A volunteer home visiting program is helping vulnerable parents in need of extra support. Volunteer Family Connect (VFC), matches families of young children with trained volunteers who visit once a week for three months to a year.
“My visits could involve reading to the kids while the parents cook dinner, going to the doctor together, or simply listening to their concerns,” explains Kathleen McKinnon, a volunteer who has worked with several families. “It’s only two hours a week, but it makes a huge difference to the families.”
In addition to anecdotal evidence, social scientists are working to demonstrate empirically that programs like VFC make a difference.
In 2012, the government cut funding from volunteer home visiting programs citing a lack of evidence for their effectiveness, explains Associate Professor Rebekah Grace, chief investigator and Director of TeEACH (Centre for Transforming early Education and Child Health) at Western Sydney University. “If the only reason for the funding reduction was the lack of evidence, what we had to do was clear,” says Dr Jayne Meyer Tucker, a former CEO of one of the three national not-for-profits that partnered on the research. She initiated crisis meetings with the research team. “We chose to run a randomised control trial, the gold standard methodology in assessing program effectiveness, which randomly allocates families to either receive the service or to continue on without the support of a volunteer.”
Getting the program implementation staff, the volunteers, and volunteer coordinators on board with the trial, however, was a challenge. “The volunteers and coordinators are very motivated by the drive to help families make positive change. They worried that families in the control group were essentially being denied help, and the idea was heartbreaking for them,” says Grace. “We went to each of the seven trial sites many times to talk to program volunteers and staff about why we needed to employ this methodology, to help them understand that the trial would give us the strongest evidence possible to argue for the survival of this program. This helped reframe their thinking.”
The trial commenced in 2015, and the first analysis has been completed, showing that families who received the service felt more competent with parenting, were better connected to the community, experienced improved wellbeing, and were more optimistic about the future than those in the control group. Moreover, they showed volunteer improvements such as wellbeing, community connection, and sense of purpose. “It’s lovely building bonds with young children,” says McKinnon.
Need to know
- 15% of Australian parents report feeling isolated.
- The Western team’s study was the largesttrial of volunteer home visiting worldwide.
- The program demonstrated financial, social and health benefits.
VFC currently operates with funding from an anonymous philanthropist, and the team continues to advocate for government reinvestment. The team’s analysis shows that government investment in programs like these ultimately produce savings by preventing small problems from worsening and requiring more intensive intervention.
A social impact evaluation, underwritten by Ernst and Young, was performed in tandem with the study to value the improvements and social benefits generated from Volunteer Family Connect. They found that every dollar invested achieved a $1.78 to $5.42 return in social benefits.
“Even if you’re economically well off, it’s quite alarming how isolated and distressed you can feel as a new parent without a support network,” explains Dr Kelly Baird, project manager and Research Fellow at Western. “Services are already available for parents who need professional care, like treatment for clinical depression, or who require more intensive tertiary parenting interventions. But we need to remember that the families who aren’t at that level now, without intervention, could be at the edge.”
“The issue with belonging is significant,” adds Grace. “People are more isolated now than any other time. We need to be addressing social inclusion with the same seriousness and sense of urgency as we do with issues like smoking, alcoholism and obesity.”
Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Rebekah Grace
Rebekah’s research is focused on the service and support needs of vulnerable and/or disadvantaged children and their families. She employs a cross-disciplinary, mixed-methods approach to research, and seeks to move beyond the bounds of disciplinary silos to address complex challenges. Rebekah has extensive experience in productive collaboration with government and non-government service organisations, and with multi-disciplinary research teams. Her expertise is in applied research, and in the translation of that research so that it is meaningful within practice settings, and transformative to policy and practice. Rebekah has a particular expertise in the conduct of rigorous effectiveness trials within human service settings, and in supporting service worker understanding of the importance of this kind of research to achieving positive outcomes for children and families. Rebekah is also well known for her research using participatory methods with children and young people, and for her work in the co-design of services with Aboriginal communities.
Higher Degree Research at Western
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.