Child inclusive practice in family and child counselling and family and child mediation
This report, commissioned by the Family Services Branch of the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department, presents the findings from ground breaking research which draws on the expertise of practitioners, both Australian and international, through consultations and literature reviews, together with the voices of parents who have experienced counselling and mediation during a time of conflict, separation and/or divorce and, uniquely, the voices of children.
This research report was first conceived in the broader context of the June 1996 changes to the Family Law Act 1975. Those changes placed increased emphasis on parental responsibility, and encouraged parents to actively consider the best interests of their children and to use non-judicial processes to resolve issues of family conflict and transition. The Family Relationships Services Program (FRSP) which consists of 83 community-based organisation providing services at approximately 300 locations nationally, was well placed to explore the extent to which children and their parents were benefiting from this shift in focus of the Family Law Act.
In commissioning this research, the Family Services Branch of the Attorney-General's Department was also mindful of the purpose of the FRSP. Briefly stated, the program's purpose is to encourage children, young people and adults to develop and sustain safe, supportive and nurturing family relationships, and to minimise the emotional, social and economic costs associated with disruption to family relationships.
This report is an important step forward in the realisation of that purpose. It reflects the commitment of service providers to providing services which meet the needs of families, and to constantly assessing practice to ensure that families have access to the services which they request. It is clear from the research that parents attending FRSP services appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon the needs of their children, and that children themselves also benefit from consideration of their needs, whether by organisations directly working with them or working with their parents to encourage a focus on their needs. The key issue here is not whether services work directly or indirectly with children; that issue will be addressed differently according to service contexts, resources, and the needs expressed by parents and their children. Rather, the research will assist organisations to consider the challenges of addressing children's issues and the ways in which FRSP organisations across the nation are meeting that challenge.
The research involved the co-operation of a dedicated research steering group, Australian families, and a large proportion of the FRSP services across the nation. I would like to thank them all for their participation and the spirited way in which they have approached the research process. The research represents and invaluable contribution to the government's goal of providing effective services which assist parents in fulfilling their important and at times difficult responsibilities.
Family Services Branch
Introduction and Project Brief
This report presents the findings from ground breaking research, commissioned by the Family Services Branch of the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department. The broad aim of the project was to identify strategies which will promote the best interests of children in the context of their parents' relationship difficulties, breakdown or divorce, and to consider a range of issues arising from the 1996 amended emphasis of the Family Law Act 1975, giving additional recognition to the best interests of children and to their care, welfare and development.
In meeting this brief, the research drew on recent national and international research and the expertise of practitioners through extensive consultations, surveys and workshops. Over 200 Australian families, including their children, were also surveyed or interviewed in depth about their experiences of counselling and mediation during a time of conflict, separation and/or divorce.
This summary first outlines the recommendations made to the Family Services Branch of the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department. The key findings on which these are based are then outlined.
- That the sector refocus its practice in line with legislation, such that children's needs during marital conflict or transition are better addressed. Recommended guidelines for doing so have been identified through the course of this research and are summarised in the Framework for Child Inclusive Practice in counselling and mediation services.
- That additional resources integrated with the FAMQIS Rollout Plan be included for organisations to develop strengthened Child Inclusive Practice.
- That as a practice minimum, organisations refocus their work and develop their skill base to support Child Inclusive Practice with parents and that they plan strategically to develop the capacity for direct child consultation. Both levels of practice development and consolidation require a commitment to appropriate training and skilled supervision.
- That the generic model of Child Inclusive Practice be further developed by Family Relationships Branch (FRB) and made available through a training strategy to the wider field, particularly as an example of how the counselling sector might engage further in both parent facilitation and direct consultation with client children.
- That the specific model and manual for Child Inclusive Mediation developed for this research project be revised and developed by FRB in light of the Pilot findings, and made available through a training strategy to the mediation sector.
- That organisations review their mission and philosophy statements to ensure they reflect a commitment to the approach reflected in Section 60B of the Family Law Act 1975, to strengthening the capacity of parents, to innovation and learning around Child Inclusive Practice and to systemic reflection on this practice.
- That there be commitment from Board and management to providing leadership and direction around Child Inclusive Practice. This includes revising, as necessary, policy and procedures regarding occupational health and safety, duty of care and confidentiality protocols. Strategic or business plans need to reflect a commitment to the ongoing development of Child Inclusive Practice.
- That organisations develop recruitment, training and supervision strategies and structures suitable for all levels of staff to support holistic Child Inclusive service provision.
- That broader referral networks and subsequent collaborative arrangements be developed.
- That resources be allocated to the creation of a Child Inclusive environment throughout the organisation and that specialist resources such as parent education materials and child interview equipment be developed and maintained.
- That broader methods of data collection be developed, to reflect the increased emphasis on the inclusion of children in counselling and mediation practice.
- That consideration be given as to how Family Relationships Service Program (FRSP) based data collection including FAMnet can identify ways to more accurately reflect and support a diversity of Child Inclusive Practice.
- That a coherent training strategy and associated organisational change process be developed and supported by FRB (particularly through the FAMQIS Project) and Peak Bodies.
- That funding guidelines be revised to encourage and support Child Inclusive Practice.
- That FSB resource an effective change process in support of increased Child Inclusive Practice.
- That Peak Bodies work collaboratively to support a change process.
- That the recommendations from this report be referred to the FAMQIS Quality Management Group, for development of a detailed Implementation Plan.
Current international research literature provides a congruent framework for the findings of this project, indicating as it does that conflict in itself and divorce in itself are not necessarily damaging for children in the long term. Unresolved, chronic conflict is most toxic and actions that either improve this and/or effectively buffer children against self blame and the trauma of adult conflict are essential to a child's longer term well-being. If we combine the perspectives from children in this project with the international research findings, the case for focused consideration of children's needs during and following parental distress or separation is doubly compelling.
What families said about the help they need:
Across counselling and mediation sectors, there was a strong consensus amongst the children in this study that when parents are in conflict, children benefit from having a chance to talk about how it is for them, particularly when the quality of communication between parents and children at the time of the separation improved as a result. However, regardless of their parents' capacity to respond differently, the children interviewed felt that the chance to talk in their own right was beneficial. Parental conflict rarely went unnoticed or unfelt by the children involved in this project. Even "quiet" conflict left its mark if it went unresolved, leaving children of all ages with feelings of tension, confusion and worry, which their reasoning skills are often not yet able to help them to process.
A significant majority of parents were in favour of some kind of direct support being offered to their children at a time of parents' marital distress or separation. However, this was not seen as a panacea. Parents advocated for a case by case determination and matching of children's needs, parents' wishes and the skills and expertise of the counsellor/mediator to meet these.
What helps children through parental conflict:
From research analyses, the interventions most highly associated with positive outcomes for children, when their parents presented for marital or divorce counselling/mediation, were:
- The effects of parents' conflict on their children were discussed with parents.
- The children were seen directly by the counsellor or mediator to discuss their own responses to the family situation. Benefits to children were highest when both of these interventions occurred.
A specific model for including children and their needs in a family law mediation process was devised and trialed at two centres. It combined parent education with direct child consultation and produced strong positive short term outcomes for both parents and children that were not evident in the sample of families surveyed whose children had not been included in this way.
"I thought it was fantastic that our son was treated with the same respect as we were. Going to counselling would have singled him out as having problems. Being part of the mediation was acknowledging that he was just trying to find the best way to get through this huge change, like us" (mother).
All fathers participating in this Mediation process said the child feedback had led to a direct change in their behaviours and attitudes in relation to the children which would not have occurred otherwise.
The views of over 500 workers in both counselling and mediation sectors were canvassed for this project through surveys and workshops. A common finding throughout was a tendency for workers to underestimate clients' desire to be helped with parenting issues when they present for family law-related matters. Many workers thought that if parents did not raise the subject of children, then workers did not have the right to do so. Concerns in moving toward a more child inclusive approach centred around obtaining adequate training, resources and funding to do so.
- The gap between what parents (and children) said they need to help them through conflict related transitions and what is currently provided for them by counselling and/or mediation services around the country is concerning. In summary: 77% of children represented in this research project (n=494 children) experienced a noticeable level of worry about the situation that had brought parents to the service.
- Only 21 of 63 organisations collected data on numbers of children seen. For the 17 counselling and 5 mediation services which collected statistics, 12,905 cases were opened in the period January-June 1997, of which 782 (6%) involved children being seen directly.
A Way Forward: Holistic Service Delivery
A framework for the development of practice, at all levels of an organisation, was developed around these research findings, to address the gaps identified for child inclusive service provision. The 4 interdependent and interactive components to the Framework are the Sector Context, Organisational Features, Underpinning Commitments and Practice Steps. At the centre of the Framework are practice steps, expanded in the full report to provide a guideline for basic processes and content that would be covered in counselling and mediation, were an agency to actively address children's needs during parental conflict or separation. The model stresses the dual importance of parent education and direct child consultation where appropriate.
This project identified a number of FRSP funded counselling and mediation services poised to make a significant contribution to the well-being of children and their parents at a time of relationship conflict or separation. There are a small number already doing so and in all aspects of their organisation, from policy to clinical practice these organisations demonstrate a commitment to and understanding of the value of child inclusive practice. However, given the identified gaps between what families say they need and what services are currently providing, there is still considerable room for improvement.
This report suggests the first steps required to address those gaps, to make the improvements required to ensure that children and parents are positively supported through the painful experiences of family conflict, separation and divorce. Such changes in service provision may be challenging, at both the organisational and practice levels, however this research indicates clearly that the future well-being of Australian children and families can only be enhanced by such efforts.
This report, commissioned by the Family Services Branch of the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department, presents the findings from ground breaking research which draws on the expertise of practitioners, both Australian and international, through consultations and literature reviews, together with the voices of parents who have experienced counselling and mediation during a time of conflict, separation and/or divorce and, uniquely, the voices of children.
The report highlights the very real concerns of parents about the welfare of their children during a time of family turbulence and disharmony and focuses on ways in which children can be supported through this.
It is the voices of the children which perhaps are most compelling in inviting a revised approach to the support and healing of the whole family.
As amended in June 1996, the Family Law Act 1975 places increased emphasis on the use of mediation for primary dispute resolution and on counselling for resourcing the family during conflict and transition. The Act promotes the concept of 'parental responsibility', encouraging parents facing separation to agree on solutions about their children. These solutions can then be embodied in a parenting plan, with parents embracing an ongoing shared responsibility for the welfare of their children. In keeping with this emphasis, the Children's Part (VII) of the Act places increased focus on the best interests of the child. The object of these changes, as stated in section 60B (1) of the Act, is
"to ensure that children receive adequate and proper parenting to help them achieve their full potential and to ensure that parents fulfil their duties, and meet their responsibilities concerning the care, welfare and development of their children."
Section 60B (2) then outlines a number of principles which underpin this object:
- Children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents, regardless of whether their parents are married, separated, have never married or have never lived together.
- Children have a right of contact, on a regular basis, with both their parents and with other people significant to their care, welfare and development.
- Parents share duties and responsibilities concerning the care, welfare and development of their children.
- Parents should agree about the future parenting of their children.
The Act accordingly replaced references to 'family mediation' with 'family and child mediation', and 'marriage counselling' with 'family and child counselling', the latter including 3 components:
- Marriage counselling.
- Child counselling: to discuss the care, welfare and development of a child or to discuss and try to resolve differences between persons that affect the care, welfare and development of a child (S4(1)).
- Counselling about any matter arising from proceedings under the Act, which proceedings involve a parent, a child or a party to a marriage (S4(1)).
Nothing in the new legislation requires an organisation to provide all 3, nor does it require direct involvement of children in counselling or in mediation. All counsellors and mediators operating under the Family Law Act are mandated to report child abuse and have ethical responsibilities about other issues of violence, abuse and serious matters.
In recognition of concern raised by service providers within the Family Relationship Services Program about their capacity to respond to changes in the Family Law Act, FSB developed a consultancy designed to conduct research to identify appropriate service responses to address the needs and interests of children and young people whose parents are presenting to counselling and/or mediation services. The need for the project was supported by the 3 peak bodies in the sector: Relationships Australia, Centacare Australia and Family Services Australia.
The broad aim of this project was to identify strategies to promote the best interests of children in the context of their parents' relationship difficulties, breakdown or divorce, and to consider a range of issues arising from the 1996 amended emphasis of the Family Law Act giving additional recognition to the rights of the children and to their care, welfare and development. The research aimed to explore the nature of children's needs and interests when their parents are presenting to counselling/mediation services, the models of response used and child well-being outcomes for families involved in two FRSP service types: Family and child mediation, and family and child counselling. Adolescent mediation and family therapy was also included in aspects of the project, in order to learn from its existing expertise in dealing with whole families.
The findings from this project will be used to inform the delivery of future relationships support and primary dispute resolution services within the Family Relationships Services Program and the development of service standards within a whole of program quality strategy.
The specific project objectives were:
- To conduct a comprehensive literature review which carefully considers and synthesises the findings, both in Australia and overseas, about effective models/ interventions to assist parents and children to deal with the children's experience of separation and divorce.
- To consider and review some current approaches taken by family and child counselling and family and child mediation organisations to working with a focus incorporating the child's perspective in their service.
- To map and scope the range of family and child counselling and mediation services in Australia.
- To explore the experience and perspective of children and parents in the family and child counselling and mediation process.
- To identify and recommend appropriate strategies for family and child counselling and mediation organisations to maintain a focus on, and awareness of, the child/young people's needs and perspectives.
- In regards to counselling, the research was to identify and recommend broad strategies which could include direct or indirect work with children, such as therapeutic/support groups for children, interviews/consultation with children, parent education about children's reactions to separation/divorce, coaching parents to consult directly with their children.
- For mediation, the research was to identify and recommend strategies for family and child mediation services to focus effectively on the child's perspective in resolving disputes, and in the development of parenting plans.
- To recommend best practice principles for family and child counselling and family and child mediation services, which will inform the development of a quality standard for addressing the needs of children in the Family Services Program (Project Terms of Reference, May 1997).
1.1 The Family Relationships Services Program
The Family Relationships Services Program, (FRSP) which is funded by the Family Services Branch (FSB) of the Attorney General's Department, comprises 6 related service types:
- Family and Relationship Counselling.
- Family and Child Mediation.
- Marriage and Relationship Education.
- Adolescent Mediation and Family Therapy (AMFT).
- Family Skills Training.
- Children's Contact Services.
Of these, the family and child mediation and the family and relationship counselling services come under the Family Law Act. Currently, the FAMQIS Project. a quality assurance process for all FRSP organisations, is developing approaches for the overall program which will provide more integrated services and enable greater responsiveness to client needs. The mission of FAMQIS is to achieve better outcomes for clients, through the development of a Quality Strategy and an associated Information System. This current research project, focusing on a more child inclusive approach, would directly link in with approval requirements as detailed in the latest FAMQIS Report.
A single statement of purpose has been developed in the FAMQIS project:
Family relationships services contribute to the development of an Australia in which:
- children, young people and adults in all their diversity are enabled to develop and sustain safe and nurturing family relationships, and
- the emotional, social and economic costs associated with disruption to family relationships are minimised.
The above statement identifies the commonalities that exist between service types as well as the differences. It is underpinned by the notion of a coherent, single program, which recognises a number of related, though currently discrete service types.
These developments, from a service provider perspective, mean operating within a much broader program structure than is currently the case. Thus a more flexible approach to service provision is achieved, delivered through funding arrangements which may be based on achieving agreed outcomes, rather than on delivery of agreed services. This project will have a direct linkage to the aforementioned FAMQIS Project.
1.2 Structure and Focus of the Report
During the course of the project a number of terms were used to describe an organisation which embraces children's concerns and interests in its overall practice. Through the consultation process the term 'child inclusive' was agreed upon as describing the notion of children being 'held in mind' in all aspects of an organisation's practice.
Child inclusive practice does not mean that children will always be consulted with directly: rather, it means that every step of the counselling and/or mediation process with parents will support both the parenting role and the needs of children. Child consultation is however a critical option in this process.
This report will present models and processes to give meaning to the terms 'child inclusive' and 'child consultation'.
This report outlines the findings from the project in 3 major sections:
- The first 5 chapters focus on the needs of children and parents for support during times of marital conflict, separation and divorce. In particular they focus on children's experience as identified in the literature, and in the voices of the children interviewed in this project; and on the perspectives of both parents and children as to what would assist them through this process.
- Chapter 6 analyses current practice in counselling and/or mediation services with a particular focus on the ways in which workers and organisations have defined the issues.
- The final section, chapters 7 and 8, addresses issues of Child Inclusive Practice as it was identified in organisations around the country, models of direct child contact in both the counselling and mediation processes, proposed good practice models and principles, and the change process which is required for organisations to become truly child inclusive.
- Throughout the report some of the many drawings completed by children who participated in this research project have been included. Each child's parents had attended a FRSP counselling or mediation service. A brief explanation of each drawing can be found on its following page.
2. Marital conflict: the child's voice
"You can get a divorce, but don't do it in an angry way. Get help and be friends, for our sake" - (boy, 10 years, interviewed in this research project).
