policy and practice. Our expertise in knowledge synthesis adds value because it helps policymakers choose interventions and develop initiatives that are effective and well suited to their own context. Over the past year we can point to examples of our work supporting the policy making process in multiple jurisdictions. Some examples are below.
WORKING WITH PARENTS INVOLVED IN CHILD PROTECTION
The New South Wales Government Department of Family and Community Services is developing a strategy to improve ways of engaging, working with and supporting birth parents of children involved in the child protection system. The department engaged us to conduct two scoping reviews that will help inform this strategy.
The reviews, which are near completion, will identify and synthesise strategies to engage parents who are involved in child protection and will also identify ways to support parents who have a child placed in out-of-home care. We will synthesise our findings to inform policy and practice in New South Wales.
ASSESSING COMMUNITY AWARENESS INITIATIVES WITH MESSAGES ON PARENTING
There are hundreds public-facing parenting initiatives in Australia today but how many meet the standards of rigour required to qualify as a comprehensive, trusted source of information? We set out to examine this question in partnership with the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital as part of the Australian Government Department of Social Services project: an analysis of Australian initiatives with community awareness raising messages about parenting. The project was conducted as part of the Third Action Plan of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children.
In our analysis summary: Raising community awareness of parenting, we examined community awareness-raising initiatives that focus on effective parenting and on creating safe and supportive environments in the early years of a child’s life. We found 125 initiatives that met our criteria of having national reach and a broad target audience, being cost-free to the user, aimed at parents of under-8s and focused on the first 1000 days of a child’s life.
We also looked for initiatives that primarily delivered via internet, audio, video or smart phone applications, rather than face-to-face. Six stand-out initiatives were identified for their national reach, range of universal parenting messages, currency and sustainability: Better Health Channel; Health Direct; Kinderling; Love Talk Sing Read Play; My Health, Learning and Development; and Raising Children Network.
Our report discusses the implications of our findings for developing messages, messaging about parenting, communication channels, campaign development and communications research. The findings will be used to inform the development of a campaign about the importance of the early years and parenting.
We are now translating the findings from this body of work into a more accessible summary to assist policymakers and practitioners in the development of communications initiatives, especially those promoting the importance of parenting in the early years.
SUPPORTING THE SELECTION OF PARENTING PROGRAMS FOR TARGETED EARLIER INTERVENTION
A foundational piece of work we conducted in 2016-17 will help the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) select programs and practices that are supported by evidence. It has wider application and we hope to use this work to inform other jurisdictions on how they might also introduce evidence-informed change.
FACS has embarked on a series of child welfare reforms as part of a wider State Government initiative to better assist vulnerable families before they enter the child protection system. As an initial step in this reform, FACS asked us to review the evidence for parenting programs and practices.
Our report identified 57 evidence-based parenting programs and practices that target desired child outcomes. We also recommended 10 programs that are likely to offer the best value and described the core characteristics of evidence-based practice in parenting skill development (common elements such as role play, in-home visits). We also described key considerations for implementing best practice.
5. Disseminating knowledge from research
We specialise in producing scoping reviews, rapid evidence reviews and evidence briefs, which are used by our clients to inform their decision making. During this financial year we were commissioned to investigate a broad range of topics.
See a complete list with full details of the commissioned reports.
6. Sharing our expertise
The Parenting Research Centre works collaboratively with organisations right across Australia and internationally. We do this in many capacities – from working with our clients on discrete projects (outlined earlier in this report) to acting in an advisory capacity on numerous committees, panels and other bodies. This work helps us inform research, policy and practice. A summary of our 2016-17 work in this latter area is outlined below.
PARENTING YOUNG CHILDREN ABROAD
This parenting program, developed by the Parenting Research Centre, has been the focus of our ongoing relationship with international partners in Sweden and Norway who are implementing it for parents with learning difficulties and investigating digital delivery. We are also exploring options to deliver the program and research its implementation in Japan and Iceland.
MEMBERSHIP IN ADVISORY COMMITTEES
Our executive and senior staff members contribute to numerous advisory committees, expert reference groups and panels. We are proud to be involved in the following panels:
- Preferred supplier for the West Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People review panel
- Member of the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training Evaluation Panel (July 2013-current)
- Member of the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training Research and Analytics Services Panel (June 2015-current)
- Member of the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Collaborative Evaluation, Research and Planning Panel (Feb 2016-current)
Read the full list.