This chapter lays out a broad base of research on the potential emotional and developmental burdens for children that are, unhappily, the frequent companions of marital distress. Australian and international research on the impact of marital conflict and its costs for the individual child provides a compelling rationale for increasing support to children through multi-faceted approaches, including preventive interventions to reduce the impacts as early as possible. Equally compelling are the stories of children as they live through this type of family distress. This project made it a priority to explore the first hand experiences of a wide range of Australian children, whose parents have presented to counselling and/or mediation services because of relationship difficulties or breakdown.
Before considering the literature, section 2.1 looks at marital conflict through the eyes of the children who have participated in this research project.
2.1 Parental Conflict: Through a Child's Eyes
57 children participated in a 1 hour personal interview, to talk, draw and play about parent conflict, discussing how it is for children and what would help. All of the children's parents had attended or were attending a FRSP counselling (34 children) or mediation service (17 children) for marital counselling, separation counselling or mediation (approximately equal numbers in each). In addition, 6 young people from AMFT services were interviewed. Children's ages ranged between 4 and 17 years. Interviews were conducted across a range of organisations in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. (See the following methodology chapter for details).
Two key questions discussed and drawn about by the children were: "What is it like for kids when their parents are unhappy together?", and "What would you like to tell parents when that happens?". Following are a collection of responses, representative of the wider sample.
What is it like for kids when their parents are not happy together?
|It looks like:||It sounds like:||It feels like:|
What would you like to tell Mum and Dad when they aren't getting along?
"Argue somewhere else, not in front of us" (girl, 11 years).
"Please get married again" (girl, 5 years).
"They should be careful how they bring up kids - that they don't fight or just throw things. They shouldn't fight for our benefit because we get scared and confused. They should watch what they say and how they say it "(boy, 13 years).
"We get very worried they could kill each other" (boy, 11 years).
"I watch something on TV or listen to music to make me feel better. I cry in bed and I feel like kicking someone. You should know how I feel and stop it "(boy, 9years).
"Don't call us names, like hopeless" (girl, 9 years).
"Dad isn't stupid because he got the sack, and we don't need a new house and money isn't everything" (boy, 9 years).
"We want to know what will happen and how is it going to turn out" (girl, 9 years).
"All of us kids arre worried about money because Dad hasn't paid Mum maintenance since he left. He should pay because we love our house" (boy, 9 years).
"They should talk on their own about the divorce, and I should get to talk on my own about how I feel about it "(gir, 15 years).
"I wish they wouldn't argue so much about me" (boy, 13 years).
"They should behave" (boy, 7 years).
"I keep asking them not to send their messages through me, like I'm their mailman or something, but they keep doing it. I want someone to make them stop it." (boy, 9 years).
"Stop crying" (girl, 5 years).
(comments while drawing his family) "We don't get to see enough of Dad. Mum and Dad should just make up their minds to stop fighting so we could see hime. He's in this flat on his own - I'll draw hime big, because there's only him in the flat, not much furniture. I'd tell him not to be so sad, that we love him" (boy, 10 years).
The comments of these children from both the counselling and mediation services remind us of the immedieacy of conflict for the child. Even when conflict is not overt, it has often not gone unnoticed by the children: "When it's too quiet, you know they are mad at each other again". We see also in their discussion the tensions of carrying hope, love confusion and worry about parents simultaneously, together with the developmental burden of not being able to piece together a cognitive understanding of this most complex situation that might shield them from self blame or further injury.
The impacts on emotional growth of prolonged parental conflict are well researched. The following selection of recent and classic research literature, both Australian and international, highlights known impacts on children of parental conflict and/or separation and the modifiers and amplifiers of these impacts.
2.2 Parental Conflict: Literature Review
Few family problems are more closely related to children's poor adjustment than marital conflict, even in "happy" families. Funder's (1996) Australian research has illustrated the widespread social, educational and financial impacts for children and their parents of divorce. In terms of individual adjustment, findings indicate that between 4 and 20 % of variation in children's behaviour and emotional adjustment is accounted for by the levels and nature of marital conflict (Cummings and Davies 1994). When conflict is high, 40-50% of children exposed to marital hostility exhibit extreme behavioural disturbance (Jouriles, 1987). The influence of marital conflict is higher still when coupled with other stresses, for example, low socio-economic backgrounds or a parent with mental health problems (Jouriles, Bourg & Farris, 1991).
There is also general agreement that parental separation precipitates a level of emotional crisis for most children. The vast majority of children do not anticipate divorce when it occurs, even when there had been considerable conflict between their parents (Kelly, 1993). Just how strong is the association between marital conflict and children's emotional and behavioural difficulties and how strong is the link between divorce and negative impacts on children's social, emotional and academic development? Kelly (1997) suggests there is no easy answer to these questions. However, research has gone some way to clarifying one issue:
"Divorce per se does not determine a child's subsequent psychological functioning. It is the nature of the conflict between parents, the nature of their conflict management, their ongoing relationship and adjustment and the extent to which the child feels supported to engage in an ongoing, open relationship with each parent that, together, have the strongest and most far reaching consequences" (op cit).
The literature on the impacts of divorce is vast. The following review explores more closely some of the key findings and their implications for mediation and counselling practices. (Cummings and Davies (1994) provide a very comprehensive review of this literature for those interested.)
Impacts on children of marital distress:
The level of parental discord is one of the strongest predictors of children's adjustment. This is a better predictor of adjustment than separation and divorce per se (Cummings and Davies, 1994). High levels of marital conflict are more closely related to children's adjustment than family structure (Amato and Keith, 1991).
Divorce is not a once off trauma for children, and research reminds us that children of divorced parents often have long histories of exposure to marital discord. Up to 11 years before the divorce, children exhibit heightened aggression, impulsivity, anxiety and emotional problems (Block, Block & Gjerde, 1986). Exposure to longer term parental conflict has been consistently shown in clinical studies to be a chronic stress for children, leading over time to the development of dysfunctional behavioural patterns in the child (Cummings and Davies, 1994). Greater frequency of marital conflict is associated with greater childhood difficulties (Jourilles et al, 1991; Cummings et al 1981, 1984). It is also important to consider that frequency interacts with other dimensions of conflict, for example intensity, severity or destructiveness, and the message or meaning of parents' arguments.
What happens when separation doesn't stop conflict?
The answer is complex. Some parents can resolve differences with a separation and allow healing to proceed. For many, conflict can escalate around the time of marital dissolution and continue long after the divorce. Children experience shame and self blame when parents argue over custody or child rearing practices. Role reversals and pressure to ally with a parent also create stress for the child. They are often fearful of being drawn into conflicts and this has been linked in both younger children and adolescents to poor psychological adjustment. Children exposed to elevated conflict after the separation show higher levels of behavioural disturbance than children who experienced diminished marital conflict. (Long et al, 1988). Marital conflict as a core feature of family life has major implications for the socialisation of children and the relationship patterns of adolescents (Cummings and Davies, 1994).
"Each parent is a central and archetypal figure in the child's emotional world, regardless of the frequency of contact. This internalisation of the parent-child relationship is a developmental process which begins very early and continues as experiences and subsequent identifications with the real or imagined parent become part of the child's sense of self. When the child is the subject of chronic parental warfare, however, identifications with each parent continually evoke inner conflict" (Roseby, 1995: p 101).
What kind of problems do children experience from marital distress?
Research shows that children of high conflict divorcing families are often pre-occupied with surviving in the emotionally volatile climate of their divided family, are confused about their loyalties and unsure of what is true. This state of mind is one of acute anxiety for the child, whose capacities for everyday learning, thinking, interacting and playing can be sorely diminished by their internal struggles (Johnston, 1997). The content of parents' arguments is an important variable - children are more distressed when the fight is about them (Grych & Fincham, 1993).
Children from high conflict marital situations are especially vulnerable to excessive aggression, defiance, delinquency, poor relationships with parents and poor peer skills (Kline, Johnston and Tschann, 1991;Grych and Finchman, 1990; Camara and Resnick, 1989; Emery and O'Leary,1984). Diminished academic performance has also been noted by many researchers (eg. see Wierson, Forehand and McCombs, 1988). Children from high conflict families are more likely to view themselves and their social worlds in overly negative and hostile ways (Davies and Cummings 1993).
The impact of conflict exposure is cognitively mediated by the child's appraisal of the situation. This can be influenced positively by parents reaching resolution. Children's ability to make a more hopeful assessment of an argument would include their anticipation of resolution based on past incidents (Cummings, Simpson and Wilson, 1993).
Side effects of marital conflict
Conflict in a marriage, particularly that leading to an acrimonious separation, has far reaching consequences for all family members and across all family roles. Marital conflict can cause significant changes to parenting behaviour, attachment and other vital emotional structures and systems within a family.
The stress of marital conflict can cause parents to become more inconsistent and ineffective in parenting, and may reduce responsivity to children's emotional needs and signals, diminishing the quality of the emotional relationships and attachments between parents and children (Stevenson-Hinde, 1990).
Fathers in high conflict marriages have been shown to be more withdrawn and less involved in parenting. Following divorce, they are likely to see their children less frequently than fathers from low conflict marriages (Kelly, 1997).
The age and gender of children
Children of all ages react to background anger as a stressor - no one age is more vulnerable. Children as young as 1 to 2 years of age find ways of intervening in parental disputes, by distracting, attempting to comfort or otherwise becoming involved. In doing so, they risk becoming targets of parents hostility themselves (Shred et al, 1991). Fear is most evident in the pre-school years. Older children have developed a larger and more effective coping repertoire. However, adolescents are more likely to leave high conflict marriage families earlier than their peers from low conflict households (Kelly, 1997).
Differences in sex are not in degree but in expression of disturbance. Consistent with sex roles, boys often show more outward aggression and girls more anxiety and withdrawal. The "too good" girl child is a common pattern. In childhood, girls are more likely to respond with distress and boys with anger when exposed to angry interactions. By adolescence, this evens out, with both likely to respond more with anger.
Response to physical aggression
Interspousal aggression or abuse has been strongly and repeatedly associated with the development of behavioural and emotional problems in children (Emery, 1989) and clearly adds to the risks of marital discord. Psychopathology is 4 times likelier in children of battered mothers than children from non-violent homes (Jouriles et al 1989). Physical conflict elicits greater distress than verbal conflict (Cummings et al 1981).
Conflict between parents is not always negative
Benefits may accrue from exposure to moderate conflict in supportive home environments - children can develop useful coping skills, when they are not overly taxed (Rutter, 1981). Anger is a normal part of life and conflict may at times be necessary in order to bring attention to issues that need to be resolved. There is every reason to believe that children can cope with "normal", non-aggressive levels of anger within a home, provided they are infrequent and lead to effective resolution.
Are there ways of being in conflict that minimise impacts on children?
Communication appears to be the key here. Explanations that absolve children from blame can reduce feelings of fear and responsibility, but explanations that impute children as the cause increase their shame and guilt (Grych & Fincham, 1993). From interviews with 100 teenagers whose parents separated before their 18th birthday, Walczak & Burns (1984) found that the quality of communication between parents and with children at the time of the separation is of vital importance to how children coped at the time and for many years to follow.
Gottman, Katz and Hooven (1997) found a buffering effect on children through the way parents discuss conflict. An "emotion coaching" approach had greater short and long term benefits for children's adjustment than an "emotion dismissing" approach.
Divorce is a process for children, as much as it is for parents. The most acute behavioural responses are usually diminished by 6 to 12 months after the initial separation (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980, Waldron et al, 1986). However, in a 6 year follow-up of 60 divorcing families, Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) found that eighteen months after separation, many families were still in transition:
"Many issues still remained unresolved in the lives of both parents and children. Feelings of anger, humiliation and rejection were still running high: most adults had not yet restabilised stability or continuity in their lives, or order in their households. Moreover, an unexpected number of children were on a downward course, compared with their overall functioning before the separation and had not yet recovered their earlier developmental stride" (p. 35).
Less than 10% of the children in Kelly's research were relieved by their parents' decision to divorce, despite a high incidence of exposure to marital violence. Whatever the family shortcomings, it had, in the child's eyes, provided the support and protection that he/she needed. The divorce signified the collapse of a vital structure in their lives. Without concrete evidence, most young children are unable to conceive of another source of security other than that which they have known.
McDonald's (1990) Family Court research found that more than half the children interviewed expressed a wish to spend more time with their "other" parent. More than half wished for reunification. Knapp (1994) identified different levels of reconciliation fantasies in all of the drawings and stories told by her post-divorce group - some wished but knew there was no chance, while others clung to their wish as if it were real.
Can children of divorce be distinguished from children from non divorced families in later years?
Hetherington, Cox and Cox (1985) took a longitudinal approach to this question, using matched groups of 144 pre-school children. Persisting problems up to 2 years later were noted with the divorced group, who showed greater tendencies toward anti-social behaviours, acting out, impulsive behaviours and non-compliance. More persistent problems were noted for boys rather than girls.
A second longitudinal study with 341 children from divorced families and 358 children from intact families confirmed and amplified these findings (Guidubaldi & Perry, 1984, 1985) Children aged 7-11 years from intact families had superior performance on 21 of 27 social-behavioural criterion measures, including dependency, aggression, withdrawal, anxiety and peer popularity. Yet, in a classic study, with a sample of over 2000 children aged 7 to 11 years, Zill (1983) found that children of unhappily married intact families reported the most neglect and feelings of humiliation when compared with children from happily married families and children from separated or divorced families.
The voices of children tell us clearly that parental conflict rarely goes unnoticed or unfelt by them. Even "quiet" conflict can leave its mark if it goes unresolved, leaving children of all ages with feelings of tension, confusion and worry which their reasoning skills are often not yet able to help them to process.
The research findings are clear too. Conflict in itself and divorce in itself are not necessarily damaging for children in the long run. Unresolved, chronic conflict is most toxic and actions that either improve this and/or effectively buffer children against self blame and the trauma of adult conflict are essential to a child's longer term well-being.
If we combine these perspectives from children and from research, the case for focused consideration of children's needs during and following parental distress or separation is doubly compelling.
3. The Project Story
Behind every project there is a story, or a series of stories, which provide the depth of understanding and the richness that is so often missing from written reports. While this project had a set of aims and research questions which were addressed, there is much more to the story of how this project emerged, was shaped and has shaped thinking in the sector about the practice implications of the Family Law Act 1975 as amended by the Family Law Reform Act 1995.
At the commencement of the project the consultants identified a number of steps which would provide the data and answer the research questions. The literature review was rich with the stories of children and parents who had faced major trauma in marital and family conflict, separation and/or divorce, along with research findings that indicated that there were ways to work with parents and children to lessen the negative impacts of these experiences.
The first contacts with the field through workshops, questionnaires and service mapping indicated that this was not going to be a straightforward process. In some places we were told that services were already doing what could be done, in others we heard that children did not need support in their own right and/or that it would undermine the family and the role of parents.
We were initially surprised by reaction to the project, particularly to the suggestion that services might take a more 'child focused' approach to their counselling and/or mediation. The tone of some first round workshops was fearful, and a range of reasons discussed as to why including children in the counselling and/or mediation process was not appropriate. Frequently we encountered some understandable concerns that 'Child Inclusive Practice' meant that all children would be seen in all cases, a scenario never envisaged by the consultants or FSB.
There were others who maintained that a greater focus on children's needs was both feasible and necessary. It was largely through the efforts of these workers that the concept of 'Child Inclusive Practice' was developed, the models of Child Interview and Consultation were trialed, and the principles of good practice were articulated.
Interestingly, the response of parents and children involved in this project was overwhelmingly positive. They supported the greater use of appropriate interventions that would strengthen the parents' capacity to more effectively address the needs and concerns of their children and to directly support the children when this was indicated. Parents and children were keen to tell their stories and add their voices.
Visits to a sample of counselling and/or mediation services, which were considered to be working well with parents and children through times of conflict, separation and divorce, demonstrated a strong capacity for good practice, even within current resources. These visits also indicated that there is still some way to go before the needs of children are adequately addressed.
The second round of workshops were significantly different in atmosphere and response. Although, as some service providers commented, 6 months is not sufficient time for major change to occur, there was a growing acceptance of the concepts and a willingness to hear the voices of children and parents requesting support.
The stories from those organisations that had trialed the Mediation Model and others that had considerable experience in working with children were built into the fabric of the workshops and formed the basis for the development of a framework for future practice at both the organisational and the clinical levels.
The methodological framework for this project was formed around the original aims and questions outlined in Chapter 1. Additionally, further forms of inquiry were developed in response to emerging trends through the course of the project. The following section outlines the key methods which together have produced the findings oulined through the remainder of the report.
Literature searches have been ongoing throughout the project. A first round of literature formed the basis for a Discussion Paper which was circulated to all organisations in the sector and the Steering Committee in September 1997. Many materials came to our attention through the workshops and consultation in the sector, particularly local studies and conference papers, as yet unpublished, which are of relevance to the project.
In this report, relevant literature is presented in each chapter. In this way, for example, the reader will find in Chapter 2 studies on the impacts of parental conflict on children together with the first hand accounts of children who were interviewed in this project, in Chapter 4, literature around the efficacy of parent education and other interventions together with findings of parents' surveys and interviews from this project, and in Chapter 7, literature on Best Practice along with the results of good practice investigations in relation to Child Inclusive Practice in counselling and/or mediation services.
A survey of 600 workers in the counselling and mediation streams was conducted early in the project. This was circulated through every organisation with a response from 391 individuals (63%) (see Appendix 4 for details). Some key questions explored through this survey were as follows (results are presented in Chapter 6):
- Professional background and length of involvement in counselling/mediation.
- Percentage and type of cases which include direct work with children.
- Specific training in the area of working with children and young people.
- Any further training desired.
- Current thoughts around the need for and approaches to including children's interests in counselling/mediation.
- Thoughts on appropriate and inappropriate circumstances for involving children directly.
- Workplace and individual factors that currently preclude the direct involvement of children
Family Court Survey
A similar survey to the Staff Survey was distributed through the Family Court of Australia, to their counsellors and mediators. A total of 70 questionnaires were returned, with the results analysed in Chapter 6.
A standardised collection of information on each organisation in the 3 sub-programs provided a broad picture of their existing practices, particularly their perspectives on child-focused work. Of the 51 organisations, 45 completed the profile (88%). These profiles are discussed in Chapter 6.
State and Territory workshops
A first round of workshops was conducted in every capital city during September and October 1997 and involved a total of 120 participants from across the 3 programs. The aim of this workshop was to engage workers in the project, canvas views and gather information on the culture of the organisations. The findings from this workshop series are discussed in chapter 6. A second round of workshops, which involved a total of 151 participants, was conducted in March and April, 1998, to discuss with workers the findings and implications of the project to date.
Two discussion papers were prepared which were circulated to all of the services preceding the 2 workshops. The first discussion paper provided an initial review of the literature and raised key questions about the involvement of children in counselling and/or mediation services. The second paper summarised findings from the parent and child research, and the good practice visits.
Steering Committee meetings and workshops
The Steering Committee met on 3 occasions and addressed the key issues as they emerged from the research. In particular the Steering Committee attended a 2 day workshop which considered the findings of the project and assisted in shaping the good practice material and models of Child Inclusive Practice.
A questionnaire asking parents to reflect on the needs of their children at the time they were involved in counselling and mediation was designed and distributed in 2 rounds, as follows:
Round one: random mailed distribution
- To explore the current type and prevalence of child inclusive work from a client parent perspective, 400 surveys were circulated by mail through 30 selected organisations. The response rate was 106 (27%). The results of this first round are presented in Chapter 4. The questions explored included:
- Main reasons for attending this service.
- How worried parents thought their child/ren were by the situation that had brought parents to counselling or mediation.
- Parents prior expectation that their child/ren would be helped directly by the mediator or counsellor.
- Frequency and type of direct consultation of children with counsellor or mediator.
- The extent to which each child benefited from the mediation or counselling processes, either directly or indirectly.
- What, if anything, could the service have done additionally to help their children.
Round two: targeted distribution
In the first round, findings confirmed previously established trends that few children were routinely seen in either counselling or mediation. A second round of surveys was distributed in order to increase the overall sample size and particularly to increase the numbers of surveys from parents whose children had some direct involvement in counselling or mediation.
Through the FRSP database, 10 counselling and 8 mediation organisations who reported a higher rate of direct involvement of children were identified. These organisations administered the survey to parents who presented with primary relationship problems or disputes and whose children had been included directly in the process. Of the 200 surveys distributed in this way, 80 were returned (40%). A further 52 were returned from individual family interviews conducted by the researchers (see details below).
This second round provided a further 132 surveys, making a total of 238 responses from individual parents, with 526 children represented in this sample.
Issues addressed through the Parent Survey were explored in depth during a series of interviews with client families in 5 cities (Perth, Adelaide and Sydney for counselling; Melbourne and Darwin for mediation; Sydney for AMFT). A Pilot was completed in Perth, resulting in a shift from the originally planned focus group model to individual family interviews. Given the nature of the topics to be discussed, a personal forum was preferable to most families.
Appropriate client families were identified through FRSP organisations in each city. The criteria for inclusion were:
- Parents had attended a counselling or mediation service primarily because of marital distress or separation.
- They had school aged children.
- Parents gave permission to be contacted by the researchers.
Willing parents were telephoned to discuss the purpose and nature of the interviews. They were encouraged to discuss details with partners and with their children. Telephone interviews were offered to parents who did not wish to attend a personal interview or where geographical distance was a prohibiting factor (6 families opted for this).
In total, 56 families were interviewed, including 75 parents and 57 children.
Two interviewers attended the family's home for the interview (families were given a choice of location and all opted for a home interview). The interview began with a family meeting, to explain the purpose and to ensure that everyone understood the consent and confidentiality boundaries of the discussions. Parents reaffirmed to children in the researchers' presence their permission for the children to speak openly. Researchers explained to children in the parents presence and again alone that what children said would stay private, with duty of care provision. Child and parent interviews ran for 1 hour, with children seen in sibling groups and separately as needed and parents seen together or separately as needed.
The children's interview was based around drawings and letter writing. Issues covered included:
- Happy families – what makes them this way.
- Unhappy families – what makes them this way.
- What is it like for kids when their parents aren't happy with each other.
- What helps kids when this happens.
- What counsellors/mediators do.
- Any personal experience the child had of counselling or mediation.
At the end of each interview with children, they were de-briefed about the experience. Trusted people they could talk to further if they needed were identified. Each interview ended with a game or a happy drawing and story. A brief family meeting was held again, to answer any final questions and to thank the family. Researchers left their contact details with parents in the event that any family member wished to speak further following the interview. 3 families took up this opportunity, each saying the interview had provoked many thoughts which they would like to discuss further as a family and requesting referral advice. This was supplied.
Findings from these interviews are presented throughout Chapters 2, 4 and 5.
Additional research: trialing a model of child inclusive divorce mediation
Early in the research project, it became evident from discussions with the Steering Committee and a review of program statistics, that family and child mediation services typically did not operate with a child inclusive approach. The international literature also reflected this trend, although significant work has taken place over the past few years, for example in California and in Scotland, as discussed in the literature review.
While this research was not a component of the original project brief, the idea of building and trialing a model of child-focused mediation as part of this research agenda appeared desirable for 3 reasons:
- As few families had the experience of going through a child inclusive model of mediation, it was not possible to gather data from families, as hoped, about being involved in such a process. This trial created this possibility, together with the opportunity for comparison with pre-existing practices.
- It offered exciting possibilities to pull together pieces of international and local work in this area and to test the efficacy and applicability of a unified model in two diverse Australian contexts.
- It represented a substantial clinical contribution to the mediation sector and a value added contribution to the overall research project.
Responses from FRSP mediation staff and the Project Steering Committee about this idea were uniformly positive and supportive. The model was then devised and the trial commenced in October, 1997. The process of developing the model, of training and of the ongoing research is described in the following section.
Establishing the model
From an extensive review of the literature, from discussions with leading experts in the American mediation field and discussions with local mediation organisations, a number of approaches to child-focused practice were identified. It appeared that a number of Australian organisations were interested in building new procedures for trialing or modifying the work of Joan Kelly, for example, but few had yet actively begun the process.
Two organisations were suggested by FSB for the trial. These centres were the Family Mediation Centre in Noble Park, Melbourne and the Resolve Family Mediation service in Darwin. Both organisations were ready and willing to experiment with a limited and closely structured method of representing children's needs in their mediation work with parents. Staff and Directors of each organisation agreed to take part and gave much support during the development of the model.
The two organisations were asked to identify workers who had some background in clinical work with children. These workers were trained in the child interview and parent feedback aspects of the model in a one day workshop. In addition other mediators who were willing to be trained in the parent work component only of the model were also involved in a half day training. 14 in all were trained in late September 1997. Follow-up group supervision and telephone consultations were arranged.
Overview of the Child Inclusive Mediation Pilot Model:
This model was developed by Dr Jenn McIntosh, Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist from Strategic Partners, with significant input from Dr Joan Kelly (Northern California Mediation Center) and Dr Janet Johnston (Center for the Family in Transition), and from the organisations who agreed to take part in the trial. These were Resolve in Darwin and the Family Mediation Centre in Melbourne.
A manual detailing the full model and its techniques, including contracting and duty of care guidelines, use of drawings and play materials for the child consultation was developed for the Pilot. The manual is being updated. Discussions are in place with FSB and the sector about means of distributing this material in conjunction with appropriate training. Below is an outline of the 4 major components of the model.
1) Early focusing of parents on children's needs:
Early on and throughout the course of the mediation, mediators work to enable parents to focus on and identify the needs of their children and the likely impact of decisions on them. At intake, mediators ask for basic developmental details about each child and specific concerns that either parent have about them in relation to the divorce. This phase includes providing parents with information around the responses of children to separation and conflict (see Appendix 3 for Parent Education Flyer). Information and discussion also occur throughout about ways of speaking to their children about the separation and the decisions they are trying to reach.
If after these discussions the mediator and parents appraise the situation as appropriate for consultation with the children, an invitation is made to parents to discuss this with their children. Contracting occurs with parents around what feedback they can expect from the children's interview and how this information will be used throughout the mediation.
2) Consulting directly with children (school age)
This is a process of once off consultation, not decision making, not counselling and not a full developmental assessment. This interview usually occurs between the first and second parent sessions. It takes between 45 and 60 minutes. The child mediator may be one already seeing the parents (in low conflict cases) or a separate mediator in medium-high conflict cases. If separate, the mediator is briefed on what plans the parents are considering, in order to ascertain children's reactions to them.
A caution before proceeding: this consultation may sound deceptively simple. However, the interview requires of the mediator considerable skill in putting children at ease, enabling them to talk, handling distress etc. For this Pilot, a day training program was developed around this interview, involving mediators who already had a background in working with children. The training covered rapport building, clarifying expectations, use of specific family drawings and projective materials, confirming what was to be communicated to parents and ensuring the child felt supported and reassured by the process. Clearly, should other mediators/counsellors without child specific training wish to consult in this way, more extensive training and support would be required.
The session begins with introductions and rapport building time. The focus of the session is discussed and the mediator explains confidentiality and duty of care guidelines to the child, in clear and simple language. They discuss what the child can expect from the mediator and any questions are clarified. Drawings and play to illustrate this discussion are helpful.
The room is set up with toys (family doll sets, animal families, dolls houses if possible) and drawing equipment. Through focused play, drawings, projective story telling and talking, the mediator explores the child's response to their family situation; their hopes, wishes and fears. Children are asked what information or questions they would like the mediator to share with their parents, and whether they have questions they would like answered about the separation or the mediation. A brief, written report is completed after the session for the parents' mediators.
3) Feeding back to parents the child's needs and views
Feedback to parents is a fine art! The feedback session usually occurs in the next scheduled parent mediation meeting, with parents' mediator/s also present if a separate child consultant has been used. Prior briefing with the parents' mediators occurs, in order for feedback to be given in a manner most likely to be "digestible" for parents.
The child's interviewer begins and finishes with something positive about the child and for example, the parents' decision to allow the child a space to talk on their own. During the feedback, the parents' mediator/s encourage the feedback to be viewed as a statement from the child, just as parents have been given the chance to provide their own statements. One organisation found it useful in the feedback session for parents' mediators to write the key points of each statement under the headings: "Mum's needs", "Dad's needs", "Kids' needs."
Skilled feedback involves the ability to summarise themes that have emerged from the child's session, using material agreed to by the child, giving a general assessment of the impact of the separation on the child and the child's current needs with respect to the separation. If the child has requested that certain information not be shared (provided it does not breach duty of care) then this is not mentioned specifically, but the overall theme may be important for parents to hear. For example, if the child says " don't tell Mum that I want to see Dad more - it will hurt her too much", this would first be discussed further with the child. It would remain important for the child interviewer to convey the child's sense of divided loyalties and feeling that his needs are sometimes at odds with his parent/s' needs and he/she thinks it better for everyone to stay quiet. The role of the parent mediator/s is to pick up this theme and discuss it further with parents in subsequent sessions.
4) Integrating the child's needs and views into negotiations
This model is not intended to replace the work already done with parents in divorce mediation around property settlement. Current practice in this area continues and is incorporated with this model of child focused mediation.
Following the child feedback session, parents' mediators continue the mediation process, with ongoing thought given to the needs of the children based on earlier discussions and on the statements gained from the child interview. If agreements are reached, the parenting plan should identify in some detail the needs of each child and the manner in which the parents have agreed to address them. Parents are encouraged to share the results of the mediation with the children. This stage foreshadows developmental changes as the children grow older and the likelihood that plans will need to be reviewed as the needs of the children change.
The Mediation Pilot research design
The Family Mediation Centre saw 25 families in this model over a 4 month trial period. Parents completed the outcome survey used throughout this project and were invited to participate in a family interview with researchers within approximately 2 months of concluding mediation. Results from the model are discussed in Chapters 4 and 5.
4. What helps? The parent's voice
"They were totally honest and I couldn't believe the difference it made when the mediator talked with the kids. I wasn't worried about it because we weren't in the head space to really be there for the kids and here was someone offering to help - it was great."
The first part of this chapter provides a synopsis of recent international research on models of parent support in counselling and mediation, against which the findings from this part of the project can be considered.
Section 4.2 then outlines client parents' perceptions of the kind of assistance they received in counselling and/or mediation services, the perceived benefits for their children of various forms of support and intervention, and what they would have found useful in addition. Key findings from the Child Inclusive Mediation Model, trialed specifically for this project are also outlined.
Two forms of data provide the basis of the findings outlined in this chapter:
- Parent Survey results from 238 parents of 526 children.
- Personal interviews with 61 client parents.
4.1 Parent Eductation: The Foundation of Child Inclusive Practice
Ensuring that children's needs are represented in the mediation/counselling process does not always require direct consultation with the child. Researchers and practitioners such as Kelly (1997), advocate for processes that educate parents about the effects of conflict on children and help parents to identify the specific needs, currently and in the future, of their own children in the face of family separation. In many states in the USA (about 40% as of 1997), parent education prior to divorce mediation or litigation is compulsory. In line with other key authors in this area, Kelly sees the need for child focused education, particularly when the parents cannot agree about their child's best interests.
"It is important to provide parents with the forum and the tools they need to separate the unsatisfactory marital relationship from their continuing role as parents after divorce. To the extent that the newly restructured post divorce parenting relationship can become a businesslike, civilised partnership, whatever conflict occurs will not place the child at substantial risk. Although many parents intuitively understand that conflict can create adverse effects on their children, the direct presentation of data regarding the impact of conflict on their child's adjustment can provide a powerful incentive to high-conflict parents to re evaluate their behaviours and interactions" (p.135).
Kelly (1993;1997) found a startling lack of communication about the children's psychological needs and the couple's parental roles after divorce. The 1993 study discovered that 51 % of a sample of 284 divorcing parents reported having not talked at all or only very little with their spouse about custody and parenting matters regarding their minor children. They had spoken more with their children than with their spouse about this: "It would appear that the majority of post divorce parenting plans came about primarily by default". Lack of communication about the children appeared to be unrelated to other communication problems in the marriage. Most were reluctant to initiate conversations privately as they feared spiralling conflict or premature closure, and frequently deferred discussing parenting plans until arriving at what they perceived to be the safer forum of mediation or counselling.
Research evidence around the efficacy of parent education
Arbuthnot and colleagues (1995,1996,1997) and Kelly (1997) have demonstrated the efficacy of parent education strategies around marital distress and separation, particularly by resourcing parents with information about normal responses to family transition, facilitating discussion around the specific short and long term needs of their own children and integrating this meaningfully into parenting action.
A number of materials targeted for this population have been developed in the USA, for example, the video "Children in the Middle" by Kurkowski, Gordon and Arbuthnot (1993) and the book, Healing Hearts: helping children and adults recover from divorce by Hickey and Dalton (1994).
In a controlled study of court mandated child focused parent education classes based on the "Children in the Middle" video, Arbuthnot and Gordon (1996) found the education group to be functioning significantly better than controls 6 months later, in these following areas:
- being less angry with their ex-partner
- children's exposure to parental conflict
- parents willing to let child spend more time with other parent
- improvement in children's health and well-being
Two years later, this group had re-litigated less than half as often as the control group who had not attended education classes (Arbuthnot, Kramer and Gordon;1997). Another study has demonstrated the importance of early parent education for greater long term gains, specifically within the first month of filing for divorce (Arbuthnot, Segai, Gordon and Scheider;1994).
Even written materials alone seem to help. Children whose parents received written information in the mail about the effects of marital conflict reported being caught in the middle less often than controls (Kurkowski, Gordon and Arbuthnot, 1993). Similarly, when a 32 page booklet was mailed to 150 parents filing for divorce in a large urban court, the following was found when compared to a matched control group who had not received the materials:
- 3 months later, mothers in the intervention group reported greater reduction of loyalty conflict behaviours and increased encouragement of the child-father relationship.
- 1 year later, intervention parents were more likely to communicate positively with their children about their other parent.
- Non-residential parents from the intervention group had more access to their children than parents from the control group (from Arbuthnot, Poole and Gordon, 1996).
Skills oriented parent education (eg. how to keep children out of parental conflict) appears to have greater impact on post separation stressful behaviours than approaches which simply provide information to parents about how children feel about divorce (Kurkowski, Gordon and Arbuthnot, 1997).
Advising parents: models of direct consultation
Models of direct consultation with parents about parenting during marital distress are distinct from therapy and from teaching. For example, in Hodges' (1991) model, this is an interactive process in which the counsellor helps parents to understand and deal with problems that they are currently, for whatever reason, not skilled or resourced to deal with. It is non-interpretive and carried out in a supportive environment. Advice is given in the context of understanding personal and family dynamics, strengths, defensive patterns and anxieties. Consultants demonstrate their competence by the questions they ask, more than the answers they give. Unless one parent has remarried, it is usually preferable to include both parents together - encouraging them to put aside their troubles as a couple and to be present in their parenting capacity. This provides a strong primary prevention model for future difficulties.
Kelly (1997) also focuses on helping parents to build the capacity to respond appropriately and to regain effective parental control. Both parents are encouraged to provide explanations to the child about the conflict and/or divorce and assurance of continuing contact and support or efforts to resolve the difficulties. Specific advice is given to parents about handling children's age-appropriate responses to divorce.
From extensive research findings, Cummings and Davies (1994) have compiled the following guidelines for counsellors and parents to consider:
- Don't hold anger in.
- Avoid physical conflict and fighting about the children in front of them.
- Do resolve fights.
- The degree of resolution matters.
- Children benefit from resolution behind closed doors.
- Children benefit from adults' explanations of their conflict resolutions.
They also advocate teaching parents about circumstances under which children feel caught, and the damage that ensues, for example when:
- asked to carry messages, particularly hostile ones;
- asked intrusive questions about their other parent;
- creating a need in the child to hide information;
- creating a need to conceal feelings about other parent;
- one parent makes disparaging comments about the other.
4.2 What client parents say about children's needs in counselling and mediation
Having considered some of the key literature around the support of parents during times of couple conflict and separation, the findings from extensive survey and interview material with client parents of the counselling and mediation sub- programs are now explored.
Two rounds of surveys were distributed through the course of this project. The first was a random mailed survey to parents who had attended one of 30 counselling and/or mediation services in the past year. The second was targeted at parents whose children had been involved directly in some way in the counselling or mediation process, to assist with more meaningful comparisons of outcomes from various forms of support and intervention. (See Chapter 3 for details).
Parent survey round one: establishing trends
106 surveys were returned from this randomised mail-out (response rate of 27%), 68 from the counselling sub-program and 41 from the mediation sub-program. A total of 219 children were represented in that sample, most in the 5 to 12 age group. From this survey, the following major trends emerged:
Counselling sub-program findings:
- 77 % of children discussed through the parent survey had experienced some level of worry about the situation that had brought parents to counselling. 47 % were said to be very worried by it.
- 74 % of parents in counselling hoped their children would benefit directly from the process.
- Most parents (97%) reported that the Counsellor had discussed with them the effects of parental conflict on children.
- An average of 8 % of children were personally seen by the Counsellor, either with family members or individually.
- Parents felt children had benefited significantly from the counselling process, either directly or indirectly, in about 40 % of cases. In 14 % of cases, children were said not to have benefited at all or had become worse.
Mediation sub-program findings:
- 63 % of children in this sample (n=74) were reported by parents to experience some level of worry because of the divorce negotiation difficulties that had brought parents to mediation.
- 45 % of parents hoped that their children would benefit directly from the mediation. Most did not expect that this was possible.
- 75 % of parents reported that the Mediator had discussed with them the effects of parental conflict on children.
- About 4 % of children were directly consulted in some way during the mediation process.
- 24 % of children were said to have benefited significantly from the mediation, usually indirectly. 41 % were said not to have benefited at all.
Parent survey round two: confirming the efficacy of parent education and child consultation
Round two provided a further 132 surveys, making a total of 238 responses. 526 children were represented in this sample. 25 families who had participated in the Child Focused Mediation Model are included in this sample, and the results of this Pilot will be discussed in section 4.3.
|Parents||Number of respondents who attended:|
|Counselling n = 155|
|Mediation n = 83|
A total of 526 children were represented in the overall sample - 254 were male, 255 were female (17 did not state the gender). Most children in each program were in the 5 to 12 year age group, as demonstrated in the above charts. Other key findings from the combined round one and round two surveys are as follows:
|% children worried by conflict||76%||78%|
|% cases when the impact of conflict on children was discussed with parents||88%||82%|
|N= 418 children||In counselling||In mediation|
|Children were seen||143||78|
|Children were not seen||130||67|
In the counselling program, those children seen attended the following types and number of sessions:
Nature of intervention with children
When children were involved in counselling, it was most common for them to receive 2 to 4 individual sessions.
Children seen once individually were from the Child Focused Mediation Model (n=49). Outside of this Pilot sample, when children were seen in other mediation services, it tended to be with parents or with family. A few adolescents were seen for several individual sessions because of conflict between them and their parents, in addition to the divorce related dispute.
Key findings from parent surveys
The combined power of parent education and direct support of children
The first round of parent surveys indicated that children were most likely to benefit from the counselling or mediation process when the effects of parental conflict on children had been discussed with parents. With a larger and more balanced sample following round two, this trend is confirmed across both service types.
Analysis show that parents were more likely to rate the short term benefits of counselling or mediation (within 6 months of finishing) much higher when their children were directly included in the process (see the following table). Personal interviews with parents confirmed the essential combination of assistance for them to think more clearly about their parenting role, together with the support and relief for their children that frequently came with the opportunity for them to be heard in their own right by a counsellor or mediator.
|Number of children||great benefit||some benefit||no benefit|
|Children not seen||130||36%||47%||27%|
|Children not seen||67||34%||16%||50%|
Regression analyses: predicting benefits to children
From parents' reports, children were likely to benefit most when, in combination with parent education, children were also seen individually, as follows.
Counselling: what was associated with children's gains?
From the parent survey, the strongest "team" of variables that predicted high benefit to children were: (R2 = .19, F=5.833, p=.000). For each data set, Stepwise regression models were derived, following guidelines as described for example by Tabachnick and Fidell (1996)
- impact of parental conflict on children was discussed with parents
- parents were given individual support
- children were seen directly by the counsellor
- other factors associated with benefits were the extent to which children were troubled by the parental conflict prior to counselling (the more troubled, the greater the gain) and family size (the fewer siblings, the greater gain).
Mediation: what was associated with children's gains?
Here, the factors which best predicted high gains for children from the mediation process were clear:
- that impact of parental conflict on children was discussed with parents
- children were seen directly by the mediator
Other factors such as birth order, parents' desire for their children to be helped directly, type of presenting problem, or number of times parents were seen appeared to be less important to the outcome for children.
4.3 Parents' experience of having their child included in the counselling or mediation process
Concerns have been expressed in project workshops by counsellors and mediators about the potential of a child inclusive process to undermine parents' roles and even rights (see Chapter 6 for details). Many thought that if parents did not raise the subject of children, that workers did not have the right to do so.
Yet, based on interviews with 56 families who had attended counselling and/or mediation services, it appears that workers frequently underestimate parent's desire to be helped with parenting issues when they present for family law related matters. Below are summaries of these interview findings.
The experiences of parents who participated in the Child Inclusive Mediation Model
Details of this model are outlined in Chapter 3 and in the appendices. A recent dialogue about the model can also be read in McIntosh (1998) and Gibson (1998). Here we look at the feedback given by 22 parents, gathered from personal interviews 6 to 10 weeks after completion of the process.
The parents in the sample had reported the following reasons for attending mediation:
- Mainly property, finances: 8
- Mainly child arrangements: 6
- Both: 8
Interestingly, the 8 parents who attended initially for "property only" were all pleased to have a chance to review their plans for the children. All 8 commented favourably on the outcomes from this, 4 saying that outcomes regarding the children were more successful than property outcomes, and 4 saying that the process of coming together as parents helped them to move on to resolve property disputes in a far more cooperative manner.
Parents who did not participate: While the take up rate from appropriate families in the Melbourne sample was about 80 %, the 6 appropriate families in the Darwin sample all declined. In interviewing these 12 parents, it was discovered that in retrospect, half of the parents would have liked their children to be seen and would have taken up the offer at a different time. Other reasons included:
- communication with ex-partner about children very good - no need for outside help;
- preference for these discussions to be within the family;
- wanting to protect the children from knowing what was happening;
- the other parent said no;
- parents reunited;
- child said they didn't want to;
- children already seeing a counsellor.
These reasons were also typical of the Melbourne sample who declined the offer. Other reasons for the slower development of the Pilot in the Darwin organisation were identified by its staff at a de-briefing workshop. The key difficulty appears to have been that all staff, from management to administration, could not participate in the initial training that took place in Melbourne. Second hand information and written materials alone did not provide sufficient support for the new approach to be implemented consistently by all staff. Much of this has now been redressed through a recent site visit by the trainer. This experience underscores the importance of training strategies that embrace the whole organisation from the outset, as discussed further in Chapter 8.
Subsequent to the close of the Pilot, the Darwin organisation has continued with the model with encouraging results to date. One poignant gem came from a 7 year old, who asked the child interviewer the following: "Please tell mummy and daddy not to cut me in half, because then I'd have to hop everywhere."
How did parents view their children's needs and inclusion in mediation?
- 20 of the 22 parents in the Pilot sample said they had been very or quite worried about the impact of their dispute on the children. Only one couple did not agree on the extent to which their conflict had impacted on their children.
- 19 of the parents said their children had benefited significantly from the process. The 3 parents who felt their children did not benefit much, or at all were personally unhappy with the outcome of the mediation. In each case the child's other parent reported that the child had benefited significantly.
- Only 1 of the 22 parents experienced the process of their children being seen as personally difficult. This mother felt that her children had not been honest in saying that they did want to continue to see their father. In saying they did, it meant she had to continue to have contact with her ex-partner, which she had hoped not to.
- A number said they and their children would have liked at least one further session for the children to have feedback on the outcomes of the mediation.
Benefits to parents of having their children involved:
- "It gave us new information"(17 out of 22 parents).
- "It confirmed that we were on the right track" (18 out of 22).
- "It reassured us" (20 out of 22).
- "It reduced conflict between us around the kids" (16 out of 22).
- "It reduced conflict between us generally" (6 out of 22).
"Any sort of communication from the kids would have been helpful and the mediator was able to get this going" (Father).
"The whole of the mediation was an emotional experience, but the kids being seen was painless" (Mother).
"I thought it was fantastic that he was treated with the same respect as we were. Going to counselling would have singled him out as having problems. Being part of the mediation was acknowledging that he was just trying to find the best way to get through this huge change, like us" (Mother).
Reported changes in parent behaviours:
11 parents (mostly fathers) said the child feedback had led to a direct change in their behaviours and actions in relation to the children which would not have occurred otherwise, for example:
"I learned why my children didn't want to live with me. I was desperate for information I could trust and found this. Now I know how to handle it and make it better for the kids" (Father).
"I was surprised that the kids were worried about all sorts of things about me, eg where I was living, that I was upset, how could we split when we used to be in love. Now I do things differently with them, I'm more aware of how I handle things with them - I had to re-explain stuff to them and also stop talking about m1y with them. I see my kids as more human now and that they have a right to some answers" (Father).
"We both got a big surprise - the eldest said she wanted to live with me. I was particularly grateful to the mediator for taking such care and time to explain this, particularly to my wife so that she could take it on board. We also talked with the mediators about involving the girls in the property mediation, but they advised us not to and in the end that made sense to us. They helped us put a bit of a boundary down about what the kids needed to know about and what they didn't" (Father).
"I think it was invaluable, I really do. It gave us some information we may not have had otherwise and also it was like a confirmation that we were on the right track - it became crystal clear what the girls wanted and it removed the emotion which happened when my husband and I tried to talk it through on our own or with them." (Mother).
Non-residential fathers reported most change in their behaviours. This seems to reflect a common concern voiced by fathers in mediation that, in their new circumstances, they wanted to "do the best thing" for their children, but didn't know what the "best thing" was any more. Through the mediation, they learned more about how their behaviours around visiting and contact were impacting on their children and were often able to make appropriate adjustments as a result.
Reported changes in parent attitude:
10 other parents said the child feedback led to changes in their attitude toward and knowledge about the children which would not have occurred otherwise.
"It opened my eyes - there were fears that I didn't realise the kids had and things that have really hurt them, which is something my wife and I really avoided thinking about. In other ways it reinforced that we weren't doing too many things wrong" (Father).
"I learned that the kids miss their dad and I'm ok with that. I also learned the kids main worry was the fighting between us - not that we split up" (Mother).
When do parents think it is useful for children to have direct involvement in the mediation process?
Parents' views were far ranging on this topic, divided mainly into perceived benefits for children in their own right and for the mediation process:
When it will benefit children in their own right: General opinion was that direct consultation was useful whenever children in their own right would benefit from de-briefing about their experiences of the family separating and any conflict that had led the parents to mediation in the first place. Many made the distinction between this process and an ongoing counselling process, eg "It's not about deep personal concerns, but about lifting a burden from their shoulders". The effect that direct consultation had on their children was noticeable for many, for example:
"They both came out happy - they were more themselves than they had been in ages."
"He was more open afterwards, bubbly and since he's shown more insight into it all and understanding of what's going on."
"It was totally invaluable for our son to have a place to debrief - after he breathed this huge sigh of relief."
Many parents and children commented that it was useful for the children to talk in the presence of their siblings:
"They needed to let each other know what they thought about us splitting up."
When parents' personal state of mind means the children are not being heard or helped as best they could be: Several parents thought their own conflict and distress at the time made it opportune for someone outside the situation to listen to the children, partly as a process of regaining trust.
"They felt they could talk with this person without putting either of us down."
"The kids felt they had to edit what they say to us, but not to them."
"The kids need to understand things that we haven't been very good at explaining to them."
When the information would facilitate the mediation: A final category mentioned consistently by parents was that children should be seen when their views would help parents establish parenting plans, either through reassurance or new knowledge.
"When parents need an objective, unbiased opinion about whether the kids are ok."
"When we may not really know what they want because they are too afraid to say it to us."
Parents varied in their opinions about when it would not be useful for children to have any direct involvement in the mediation process. Most said that if the children were coping well with the separation, then it would be unnecessary. This is supported in our research findings. On the subject of age, parents clearly felt this needed to be assessed child by child. Some pre-schoolers would be capable of contributing, others would not, but parents also felt it important for younger children to be included with their older siblings in the interview.
Summary of parent views on the Mediation Pilot
It appears that this kind of "bare-bones" child focused intervention produces tangible short term benefits for children and for parents that are not evident in the sample of families surveyed whose children had not been included in this way. This is not to replace the value of longer term support through counselling for children with entrenched worries about the separation, but simply and powerfully illustrates the impact of at least giving a child a voice at this strategic point in their family's life.
The benefits of other forms of Child Inclusive Practice could not be examined in this project in the same way. However, comparison of a small sample of surveys from parents whose children were included in a mediation process but not this Pilot Model (n=10) were of interest. These children were usually seen together with their parents or as a family. Reported benefits of this approach for children were less than for the children who participated in the separate representation Pilot Model. (t=3.24, p=.002 at 95% CI). Analyses appended. These findings are preliminary and further comparative research would be important in establishing the efficacy of alternative child inclusive mediation practices. In parents' opinions, this Pilot Model of Child Inclusive Mediation has resulted in significantly more benefit to children and to parents in their parenting role than did approaches in which children were not included at all. The children who were involved in the Pilot Model were equally enthusiastic about the changes for them that had resulted from a once off focused consultation with the mediator and feedback to parents(see Chapter 5).
Views from parents whose children were involved in counselling
Parents and children in this interview sample participated in many forms of counselling, and unfortunately there is not a homogenous group of counselling interventions to consider. However, parents' views on having their children involved in some form of counselling at a time of parental distress or separation were surprisingly consistent.
33 families were interviewed, 20 whose children had been included in counselling and 13 whose children had not been. 42 parents were interviewed (31 mothers and 11 fathers). 5 couples had attended for marital counselling and 23 parents had attended for separation or divorce counselling. 28 were Australian born and 5 were families from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds (Vietnamese, Philippine, Italian, Egyptian and Polish).
The vast majority of these parents expressed concern about the impact that their conflict had had on the children. All parents whose children had been seen were relieved that this had been supportive for the whole family. Frequently, parents whose children were not seen stated that they probably would have accepted an offer of support for their children, despite initially doubting that it was feasible.
There was a common perception that counsellors wanted to keep the focus on parents, not children.
This group of parents also described their reservations and concerns about the direct counselling of children around issues of parent conflict, as follows:
- The counsellor would have to be skilled and experienced in working with children.
- All issues of confidentiality would need to be clear.
- Parents need some level of feedback about how their children appear to be coping and what they can do to help.
- Non-residential parents wanted to be advised of the child's progress.
- The cost of also bringing their children to counselling could be prohibitive.
Parents thought it useful to involve children when:
- Children are worried.
- Information the child has received is distorted or unclear.
- When separation crises mean parents can't think as clearly as they'd like to.
- When children request it.
- When parents request it.
- When children's views on contact or residence options would be helpful.
Parents thought it would be less useful to involve children when:
- The counsellor is unskilled.
- When it may introduce bias into the marital or separation counselling.
- When finances are being discussed.
- When marital issues are being discussed (children to be seen separately).
- When confidentiality is unclear.
- If children are pre-schoolers.
- If parents are too negative to work productively with the child.
- If counselling is going to be used as a weapon by one parent.
Many parents spoke about the need for parent discussion or education groups as helpful ways for parents to reconsider the needs of their children.
Views from parents in AMFT services
Since their inception, the AMFT services have been operating with a child inclusive focus as their mandate and accordingly, training and recruitment are driven by this. 13 parents from 10 families who had attended an AMFT service were personally interviewed about what was helpful for older children when parents were experiencing difficulties. 8 parents were interviewed in a focus group setting and 5 separately who could not attend a group. Between them, these parents had 8een teenagers, ages 13 to 19 years.
8 parents were experiencing problems in their first marriage, 2 were divorced, 1 was separated, and 2 were re-partnered and experiencing problems within the blended family. All had been very or quite worried about the impact of relationship difficulties on their children.
They felt their children were expressing difficulties in the following ways:
- lacking self esteem;
- feeling blame/guilt;
- not feeling respected as young adults;
- getting sick with the stress of it all;
- running away;
- glue sniffing;
- poor school performance;
- drinking, drugs;
All parents were satisfied overall with the results of the AMFT process, but had some suggestions to make in retrospect about what might have been helpful, how and when, as follows.
What was it like to have your teenage children consulted by a counsellor/mediator?
From a range of reactions to this question, a common denominator for most parents was feeling nervous at the outset ("what will they say about me", "will the counsellor be able to see it from our point of view too", etc). The tension of having a "not quite adult" child who needed privacy but whose parents needed to remain involved was felt by all parents. They wanted to be included at some level and to have feedback from the counsellor.
Most were in fact relieved by the feedback they received, often with the children present in a family session. Comments about the benefits of this combined individual and family approach, typical of the AMFT services included:
- It couldn't have made it worse than the way things were going.
- Teens in particular need to learn that their opinions matter.
- It helped us to speak freely.
- It did him the world of good to have me sit there and listen to him.
- Started process of building self esteem.
- Makes causes and responsibilities clearer to everyone.
- It made me feel good to see my daughter open up to the counsellor in front of us.
- He would open up to his mother, but not me: it was only through the counsellor that I learned how he felt.
- It's always useful, provided they choose to be involved.
- It reassures kids that others go through family break-ups too, to come to a centre and hear, 'This is where lots of kids come whose parents have decided not to live together any more'.
Summary of AMFT responses: These 13 parents all concluded that it was important for their teens to be involved in counselling/mediation at a time of marital stress or break-up.
Most felt the process they had been through was one of "no blame": open and honest, with everyone in the family coming out of it with some direct benefit, for example, being heard and increased self esteem. Many identified the transition to high school as a major source of stress to children, which if combined with family stress led to a very rough time for teens. A wider role for counselling services to attend schools and educate teachers about identifying teen stress was emphasised.
Why should it get to crisis point before someone helps?
These kids are not yet adults and the counselling or mediation needs to take this into account. Parents arrive in counselling or mediation pain propelled, but it isn't a case of here's my child, fix him and give him back. We need to be involved too. Our kids need to learn that we are there to help too, not just the counsellor, that we are concerned, not just nagging because we feel like it.
If the situation is affecting the child, they need to know what is going on, whatever their age.
AMFT parents and children consulted were on the whole very positive about the strategies and expertise offered them in dealing with the systemic impact of marital discord. This may be in part an artefact of only "satisfied families" agreeing to be interviewed and in this context, it is important to bear in mind that these interviews were not carried out with any kind of evaluative goal. The primary interest was in talking with a set of families who could comment on their experience of attending an established Child Inclusive service and their opinions on what might help older children when marital relationship problems impact on the family. With respect to the latter, this sample agreed almost uniformly that young people should be offered an opportunity to be heard and that the choice of family, individual or combined forums needed to be made responsively, case by case.
A great deal of data has been presented in this chapter, gathered through interviews and surveys from parents attending counselling, mediation and AMFT services.
A significant majority of parents were in favour of some kind of direct support being offered to their children at a time of parents' marital distress or separation. However, this was not seen as a panacea. Parents advocated for a case by case determination and matching of children's needs, parents' wishes and the skills and expertise of the counsellor/mediator to meet these. The small group of parents who were negative about the idea all reported a negative experience with direct involvement of children. Examples of this included feeling excluded in not receiving feedback, believing the counsellor had adopted a biased view of the situation in favour of the child, and believing the counsellor was inadequately skilled to really help.
The interventions most highly associated with positive outcome for children when their parents presented for marital or divorce counselling/mediation were:
- The effects of parents' conflict on their children was discussed with parents.
- The children were seen directly by the counsellor or mediator to discuss their own responses to the family situation.
- Benefits to children were highest when both of these interventions occurred.
The Child Inclusive Mediation Pilot, which combined parent education with direct child consultation, produced strong positive short term outcomes for both parents and children.
These findings overall are in line with the international literature reviewed earlier in this chapter, particularly in upholding the importance of parent education and an active focus on children's needs for healing and recovery following parental conflict or separation.
5. What helps? The children's voice
"When kids are worried about what will happen with their parents and how it will turn out, you can tell the mediator lady and she says things that make you worry less and you do good drawings and she will tell your mum and dad that you are sad." (girl, 7 years)
This chapter firstly looks at a range of research findings around effective means of supporting children through parental conflict and family change. The second section presents findings of this project from a series of personal interviews conducted with children whose parents attended a counselling or mediation service in the past 6 months for marital or divorce related issues.
The focus here is on children's perspectives of what was helpful to them and what other help they would have liked. Section 5.3 presents the views of children who were seen in the Child Inclusive Mediation Pilot. Section 5.4 looks at the views of children who were and were not included when their parents attended a family and child counselling service. Finally, section 5.5 deals with a small sample of young people who attended an AMFT service with an established child focused practice.
5.1 What helps a child cope with parental conflict and divorce:
Kelly (1997) summarises a number of variables from numerous research studies that have been shown to reliably predict better adjustment to conflict and divorce. Any or all of these variables may enhance or decrease a child's adjustment to conflict and divorce, depending on the direction of activity in each area.
In general, children are better psychologically adjusted, demonstrate better scholastic progress and appropriate behaviour when conflict between parents post separation is minimal (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1988; Guidubaldi & Perry, 1985, Hetherington et al, 1982).
The adjustment of the residential parent
Without the other parent around as a buffer, the child is more exposed and more vulnerable to any psychological symptoms of the residential parent. Kline et al (1988) found that residential parents' depression scores in the year of divorce were significantly linked to children's emotional and social adjustment 2 years after divorce. Funder (1996) has also drawn important parallels between the functioning of the residential parent and outcomes for the child post divorce, as is the case during the course of marital conflict.
Relationship with the non-residential parent
The primary negative aspect of parental conflict reported by children in many studies is the emotional and/or physical loss of the non residential parent. Predictable and frequent contact with the non residential parent has been repeatedly demonstrated to be associated with better adjustment in children unless father is himself poorly adjusted or extremely immature (Hetherington et al, 1982; Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980; Warshak, 1986). Isaacs (1986) found the stability of visits to be more important than the frequency. Mother's attitude toward the father and his relationship to the child were a predictor of positive adjustment in both boys and girls (Guidubaldi & Perry, 1982: Funder, 1996)
Child rearing practices and child care
Children typically experience diminished and inconsistent discipline after separation (Funder, 1996) and this break in routine can in itself be very confusing for children. Nastasi (1988) found for example that children in intact families did more homework, watched less TV and had more joint activities with parents than children in mother-custody divorced families.
Half of the children from the Wallerstein and Kelly study faced at least one parent's remarriage within 5 years of their parents' separation. Aside from the stress of the new relationship, it was often associated with geographical moves and major discontinuities in the child's life. Wallerstein and Kelly observed that many children were eager, anxious, and resentful, watching for evidence of acceptance or exclusion by the step parent and of repeating marital tensions. Those children welcoming of stepfathers were happy at the thought of greater security and they especially noticed if mother was happier.
Remarriage often worked better with younger children, who gained a happier mother and a new step-father. One quarter of the older children reported considerable distress about the remarriage, where clearly their needs were divergent from their remarrying parent: these children were often excluded from the pleasures of the new relationship and its benefits, other than greater socio-economic security. Remarriage often created conflict for non-custodial parents regarding commitment to the children of the former marriage.
Hetherington et al (1985) found that boys and girls in remarried families within the first 2 years showed increased externalising behaviours. Bray (1988) also found this with a younger sample of children. After 2 years of re-marriage, boys benefited from having a step-father and no longer differed significantly from intact family children. Girls tended to benefit less in this period.
Type of residential/parenting plan
Residential arrangements (ie sole versus shared parenting) alone does not predict adjustment. The factors listed above, particularly quality of communication between parents, attitude of parents toward each other and toward parenting and quality of relationship between both parents and children are the key factors that can help mitigate against some of the longer term impacts on children of conflict or separation.
It follows that support to parents that helps them to achieve more effective communication and cooperation would assist with longer term individual adjustment of children. For example, the previous chapter highlighted the efficacy of parent education in reducing childhood adjustment difficulties around parental separation.
5.2 What kind of support helps? Research Views
Direct support of the child is also supported by much research, particularly support which helps them forge healthier appraisals of parental conflict and their position in it. There is mounting research evidence that group based intervention for school aged children can help children to develop more effective coping strategies and more helpful styles of cognitive appraisal which buffer against the effects of marital conflict (eg see Rogers and Holmbeck, 1997; O'Brien et al, 1997). Robson (1982) found that teaching coping strategies and problem-solving skills can help diffuse feelings and offer a supportive environment in which children can learn that others feel as they do. Pedro-Carroll (1997) in New York has developed the Children of Divorce Intervention Program and recent research documents its efficacy in reducing the stress of divorce for children through teaching social competencies that enhance a broad base of adaptive coping and resilience.
Less research has been done around the impact of individual counselling, but helpful guidelines are available from, for example, Hodges (1991), whose approach resembles that developed by Kelly through the longitudinal Marin County Project (see Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980). Kelly's approach first advocates 3 areas of assessment of a child's needs within the context of marital conflict and separation:
- Developmental assessment with parents - detailed history, including information from school.
- Divorce/conflict specific assessment - individual, focused sessions around the child's response to the situation - fantasies, affect and behaviours and defensive mechanisms. The child's understanding of the divorce/conflict - what they had been told and how they had responded.
- Social system assessment - supports, peers, outside activities etc.
Kelly and Hodges describe avenues for intervention which follow from the assessment. In Kelly's model, this involves seeing the child individually in brief, focused sessions. Children under 8 were usually only seen once or twice. Children aged 9 to 12 were seen 3 to 4 times, with the aim of helping the child to see the realities of the situation and to avoid problems that are not theirs to solve, plus idiosyncratic decisions/problems. Longer interventions were needed for children who felt severe guilt or whose mourning and grief was unduly distressing for them. For pre-schoolers, seeing parents rather than the individual child was felt to be more effective. With adolescents, a major focus of the work was on avoiding the parent role and accepting feelings; parental separation often compounds normal individuation issues and brief individual therapies can be helpful.
Hodges' model of brief individual therapy with the child also acknowledges the unique reactions of the child and recognises that individual therapy may be helpful at a time when parents are less available. Goals of work with the child include:
- increased recognition and acceptance of feelings;
- talking out rather than acting out distress;
- improving problem solving;
- directing the child toward ways of getting their needs met;
- encouraging more appropriate interactions;
- restoring trust.
The therapist may also be helpful as a predictable, consistent presence in the child's life at a time of flux; someone who can bear to hear how they are feeling and with whom there are no divided loyalties. It may be useful when there is avoidance of a problem by parents but willingness to allow the child to be seen, and when the child is old enough to get something from individual work alone.
In the mediation context, there is less research still on the impacts of individual consultation with the child. Authors such as Johnston and Campbell (1988) and Johnston (1997) from the Center for the Family in Transition (CFFT) have developed a model of practice in their own organisation where, in every case of conflicted divorce negotiations, children over the age of 3 are seen by a trained child psychologist/mediator and their views and needs assessed. Younger children are observed with each parent over time, to assess quality of attachment and interaction.
The CFFT works with a "separate representation model", by which the child representative brings the views of the child back into the mediation with the parents, where they are discussed, without involving the child directly in parent sessions. A parent assessment is also completed, through which it is determined what work will be necessary with the parents in order that they might "hear" and act effectively on the child's needs. This may mean that parents are seen longer term, in a therapeutic counselling model.
The child may also be seen in short term play therapy (up to 6 sessions), focussed solely on their needs and feelings around the separation. Parenting plans are reviewed and the mediator/ counsellor remains available to the parents for periodic updating of parenting plans and renegotiation as necessary over time.
Others, such as Kelly (1996, 1997) see children directly about 20-25% of the time, relying more on a parent education model through which to incorporate the child's needs and interests into parenting plans.
When does a child need to be seen directly? Roseby (1995) proposes that when parental conflict has intruded upon the child's capacity to enjoy an unconflicted relationship with one or both parents, individual assessment of the child should be considered. Roseby and Johnston agree that children's needs are often hidden under layers of confusion and divided loyalty, and further distorted by distressed parents who, at the time, may be unable to recognise the child's communications for what they are.
In the following section, we look at the views of Australian children who have been involved directly in counselling or mediation in the past year.
5.3 What kind of support of support helps? Children's views
As part of the research interviews conducted with client families of counselling and/or mediation services (as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2), 57 children were asked to reflect on what had helped them and what might help kids in general when their parents were unhappy together or separating.
There were 3 groups of children who were involved directly :
- 17 who had participated in the Child Inclusive Mediation Model (see Chapters 2 and 3).
- 22 who had been seen by a counsellor, either individually or with family, when parents were attending counselling for marital reasons.
- 6 adolescents who had participated in direct counselling and/or mediation when their parents were also experiencing maritally related difficulties.
12 children who had not been involved in counselling or mediation were also interviewed.
Divorce Mediation: Children's views on being included in a child focused approach.
The Child Inclusive Mediation Model, designed and trialed specifically for this project, was introduced in Chapter 3, and parents' views on the approach and its impacts were discussed in Chapter 4. Here, we look at the perceptions of children who were involved.
17 of the 28 participating children (from 13 families) were interviewed 6 to 8 weeks after they had been seen by the mediator. In all cases, parents were attending for divorce related disputes.
15 of the 17 children interviewed said unequivocally that going to see the mediator had been helpful to them. 2 brothers felt it had not helped them, because they were "doing ok" to start with, but that it might have helped their parents to know that.
These children were able to articulate many of the tensions that workers themselves hold about involving children in a mediation process, most notably a recognition that their parents may not have been able to hear their feedback. In each case where this was mentioned, the child also said that despite this possibility, they had got something from the process themselves that had been very helpful. Some comments included:
"All kids should be given the opportunity and then they can choose if they want to." (boy, 13 years).
Interviewer: "What if mummy and daddy were too mad or sad to listen to the mediator?"
Child: " But it still helped me." (girl, 8 years).
"It's good to talk to the mediator lady because you just need to say how it is for you" (girl, 11 years).
"When you need to make it perfectly clear what you want from mum and dad, then the mediator can tell them for you, because they don't listen to me. It might help. It certainly helps just to get things off your chest" (girl, 15 years).
"I reckon all kids should do this if they are confused - it helps to know like why your parents are fighting and what they are trying to do about it. We all wanted to go back after" (girl, 16 years).
"I went there thinking it would be boring but they made it really interesting for us kids, with drawings and toys and stuff" (boy, 11 years).
"I came away knowing how my brothers and sister felt and that they were sad and upset and how I could help them - like if an argument started between us kids we could say "Are you upset about them again?" instead of just thinking it was always about us being stroppy with each other" (girl, 15 years).
Only 4 children could think of occasions when it might not be useful to talk to the mediator themselves, summarised in the following quotes:
"When some things won't change, like my brother told the mediator that he hated my parents communicating through him, and she told them, but they haven't stopped doing it. I don't think Mum and Dad can be sorted out, even with all the mediation in the world" (girl, 15 years).
"When they don't want to ... when they don't need to, except it's good for them to be invited to and let them decide" (boy, 8 years).
There were no significant differences in the benefits to themselves as reported by children from higher and lower conflict situations. Children with parents in high conflict were more likely to realise the limited change that might occur in their parents, and indeed this was openly discussed with all by the mediator. The children's responses overall to involvement in the child focused mediation model were overwhelmingly positive and in line with the comments made by their parents. Many children wanted to go back for more sessions. This "bare bones" model of inclusion appears in itself to provide tangible support to children at least in the short term.
Such results introduce a dilemma for mediation services: is it legitimate to offer a service from which children may gain more than their parents, particularly where a more therapeutic model of parent counselling or education is not available to support the child's feedback being heard? Is the child a client in their own right? These questions are considered further throughout the report.
5.4 On being consulted directly by a counsellor: Children's views
This section explores the experiences of children involved in counselling at a time when their parent/s attended FRSP organisations for reasons of marital or separation distress. This is a less homogeneous group than the above Mediation Pilot group, where children had experienced the same type and degree of input. Those attending counselling had received various forms of support, some individual and some with parents or family members, and over different time periods. The research looks at children's experience of being included directly in some form of supportive consultation and contrasts this with children's experiences of not being included at all.
The child research team spoke with 22 children who had been seen at a family and child counselling service, and 12 children who had not been seen at all, both in the context of marital distress. Ages ranged from 4 to 15 years, with approximately equal numbers of boys and girls. Additionally, interviews with 6 young people who attended an adolescent mediation and family therapy service for similar reasons were considered.
Of the 22 younger children seen in counselling, most had been seen individually or in a combination of family sessions and individual sessions. The number of sessions attended varied greatly, from 1 to 15.
4 of these children said that the counselling had not helped them in any recognisable way:
"I was ok on my own. People need to talk about this stuff, but I thought I could get over it on my own. She asked too many questions. I was scared something might happen or change" (boy, 9 years).
"The police would have been better, to stop my mum and dad fighting" (boy, 9 years).
"I was too shy. Hardly anything works, my mum still screams at me and it hasn't changed her" (girl, 8 years).
"Kids shouldn't go if they don't need to or if they don't like counsellors. I'm glad my dad left because he was mean to my mum and I don't like him" (boy, 11 years).
The counselled children offered many views on the kinds of support and help they felt they had received. Some comments included:
"We had to look for help. I can't talk to my brothers and sister because they are different. My friends are great but they can't help you with stuff like this. She (counsellor) listened and gave me the confidence to keep going. If I went with my parents, it wouldn't be as good - there would be arguments and I wouldn't say what I wanted to say" (girl,11 years. 4 individual sessions. Parents considering separation).
"Our Mum and Dad hate each other and we need someone to talk to, to get what we wanted. It eventually helped because you spill out what's inside. It felt weird and nervous, but it was great. It makes you want to say all your feelings - like I wanted to scream and shout. I was more polite with the lawyer. She told me why I couldn't get what I wanted, which was free access to Dad. If I tell my friends I'm seeing a counsellor, they'd think I was a freak. I'd be scared to answer questions in front of my parents" (girl, 13years. 5 individual sessions. Parents separated).
"I was anxious, but hopeful that it would get solved. She explained things well to us" (boy, 13 years. 2 individual sessions. Marital conflict).
"I was confused, kind of scared and nervous about seeing a counsellor. It helped us with our problems by talking about the arguments" (boy, 11 years. Individual and family sessions. Marital conflict).
"I felt sad but happy that they would help us sort it out. It's good to get to ask them about stuff that's not going good" (girl, 6 years. 3 individual and family sessions. Parents separating).
"It was good to say it's not fair" (girl, 7 years. 2 Individual sessions. Parents separating).
"Since mum and dad's break up, mum can't handle all of our worries on her own. The counsellor talked with us calmly and slowly, not like mum and dad" (girl, 10 years. 2-3 sibling sessions. Parents separated).
"Cool kids think they don't need help, but others do want help to be happy. Counsellors need to explain to us how parents feel so we understand and don't get so angry at our parents. It would be good for parents to do a picture too and compare them with ours" (girl, 10 years. 3 Individual sessions. Marital conflict).
"When my parents split up, I thought it was my fault and I needed someone to talk to. The stuff I had inside would have hurt mum and dad - it was good to talk in private. Once she (the counsellor) told them a stupid little thing I wouldn't have wanted her to say and that was terrible - she should have asked me first" (girl, 14 years. 8 Individual sessions. Divorce counselling).
"For a long time I thought my Dad didn't really care and then he came into a couple of sessions and said that he really did love me and that really helped" (girl, 11 years. Individual and conjoint sessions. Divorce counselling).
The views from 12 children who were not seen at all were similar, with most thinking it would have been helpful to be offered a chance to talk to someone. Some were cautious, and struggled to understand the idea of "counselling". Others felt the counsellor should play a "policeman role" in "telling my Mum and Dad how to do things right." Other comments included:
"I would have liked to talk to someone if they came over here to my house" (girl, 9 years).
"Counsellors should help kids by talking to their parents and telling them what's going on. A child could be scared and can't do their school work because something has gone wrong in the family. It would have been good to talk to someone separate on my own, so mum and dad didn't get hurt. I could have gone with my sister though" (girl, 12 years).
"I don't know if I would want to talk with a counsellor. I suppose if you are sad that your dad moved away, if you had no money, if you don't want what they are going to do it might be good to talk to someone else" (boy, 6 years).
5.5 Views from young people attending an AMFT Service
Family members from 10 families who had attended an AMFT service were interviewed. Only families where marital conflict or separation was a key issue were targeted. Several families in Adelaide and Sydney were approached in the first instance by their respective AMFT organisation, and were asked if they would be interested in joining a focus group discussion, with separate groups for parents and for teenagers.
The sub-sample interviewed
6 of the eighteen young people represented in the sample of 10 families were interviewed; 4 in a group setting and 2 individually who could not attend the group. (Interviews with their parents are reported in Chapter 4). The remainder were either not interested in coming to a group or in being interviewed (9), or were geographically too far away to attend (3).
Of the young people interviewed, 2 of these young people had attended for mediation only with their parents. 4 attended a combination of individual counselling and family therapy/mediation sessions. The number of sessions they attended ranged between 4 and 20.
Time and resource restraints prohibited researchers from wider canvassing, and unfortunately numbers in this sample of young people are small. However the opinions of these young people provide an interesting insight into the needs of older children together with their reflections on what might help younger children whose parents are in some kind of conflict.
On being seen personally
All 6 young people found the chance to talk on their own very useful. Consensus was that the counsellor must be: non-judgmental, well-informed, friendly and caring, neutral. Some comments about the personal experience of being offered a one to one forum were:
"When you need someone to listen just to you."
"When you are too angry to talk in front of your parents."
"When they should be talking on their own, like about the divorce and I should be talking on my own, like what I feel about it."
"When you need to be calmed down."
"When you need someone to care about what's happening for you and to say something intelligent about everything that's going on."
"Over time, she became like a friend … I could talk about stuff that I don't want Mum and Dad to know, like fighting with my boyfriend or messing myself around." "It was someone neutral who knew when I was speaking rubbish and brought me back to earth."
"… I was so angry with my parents, I would have just switched off if I'd of had to talk in front of them."
"I learned a lot of things about how to cope with my parents fighting, that I don't reckon we could have talked about in front of them – they just would have fought about that too."
"I feel a deep hatred for my parents and I needed to talk about that away from them before I talked about it with them."
On when it's good to talk as a family
4 of the 6 also found it helpful to them to talk in a family context in addition to being seen on their own. For example,
"When there have been family arguments or people being violent - the whole family knows about it and needs to talk about it."
"When you need to listen to each other's opinions."
"When seeing your school counsellor just isn't helpful (there was much discussion about school counsellors not keeping confidentiality boundaries, being out of touch, etc.)"
"When your parents don't understand you."
"When you need to come up with different ways to communicate."
"At first it's hard to talk in front of them(parents) but you get used to it as the sessions go on - the counsellor treats it like normal, that helps."
"I feel a big weight lift sometimes when I hear my parents talk about their feelings, and not just what I'm doing or not doing."
When is it not useful for young people to be involved directly
"When parents are too emotional about their own stuff."
"When parents are just fighting each other."
"When parents can't listen anyway."
"When parents have personal problems."
"When parents are talking about divorce between themselves."
"Kids should always have the choice about whether it's right to talk alone or with their parents."
Reflecting what might be good for younger children, teens thought
"Getting to know the counsellor and playing with them while you're talking would be important."
"Teachers are very important to you when you are little - maybe someone could help them to help the little kids."
"It would be good if all little kids going through this stuff got a chance to talk with a counsellor - they can be influenced easier than us older kids and they might learn some things early on that would help them instead of waiting till it gets really bad."
This chapter described the experience of a wide range of children recently or currently affected by their parent's marital distress or separation. From mediation to counselling to AMFT services, there was a strong consensus amongst most children that when parents are in conflict, kids benefit from having a chance to talk about how it is for them.
Clearly direct consultation with children is not a panacea, and the children themselves remind us that a case by case rather than a "recipe" approach remains essential in this work: some preferred that counsellors "just fixed up the parents" or thought the police would do a better job. However, 51 of these 57 children said that they found it helpful and supportive to be heard in their own right. Again, the voice of the child provides a compelling argument for services to be in a position to offer such support, should it be appropriate.
6. Current practice: Voices from the field
The previous chapters have relayed the voices of parents and children; their experience of family conflict and transition and their views of the types of counselling and mediation support are most helpful.
This chapter examines the current situation in counselling, mediation and adolescent, mediation and family therapy services. The first component of the chapter reviews previous research in the sector as it relates to the involvement of children. The rest of the chapter summarises research specifically undertaken for this project through service profiles, worker surveys and workshops.
Special Note: Much of the information in this chapter was gained in the early stages of the project. As section 6.4 indicates, there were considerable shifts in attitude (and some in practice) during the course of the project. The comments in this section, outlining the concerns and at times fears of workers, should be taken within the context of the complexities of working with children and the difficult transition that is required to attain good practice in this field. In addition, it is acknowledged that Child Inclusive Practice has not been part of the culture of this sector, with gaps in resources as a result. It is these systemic issues which will need to be addressed in addition to individual worker practice.
6.1 Previous research
A number of previous studies and/or evaluations of counselling and/or mediation services have, directly or indirectly, addressed the issues of children's involvement in these services. The key findings of 5 of these studies are summarised here to enable a comparison with the findings of this current research.
Family and child counselling
Direct work with children to date has not been a common practice in the counselling services, as shown in a 1996 evaluation of the 'Marriage and Relationship Counselling sub-program' (ARTD Management and Research Consultants). The findings of this research indicated that:
- 61 % of clients were married or de facto and living with their spouse.
- 36 % were separated or divorced.
- 6% of client families had dependent children.
- 19 % of sessions were individual, with male client only.
- 43 % of sessions were individual, with female clients.
- 38 % of sessions were couple/family.
In 30% of cases, separation was rated as the dominant concern, and in 18%, parenting or child related issues were rated by clients as the main reason for seeking counselling. This evaluation suggested that all existing organisations have the capacity to provide family and child counselling as it is defined in the Family Law Act (as amended) through continuing to provide the first element: marriage counselling.
The evaluation also explored the capacity of counselling services to complement existing programs with the provision of child counselling. In more than half of the organisations, children attended in less than 5 % of all cases. Only 4 organisations involved children in 20-30% of cases, had always undertaken child-focused work, and felt equipped to accommodate changes within the Family Law Act 1975. Three-quarters of organisations had a high interest in doing some kind of child-focused work with either families or individuals. Half of the organisations said that counsellors had a high level of enthusiasm for this work, while in the other organisations counsellors preferred to stay with their established specialty of marital work.
- 61 % of organisations reported mixed to low skills in working with families to resolve issues around children.
- 70 % of organisations reported mixed to low skills in working with children directly.
While it was acknowledged that most marital counsellors had some training in family therapy, updating of skills was seen to be desirable, as well as increased access to clinical supervision within the organisation and within the region.
Moloney, Fisher, Love & Ferguson completed 2 evaluations of federally funded mediation services in Sydney (1996) and Melbourne (1995). During the period of these evaluations, the nature of involvement with families was characterised as follows:
- 80-90 % of respondents to the client satisfaction surveys had children.
- 60-70 % of cases were seen for 1 or 2 sessions (parents only).
Most clients spent between 2 to 10 hours in the mediation process, with a mean length of 4 hours. In the Melbourne study, the issues in dispute as reported by clients (n=111) were:
- Property/financial 59 %
- Parenting/access 32 %.
- Communication 28 %.
- Maintenance 20 %.
- Custody 18 %.
Neither evaluation focused on the issue of children in mediation, but both paid some attention to parents' perceptions of the contribution that mediation had made to their children's well-being. Responses to this survey question from the Sydney sample yielded the following findings:
- 36 % saw a link between the mediation and positive changes for their children.
- 59 % said there was no resultant change.
- 2 % said things were worse because mediation resulted in less satisfactory contact between parents and child.
- 4 % said results for children were mixed.
Results in the Melbourne study were slightly different, with 40 % of parents believing that their children had benefited indirectly from the mediation process, through improved parental communication or improved parenting arrangements. 2 national meetings for FRSP family mediation in 1995 and 1996 confirmed that while there was considerable interest in the involvement of children in mediation, in practice, it was rare for organisations to include children in divorce related mediation sessions, either separately or with their parents.
It appears that many organisations are now actively developing ideas and practice models in this area (eg. Northern Beaches Family Mediation Centre, NSW is developing child-focused information sessions and parenting plan booklets; Relationships Australia, Victoria, together with La Trobe University, are piloting a parent education model and researching the extent to which mediation currently demonstrates a child focus).
Although the service is not centred solely on the resolution of conflict stemming from marital discord, it is evident that a large percentage of adolescents using this service have experienced significant family discord and resultant transition at some point in their lives. The AMFT Evaluation in 1991 conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, found that 25 % of adolescents using the service were from step families and about 33 % were from single parent families. Reasons for attending the service included parental stress (40%) and repartnering (20%). Adolescents were often seen to be acting out the tensions originating in parental or marital conflict.
In a 1996 FRSP survey, 11 out of 13 service providers rated family conflict due to repartnering as a very or extremely significant issue in their casework; 9 out of 12 rated marital/de facto relationship problems as very or extremely significant. In contrast to the other sub-programs, it is standard practice to see the adolescent directly within the first 2 sessions of involvement, and to engage often in combinations of mediation, counselling and family therapy at different stages of the process. For example, some figures for the AMFTs in 1991 were:
- 82 % of adolescents attended the first or second session
- 21 % received a combination of counselling, mediation, family therapy and individual sessions.
- 17 % were intake and mediation only (about 2 sessions of mediation).
- 14 % were family therapy only.
- 14 % were individual counselling only.
Summary of previous research
In summary, previous research indicated that with the exception of the AMFT services, it was rare for counselling and/or mediation services to work directly with children. In fact the 1996 evaluation of counselling services indicates that only 4 organisations felt confident in all situations to deal with children and 70 % of the respondents reported that they had mixed to low skills in terms of working directly with children. The results of the previous research with mediation services indicate a similar pattern.
6.2 Current service profiles
To ascertain current Child Inclusive Practice in the sector, 4 processes were utilised: a service profile questionnaire which was sent to all FRSP counselling and/or mediation services, a worker survey which was circulated through services to all staff, a series of workshops in every State and Territory, and a series of telephone interviews conducted with CEOs or clinical supervisors in organisations which auspice a counselling and/or mediation service.
An analysis of the service profiles was undertaken with a particular emphasis on the way in which organisations include children in their current practice.
In total 62 service profiles were returned from a potential 71; representing 45 organisations:
- Auspices: Centacare 20; Relationships Australia 8; Family Services Australia 17.
- Counselling: 34 services
- Mediation: 16 services
- AMFT: 12 services
45 of the services are located in urban areas and 17 in rural communities. It is of interest to note that half of the services had sites away from their central office location. Many of these had multiple sites. For example, Relationships Australia, Brisbane, has 12 sites throughout Queensland; Lifeworks Victoria (Anglicare) has 14 sites; and Centacare Adelaide has 6 country sites.
Aims and Objectives
Analysis of the aims and philosophies of the various organisations is presented for the counselling and/or mediation services separately; the position of the AMFT's is not considered here.
Counselling services: A total of 10 organisations with counselling services mentioned children in their aims and/or objectives; that is the aims/objectives actually included the word 'children'. There were many aims which included 'the family', while not specifically mentioning children.
"…and provide counselling towards reaching mutual agreement on the care of children."
"To provide educational and therapeutic programs for adults and children who have experienced loss as a result of separation/divorce or death of a family member."
"To ensure a focus on the needs of children within the counselling process."
"To provide expert counselling assistance to families, couples and children, in order to sustain and enhance the quality of relationships…and to protect the family members, especially children, from the psychological effects of conflict, family breakdown and violence."
"Where children are involved in a counselling situation with parents, the opportunity is always given for the child(ren) to have counselling time alone if they wish, as well as for the parent(s) to have counselling time alone ."
Mediation services: 7 services mentioned children in their aims and/or objectives.
"To assist couples to manage conflict and reach agreements suitable to them and their children; to maintain as one of the foci of dispute resolution the best interests and well-being of children involved."
"Family and child mediation acknowledges that, where children are the focus of the discussion, their best interests are paramount."
4 services mention children in their philosophy. In only one mediation service was there a mention of children in the aims/objectives, but no children were actually seen, according to the statistics provided. A further 7 services report in their statistics that they work with children but make no mention of children in their aims and/or objectives or philosophy.
Counselling services: Only 2 services specifically addressed children in the way that they describe their service model. All of the other counselling services used general descriptors such as narrative therapy, solution-focussed, Gestalt, eclectic, psycho-dynamic, behavioural. Some merely stated that they provide 'counselling'.
Mediation services: 4 services mention children in the service model.
In an attempt to quantify the actual numbers of children seen, organisations were asked to provide statistics for the past 12 months. Of the 62 services which provided a service profile, only 17 counselling and 5 mediation services were able to provide data on the number of children seen:
- For the 17 counselling services, 12,637 cases were opened in the period January-June 1997, of which 752 (6%) involved children being seen directly.
- For the 5 mediation services, 268 cases were seen in the same period, with 30 (11%) involving children directly. A number of other mediation services, without giving exact figures, stated that they had not seen any children during the period.
A high number of services reported that they had not kept statistics on the number of children seen directly if it was part of a family counselling or mediation process. In addition there was no way of recording and reporting on the ways in which children's interests were addressed in counselling and mediation sessions with parents.
Counselling services: An analysis was undertaken of the nature of the resource and service gaps mentioned in the profiles (A total of 58 concerns were mentioned by the 34 services which responded to this question.)
The overwhelming gap was in funding for additional staffing, especially to meet additional demands (mentioned by 19 services). An additional 5 services stated that they were in need of extras funds in order to service rural or outlying/remote centres.
Other difficulties mentioned by up to 3 services included: lack of funds for information technology; lack of staff resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; pressure on administration and management and lack of funds to support the extra demands on them by government.
In terms of the particular focus on Child Inclusive Practice, 10 services mentioned the lack of funds for training, along with the lack of good training options for developing skills in working with children. (This was seen as a particular problem by rural services.) 3 of these services mentioned the difficulties in attracting and retaining skilled staff in rural areas. 4 (3 rural) services mentioned the difficulties in finding referral services for children needing specific direct assistance and 3 services commented on the lack of equipment or facilities for working with children.
Mediation services: Resource issues were apparently less of a concern for mediation services, with only 12 concerns being expressed by the 16 organisations which responded to this question. No one concern was mentioned more than twice. Those mentioned included - lack of funding; lack of other services for referral; lack of community awareness of mediation; lack of resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. None of the mediation services raised service or resource gaps specifically related to working with children.
Counselling services: When asked about their achievements, counselling services overwhelmingly highlighted 3 areas:
- Provision of a quality service (16 services); a further 5 pointed to their achievement in maintaining a high level of service despite funding restrictions.
- High level of client satisfaction (10 services).
- Strong community profile and credibility (10 services).
A further 5 organisations pointed to the quality of their staff as an achievement. 3 services were proud of their outreach service to outlying/rural areas, while 3 had made progress in increasing access for ATSI/NESB clients. 5 services noted their achievement in training others, either internally or externally.
Mediation services: 17 achievements were mentioned by mediation services. Service quality (which was mentioned by 4 services) was the main theme, while the achievement of a stronger focus on children was mentioned by 3 services. Enhanced community awareness, offering training to others, and development of a focus on cultural and linguistic diversity were each mentioned by 2 services.
22 counselling services and 5 mediation services mentioned that they had undertaken some child-focused training in the past year. However, this was overwhelmingly 1 and 2 day workshops.
Little specific information was provided about the content of the courses or workshops. They were mainly described as 'child-focused'. Play therapy had been a focus for some of the training.
"There are no specific post-graduate training courses offered in child counselling and the opportunities …are few compared with those with adult disorders."
Many services noted difficulties in accessing training, such as costs, capable people to run the training and backup costs for small services.
Only 2 services could be described as having adopted an overall training strategy, in terms of working with children, which was reflected in an ongoing training approach. In both cases, these services had sought out training opportunities, incorporated a child-focused philosophy into their work, sought books and videos on the topic and clearly had a commitment to development in this area.
Other organisational services
Some organisations have a number of related services, for example, 9 have a school counselling program (primarily in Catholic schools) and 7 run the 'Season for Growth/Rainbows' group program for children whose parents have separated/divorced; 16 services have other family support/parenting programs in the organisation.
Counselling services: 9 services reported a desire to improve their work with children in the future, 4 sought to expand their services to rural areas, a further 4 simply needed more funds for expanded services, while 4 services wanted to develop the overall quality of their services.
Mediation services: 7 services stated that they wanted to develop their work with children in the future, while 2 mentioned a desire to expand their service to rural areas. 1 service (large provincial centre) had a vision of developing a specialist child and family therapy centre.
Summary of the service profiles
The analysis of service profiles, indicates that there is minimal explicit written commitment to Child Inclusive Practice expressed through organisational aims, philosophies and service models. Where mention is made of any child focus or inclusive approach, it is more often stated in counselling services. Some services espouse a clear position on working with parents and/or families through parent education and strengthening family skills. A small number of services reported that they are actually working with children, but have not addressed children's needs in their aims, objectives, philosophy or service model.
What training has been undertaken appears ad hoc and unco-ordinated, and usually provided through a 'one-off' event. There is little evidence in the profiles of integrated organisational training strategies for upgrading staff skills in working with children.
Many have a range of other child-focussed services available within their organisations which may assist in broadening the counselling and/or mediation service's perspective and capacity to have a child inclusive approach.
Consistently, organisations report that funding and resource deficiencies are the main barrier to adopting a child inclusive approach along with lack of funds for training and funds to service rural areas.
There is a clear pattern of difficulties for rural organisations in terms of attracting and retaining staff and accessing training. Tamworth however stands out as an example of what can be achieved with a clear philosophy and a desire and commitment to child inclusive practice.
6.3 Perspectives from the workers
As part of the project, workers within FRSP counselling and/or mediation services were surveyed (see Appendix 4 for details). The aim was to identify current practices and opinions around the involvement of children in the mediation or counselling process.
Of the 600 questionnaires distributed to workers in 51 family mediation/counselling services around Australia, close to two thirds (391 questionnaires) were returned. More than 3 quarters of the respondents were female (76%), and 24 % were male. (The full results can be found in Appendix 4.)
In addition, workshops were conducted twice in each State and Territory, (involving a total of 120 workers at the first workshops, and 151 at the second, from all 3 service types) with the results from these being integrated into the questionnaire findings.
About the respondents
Nearly half of the questionnaire respondents worked in NSW (46%), with less than one fifth (19%) responding from Victoria, 16 % of respondents worked in Queensland, 7 % in Western Australia, and 5 % in Tasmania. Few workers responded from the Northern Territory (2%), South Australia (3%), or the ACT (1%).
Background professions of respondents: The overwhelming majority of respondents had some specialist training, usually in the fields of counselling and psychology. There were some major differences between the 3 service types in terms of qualifications and professional background.
In family and child mediation, the largest group of respondents (32%) had a background in law while the largest group in family and relationship counselling had a background in counselling (47%).
Social workers and youth workers are more highly represented in AMFT's.
Length of involvement in family counselling and mediation: The largest group of respondents in family mediation had between 1 and 3 years experience while the largest group of respondents in counselling had between 7 and 10 years experience in their respective fields.
Current Child Inclusive Practice
Facilitation of parents: The overwhelming majority of respondents (96%) reported that they were able to facilitate a focus on the children's needs while in the counselling or mediation process with parents, and the following examples were provided:
- Using different approaches, such as systemic questioning, to ensure children's needs are brought into the counselling process and to the awareness of parents.
- Discussing children's behaviour changes as often being related to the marital situation and parent behaviour changes such as during marriage breakdown.
- Recognising that parenting, particularly discipline is a common source of discord among couples. Usually one or both parents has a 'deficient' understanding of these issues, and education forms a crucial part of solving the problems.
- Dealing with issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, grief/death, and school related issues.
- Using a developmental framework and increasing the parent's understanding of the need to care for their children.
4 % of the workers indicated that there were times when they were not able to focus on children's needs by working with parents. Examples of reasons for this included: the parents are too involved in their marital problems and are not yet ready to consider the child's needs; parents are firm in their belief that their problems are separate to those of their children, and are often resistant to the idea of child-focused therapy if it means their own strong views will be challenged.
The majority of respondents (87%) commented on the type of information relating to children's needs which should be covered in counselling and mediation sessions, with most of the responses focused on children's welfare:
- 47 % of workers indicated that the welfare of the children should be covered in sessions with parents including: appropriate care by an adult which is relevant to child's developmental stage/age; protective issues, safety and security; wellbeing; schooling; social and physical needs.
- 14 % of workers mentioned emotional issues such as: communication which ensures that children feel they are listened to and do not shut down; expressed affection from both parents; dealing with blame and responsibility.
- Future contact with both parents, other siblings, grand-parents was mentioned by 13 % of workers.
- Behavioural issues were mentioned by 12 % of workers and included raising concerns about how children may react to the changed marital situation, and the need to be aware of these changes in behaviour.
- 7 % of workers commented that issues to do with parents' unrealistic expectations of children and resultant discipline was another issue which should be raised in the counselling/mediation process.
Direct Interventions with children
Respondents were asked to indicate an approximate percentage of cases over the past 6 months where they worked directly with children as part of the mediation and/or counselling process. As can be seen in the following table, very few respondents routinely worked directly with children in the past 6 months.
|% of Responses|
|Number of Cases||Family and Child Mediation n =68||Family and Relationship Counselling n =276||Adolescent Mediation and Family Therapy n =29|
|less than 25%||96||89||28|
Except for adolescent mediation and family therapy, the overwhelming majority of respondents reported that they had worked directly with children in less than 20 % of cases. A qualitative analysis of workers' comments further reveals that most of these respondents' cases involved working with children less than 10 % of the time, if at all. This is in keeping with previous sector research discussed at the beginning of the chapter.
In the adolescent mediation and family therapy program 69 % of respondents said that more than 50 % of cases involved working directly with children. Of those respondents who worked directly with children in more than 75 % of their cases, the majority had a background in youth work.
Reasons for not directly including children
The majority of respondents (91%) identified situations when they thought it would be inappropriate to directly include children in the counselling/mediation process. Responses mainly centred around the following issues:
- When there is the belief that the people who have the problem should work it out without involving others (eg. child does not need to know about the parents' relationship problems).
- Where children are traumatised by the process because they fear being coerced into taking sides.
- When it is clearly the parent's issue and parents do not want the children involved.
- When the child does not want to be directly involved.
- When there are issues of physical or sexual abuse of children, and marital domestic violence.
Concerns about having a 'focus' on children: Many of the concerns raised in the workshops were expressed in terms of 'fears', some of which can be summarised as:
- fear of doing harm because of lack of confidence, skills or expertise. It was suggested that even when workers are willing, a child-focused approach requires a skill base that requires considerable development and support;
- fear of system abuse;
- fear of creating a parent or child pathology where the child becomes the 'problem' -this was particularly in relation to situations where the parents had made no reference to children or requested help concerning the children;
- fear of undermining the parents;
- fear of being 'forced' to work with children, thus losing worker rights and identity;
- fear of creating new 'flavour of the month' and a new 'industry', leading to untrained workers seeing children;
- fear of this line of work simply being added on to current workload.
In addition, there was some confusion expressed around the role of the worker when safety and mandatory reporting are involved in the case.
Workers' suggestions for developing Child Inclusive Practice
Although the vast majority of respondents worked directly with children in less than 10 % of their cases, most respondents (314) were keen to suggest ways for bringing children and their interests into counselling/mediation. Following is a brief description of respondents' most common suggestions.
Systemic family therapy: 33 % of respondents envisaged an approach that would not single out one child as the problem but would assume that, regardless of who has the problem or is unhappy, the other members of the family are likely to be affected in some way. Using this approach would assume that all members of the family (including young children) have strengths to influence the effects of the problem.
It was stated by respondents that the whole family would need to attend sessions together with each member clear that they are all part of the family system. Respondents believed that such sessions would invite children's perspectives on family concerns and personal concerns, and would do it in an environment where children felt safe. All respondents agreed that in order for this approach to be effective, respondents would need to spend a reasonable amount of time on engagement and understanding of the children's interests, activities, and networks inside and outside the family.
Worker's suggestion: When parents are seemingly unaware of child's needs and in conflict about how the child is coping, this approach would help parents to develop insight into their child's needs/concerns. It will often make them understand the harm that conflict between parents brings to the child. It may also help the child to feel loved, unblamed, and informed about what is happening.
Worker's suggestion: Parents are often self-focused and 'role reversal' would be a good way of helping them to understand the child's need and empathise with them. Role playing is experiential for both the child and parents, and parents will be able to empathise with the child and facilitate movement toward a solution.
Child appropriate interventions: one quarter of the respondents suggested a variety of means that would encourage children to express their feelings and would help them gain an understanding of what is happening. They stated that: In order to establish rapport, build trust, and reduce anxiety, the process would need to be slow, safe, and secure for the children.
Child-focused therapy: 14 % of respondents suggested that separate sessions for individual children with a trained worker may help the children to cope with such issues as separation and parental domestic violence. Such an approach would serve to engage, validate, empower, and listen to the child as client. Respondents felt this approach would be the most effective if sessions were begun at intake where the worker would be required to report the child's progress to the parents, putting them in a better position to make decisions.
Worker's suggestion: The 'Rogerian' approach should be adopted when there are issues of separation, anxiety, death, and fear to deal with. Therapeutic conversation should be used to facilitate effective communication.
Young people-friendly approach: (eg. music, activities, sport, TV/video, letters, fax)
Although only 10 % of respondents mentioned this approach there were some strong opinions expressed about age specific practice. Workers in AMFTs were most represented in this group of respondents and they raised issues about the language used being age/stage appropriate, and the pace being set by the young person.
Parenting education: Only 4 % of respondents made suggestions regarding parenting education within the counselling process. Respondents stated that parenting education would strengthen the marital sub system when parents identify difficulties in their marriage and parenting.
Respondents were asked to select from a list of training they had received in the area of working with children and young people:
- Almost 3 quarters of the respondents (74%) said they had some training in this area via workshop participation.
- 32 % had undergraduate training which was relevant.
- 26 % had graduate training.
- 29 % had 'other' relevant training.
- Only 12 % of respondents said they had not received any training in working with children and young people.
For respondents in AMFT, 'lack of training' was not a factor in precluding the direct involvement of children in their work, however it was for respondents in family and child mediation, and family and relationship counselling. An interesting finding was that while the majority of workers do not have graduate training, those that do are more likely to work directly with children (see appendices).
Training requirements: More than 3 quarters of the respondents (78%) said they would like training around the inclusion of children in family mediation and/or counselling. The types of training sought have been clustered into 5 main groups and are as follows:
- The largest group of respondents (39%) wanted training around existing models for working with children of different ages, as well as working with whole families. The training sought included ways of assisting children to express themselves and their concerns through verbal and non-verbal means. More specifically training would include, sand-tray, drama and role-play, conflict resolution, use of film and video, child empowerment, and child protection/rights.
- Techniques for engaging children in the counselling/mediation process were highly sought by more than one quarter (26%) of the respondents. These respondents wanted skills in engaging/encouraging children at different developmental stages in consultation and decision making. They also wanted more ideas on how to make the service more child and young people 'friendly'.
- 1/5th of the respondents wanted training around Child Development and Child Psychology, including the impacts that separation and domestic violence have on children of all ages.
- Adolescent Development (10%): Some respondents wanted training around issues involving teenagers (eg. eating disorders, teenage suicide, drugs, family violence, behaviour disorders).
Summary of the worker survey
The worker survey produced a number of key outcomes, which reinforce the service profiles reported previously. For example, the vast majority of workers saw children less than 10 % of the time.
On the other hand, nearly all workers believed that they were able to facilitate a focus on children's needs while working with parents, with the predominant focus being on children's welfare, their emotional issues, and future plans and arrangements.
A number of suggestions were made regarding possible improvements to Child Inclusive Practice and direct child contact which included development of service models and practice, and worker training.
Reasons given for not working with children included that it seemed inappropriate, the children were regarded as too young, workers lacked appropriate training, the culture of the service, and there are no models to follow.
Family Court Workers Survey
In considering practices in the field, the consultants sought out a similar sector to that of the FRSP family relationships services. The Family Court of Australia was chosen for a number of reasons:
- The length of time the service has been working with children.
- The generally similar nature of their work (working with separating and divorcing couples)
- Similarities in the type of workers employed.
There was a desire to incorporate their experience into the learnings from this project. It needs to be acknowledged that the Family Court has had a philosophy of working with children extending back many years. It has been specifically funded to undertake work with children, including conducting groups with children. This work has sat alongside the Court's legal obligations in relation to ensuring children's needs are represented in formal Court hearings.
70 questionnaires were returned, 63 % being from female workers, with 45% of respondents coming from NSW and 31% from Queensland.
Out of the 70 workers who responded to the survey, 68 stated that they had mediation experience, and all 70 stated they had experience in counselling. With regard to mediation, 27 workers had a psychology background, and 30 had a social work background. In counselling, 40 workers had a background in social work, and 34 in psychology.
Of interest, in the survey, was the years of experience reported by the respondents: nearly 60 % of family mediation staff and over 90 % of counselling staff had more than 5 years experience in their field, with nearly 20 % of mediation staff and 40 % of counselling staff having over 10 years experience.
When asked about the extent they directly involved children in their work, 50 % of respondents stated that they work with children in more than 25 % of their cases.
When asked about training, the survey identified a high level of child-oriented training. Half of the staff had had child-oriented training in their under-graduate or post-graduate training. 88 % of those surveyed went on to state that they wanted further training on child involvement in counselling and mediation.
The questionnaire then explored workers' views as to reasons for not including children in the counselling or mediation process. The main reasons suggested were as follows:
- when information could be misused by parents;
- children are likely to be manipulated by parents;
- when one or other parent has no interest in knowing the child/ren's needs;
- parents are unwilling or in dispute as to the consequences of inclusion;
- when children are too young; (various age criteria were mentioned);
in cases of child sexual abuse; when inclusion of the child/ren will not assist the process.
When asked to nominate the type of information relating to children's needs that are required in counselling or mediation, the two main responses clearly focused on 'welfare issues' (86%) and 'emotional issues' (such as children's emotional reactions to their parents' separation (61%). Future plans and arrangements; parenting and discipline issues and issues concerning the child's behaviour also featured in the responses.
This survey, conducted with a limited number of Family Court staff, allows only some initial observations. It appears that the history of working with children and the expectations established by this culture as well as core legal requirements, have combined to suggest that greater numbers of children are being seen by Family Court counsellors and mediators (50 % seeing children in more than a quarter of their cases). More training appears to be offered to Family Court staff, and staff with child-oriented training in their professional qualifications appear attracted to work in the Court setting. These aspects would indicate a somewhat more child-inclusive focus in Family Court practice, although, as mentioned, within quite a different environment.
6.4 Changes in practice
The service profile and worker survey within the FRSP sectors, as reported above, were undertaken at the commencement of the project. A decision was made to follow up all organisations to identify any changes in Child Inclusive Practice that may have occurred during the 6 month life of this project. 51 organisations were contacted and a total of 39 CEO's or senior clinicians were interviewed. The 39 organisations represent 30 counselling, 11 mediation and 9 AMFT services.
A number of organisations reported that there had been 'subtle' cultural changes in the organisation since the project began, with greater awareness of the needs of children and an increased willingness to discuss their needs with parents. However there was a general feeling that the time frame was too short for major changes to have occurred and more time would be needed for the benefits of the project to be identified.
Number of children seen
Very few organisations actually reported either increases in the numbers of children seen in their service in the past 6 months and/or changes to their practice. A minority of services (4) reported actual changes in the number of children seen directly.
There was a previously identified group of organisations which were already seeing children as part of their practice, and they also reported little change, however this was more from the point of view of: "We were already focusing on children, it is our normal way of doing things here."
The main change reported was that 9 organisations have adapted their statistics and data collection and are now recording the occasions on which children are seen as the primary focus of counselling or mediation. Hence their profiles would now demonstrate a stronger consideration of children's needs and requirements. Nearly all services reported that their statistics had not previously recorded such child-specific information.
Policies and protocols
None of the organisations reported changes to their actual policies and protocols. Some already had policies which were specific about this aspect of their work and a small group were working on new policies. In addition other services commented that there was greater staff awareness of the needs of children and greater recognition of discussing their needs with parents.
3 or 4 organisations have made recent changes to their physical facilities to accommodate the needs of children. Other services contemplating changes to their physical environment stated that lack of finances was a major barrier to making these.
Staff training was the one area where there had been some key developments. Approximately half of the services reported that they had sent staff on training courses, designed to develop skills in working with children, especially play therapy, drawing techniques, children and depression, children and sexual assault, etc. Nearly all services reported the need to have further training in this field.
Organisations in regional and rural areas however, pointed out considerable difficulties in sending staff to training and finding appropriate courses.
Previous research, as outlined earlier in this chapter, indicated that there was not a strong history or culture of Child Inclusive Practice amongst family counselling and/or mediation services.
The current project examined some of the reasons for this situation and has identified a number of factors including lack of organisational commitment, worker skill level, resources both financial and physical, training opportunities, and fears of doing more harm than good. The complexity of the issues in working with children is acknowledged, as well as the lack of a clear history or culture within the sector encouraging Child Inclusive Practice.
In summary, it is possible to divide the 51 FRSP organisations into 3 broad groupings:
- Those which see no need and/or reason to change (10 organisations). This group continued to express concerns about the 'dangers' of seeing children, with the perception that counselling might expose the children further to parental conflict. They also commented that children could too easily be made scapegoats and targets should they be involved inappropriately. In addition, most of these organisations expressed satisfaction with their current practice and indicated that they did not intend to change.
"Some of the implicit directions which appear to be taken by some people involved in the 'children in counselling'movement is of particular concern to us. We have a collective experience of previous generational involvement by 'professionals' in Aboriginal and migrant child welfare which stand as a major warning sign about the dangers of the present day direction" (counselling service).
- Those which have some interest in developing Child Inclusive Practice (28 organisations) but have concerns about implementation. These concerns include fears about skill level and training, appropriate resources, levels of intervention and loss of worker identity. During the life of the project, this group reported making some changes in their approach, however they were mainly of the opinion that 6 months is not long enough to see any major changes. Most of them had initiated staff training and/or policy and practice reviews, and also reported that there had been subtle cultural changes within the organisation.
"We are supportive of the move to include children. However, it has been hard to achieve changes in only 6 months, and we would require extra funds to improve our physical facilities. We have undertaken some training and we have adapted our statistics to better represent the children that we are seeing" (counselling service).
- Those already undertaking Child Inclusive Practice and building on this and/or those which had embraced the concept and developed major initiatives in the past 6 months (13 organisations). This group perceives Child Inclusive Practice to be a natural and integral component of their work. In varying degrees they have policies and service models which support both a child inclusive approach and direct child contact. Staff recruitment, training and supervision are seen as integral aspects of good practice along with the creation of a child and parent friendly environment.
"Working with children has always been a natural process for us - we could not envisage working in any other way. We still need to upgrade our facilities for children, and are seeking further training opportunities for staff. We are excited about the potential outcomes from this research project" (counselling service).
7. Good Practice: the Potential in the Field
"Our philosophy is to have a holistic and systemic approach which addresses the whole. Individuals are part of a system and if one part hurts the whole hurts. To have the whole family engaged moves things faster." (Service Manager, family and child counselling)
7.1 Good practice
A key aspect of this project was the identification of existing models of best practice in Child Inclusive Practice in family and child counselling and/or mediation services. The first issue to be addressed was the applicability of the terminology to the sector ('Best Practice' is the generic term used throughout the literature and in most industrial/commercial sectors). Some of the arguments against applying the concepts of best practice in human services have been that the field is not homogeneous and the 'products' are not controllable. In addition, there has been a concern that 'best' implies that there is only one right way to do things which can be applied regardless of the context and circumstances. In reality, best practice is a concept which is about promoting excellence, with a focus on creating organisational cultures which are directed to continual quality improvement in all aspects of the organisation and in its interaction with clients.
A decision was thus made to change the language to 'Good Practice' which was seen as dealing with some of the concerns expressed above and recognising that there was not one way of developing Child Inclusive Practice. What follows first is a discussion of Best Practice principles on which a framework for 'Good Practice' is developed as it applies to the provision of counselling and mediation services.
The concept of 'Best Practice' is not a new one, but has recently been adopted by Australian businesses to assist them in becoming more internationally competitive. While the concepts and principles of 'Best Practice' have been mainly applied to business and manufacturing, applications apply to the human services sector, with a replacement of the concepts of sales and customers with services and clients.
For an organisation to be successful it must fully satisfy the needs and wants of its clients and have a client focus. Best practice concepts focus on the outcomes or outputs of an organisation, and depend upon management implementing strategic directions throughout the organisational structure.
The concept of continuous improvement is integral to considerations of best practice; the continual striving to find better and more effective ways of doing things. Best practice is considered to be a comprehensive, integrated and co-operative approach to the continuous improvement of all facets of an organisation's operations.
What makes a 'Best Practice' organisation?
The following characteristics (which have been adapted from Business Directions Magazine, Issue 52) are common across organisations which are striving to deliver best practice. They would appear to be consistent regardless of the type of service, or product, which the organisation delivers.
- A shared vision for the delivery of high quality services which is supported by a comprehensive, integrated, and co-operative change strategy to bring about continuous improvement in cost, quality and timeliness.
- A strategic plan, developed in consultation with the workforce, encompassing all aspects of an organisation's operations and setting out short, medium and long term goals.
- A commitment to continuous improvement throughout the organisation, driven by the full public support of the CEO.
- Flatter organisational structures supported by the devolution of responsibility, the empowerment of workers, and improved communication.
- This often involves team -based work.
- A co-operative and participative industrial relations culture which incorporates effective communication and consultation processes.
- A commitment to continuous improvement and learning, with a highly-skilled and flexible workforce and recognition of the value of all people in the organisation.
- Innovative human resource policies which include a commitment to occupational health and safety and equal opportunity employment.
- A focus on service users, both internal and external.
Within the framework of promoting continual improvement, the application of best practice principles to human service programs can provide new ways of approaching evaluation.
Aspects of a Best Practice Environment Aspect Critical Success Factor Purpose Participation Action Pursuit of excellence People Skilled and motivated workforce Resources Identify, allocate and utilise resources effectively Planning Strategic Forward Plan
Each aspect must be embraced by a quality organisation. A best practice environment cannot exist unless quality policies, procedures and practices support each aspect.
7.2 Field examples of good practice in child inclusinve practice
The process for identifying organisations which could be included in an exploration of good practice included:
- examination of the self reported organisational profiles;
- eliciting suggestions from the steering committee;
- eliciting suggestions from the State/Territory Workshops;
- telephone interviews with organisations to ascertain current level of involvement with children; and
- examining documentation provided by the organisations and Family Services Branch such as FAMQIS reports.
A total of 18 organisations was selected for a site visit: 12 of these were FRSP and the others were funded from a variety of sources including hospital funding and other State Government funding.
The initial approach of the consultants visiting the selected organisations was to develop best practice case studies, however, the process became more exploratory of the principles and practices that can be considered to be good practice in this area. In each of the organisations, there were components of practice that contribute to an integrated and holistic approach to this work.
None of the organisations visited had all of the characteristics of good practice and in some cases they were highlighted by their absence. Those organisations which are advanced in considering the needs of children in times of parental conflict, separation and divorce are more likely to have more of the characteristics present.
An analysis of the case studies identified 10 broad characteristics, supportive of Child Inclusive Practice, present to a greater or lesser extent.
- Philosophical and value base.
- Practice policies.
- Commitment at all levels of the organisation.
- Staff enthusiasm and openness.
- Research and exploration of innovation.
- Flexible and responsive models.
- Exploration and development of child appropriate interventions.
- Training, st aff development and supervision.
- Child-welcoming physical environment.
- Integrated service approach.
This approach would link in with the 7 'Approval Requirements' articulated in FRSP' FAMQIS Quality Strategy Final Report (December 1997) (see appendix):
- Leadership: including a standard for leadership and a statement of values.
- Strategy, policy and planning: including a standard for planning.
- Information and analysis: including a standard for the management of data.
- People: including a standard for the entry of practitioners; a standard for supervision; a standard for training and development; a standard for staff appraisal; and a standard for staff safety.
- Client focus : including a standard for accessibility of services; a standard for client feedback; a standard for client confidentiality; and a standard for client safety.
- Processes, products and services: including a standard for service design.
- Organisational performance: including a standard for assessing performance.
The FAMQIS strategy describes the necessary context for quality improvement adapting the approach of a 'Quality Committed Enterprise'. These principles would offer significant support to, and clearly link in with, the approach being suggested in this report.
7.3 Charactistics of good practice
Ten characteristics are discussed in detail below, as identified within the services and through the words of the management and workers.
Philosophical and value base
In many of the organisations there was an explicit statement about involving children, directly or indirectly. In some organisations there was a stated commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. The outstanding factor in those organisations considered to be developing good practice models and approaches is their absolute belief that children have a right to the best possible outcomes in their lives and that this may mean positive and active intervention. The quotes in this chapter are extracted from interviews with staff during the organisational visits.
In relation to young people in this process it is important that someone hears their perspective. It can give the parents confidence to know that someone is able to listen and support so that the problems that already exist are not compounded. Because the family is going through a hard period, they are terrified about what they are doing to the children. They need re-assurance that they are doing okay with the kids. It is also important that the kids are re-assured that their parents still care about them.
We see the 'client' as the person/people in the room plus those who are affected by them and their decisions.
We have decided that it is not possible to be 'neutral' as we are dealing with issues of power in relationships and being neutral does not acknowledge that or the worker attitudes and beliefs in the situation. For example in cases where there is violence we would take a clear stance that violence is not okay. We would make our position explicit on such issues. We have a strong socio-political awareness of power imbalance.
The key question is 'Is it the breakdown of a marriage or of a family that we are looking at?' The adults may have the 'problem' however the effects are much broader and the people who have to live through this need to be supported. The children have the right to be heard and it is disrespectful not to do this.
For us the principles are respectfulness, listening to the stories of children's experience, helping them to make sense of that experience, and ensuring that we work from a non-blaming perspective.
Building on the philosophical base, in many of the organisations there was a commitment to developing practice policies and procedures which were consistent with their philosophical base and assisted the every day provision of services. Equally important is that fact that policies were explicit and had been worked through collaboratively within the organisation.
We only see the children with the agreement of both parents. In fact it is our policy to develop the parents as their 'own therapists', in the sense of giving them the confidence to work with their own children. This focus on children can be very unifying for parents as long as the focus is not on the child as the problem.
When we work with kids it is with the willingness to 'get our hands dirty'. It has to be on their terms and in a way that suits them. For example if it means going out of the office and meeting them on their ground then that is what has to happen. You can't be too precious.
There needs to be a belief that the practices that we are developing with children and parents is not disempowering of the parents. Kids also need information and to be heard and we can assist the parents to do this.
Commitment at all levels of the organisation
While not every one working in the organisation will be working directly with children, there needs to be a commitment at all levels, from the Board to the mediation/counselling staff that children are 'held in mind' in the work undertaken with parents.
It is critical that there is support right through the organisation. The change came for us when we had a critical mass of staff who were interested and skilled in seeing children and at the same time there was a member of the Executive who believed that working in a child inclusive way was important. The Executive is now actively engaged in the work and receive regular reports on the work being undertaken.
The entry points into the organisation are critical. The reception and intake staff have a key role to play in letting parents know that children's needs will be considered.
Not every staff member in the organisation is involved in children's work but all wholeheartedly support the organisation going in that direction. Working with children is hard work and some people don't want to do it but that doesn't mean that they block the need for the organisation to address the real needs of children.
Three organisations had made major efforts to employ workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Although responses were mixed, there was a feeling that it had made a difference to the way in which they work. In two of the services the decision was to employ workers who could work with the dominant cultural group in the local community. While it has not proved possible to provide counselling/mediation or group facilitation in all community languages the process of employing workers from another culture has raised awareness within the staff team both of the needs of other cultural groups and the different approaches to parenting and children's needs.
Staff enthusiasm and openness
A key factor in Child Inclusive Practice is the openness of staff to new ways of thinking about their work and an enthusiasm for learning and exchange of ideas. While this was demonstrated specifically in relation to working with and/or around issues for children, there was a more general attitude of questioning and growth within the organisation.
Three of the counselling and mediation staff have a background in education and/or children's services and were committed to working with children and young people before they joined the organisation. They had a firm belief that it was both important and possible to engage children and parents around the grief and pain that children feel when families are going through conflict and significant change.
In terms of staff enthusiasm there was an obvious commitment of staff above and beyond personal or professional gain. Staff demonstrated enthusiasm through their attendance at training and professional development conferences and workshops, reading and challenging of ideas and of conventionally held views. In all cases there was additional effort and time personally contributed to developing their own skills.
In some organisations there was a conscious decision to attract staff who have this expertise and commitment and in others it has happened by 'accident'. In either case it would appear that a critical mass is required to really make a difference -this usually requires more than one worker.
Workers must really like working with children if they are going to do this, they must even see the joy in children and believe that they have the right to be heard. Children can be very honest and even confronting and workers have to be able to handle some fairly raw emotions.
Research and innovative practice
Research in its broadest sense was a critical factor in moving organisations to explore new and innovative ways of working with parents, and their children. The key here is an ongoing examination of the practice of the individuals and the overall organisation in terms of the most effective interventions and the ways in which outcomes can be explored.
Along with research there was a commitment to documentation and evaluation and an openness to scrutiny through peer review and professional supervision.
The organisation made a conscious decision to employ a staff member known for her expertise in working with children and parents and to build into her job description time to explore models and approaches to assisting parents and children through conflict, separation and divorce. A range of models and approaches were explored from both Australian and overseas sources and trialed in practical programs. The resultant program has proved to be successful and is currently being documented for broader dissemination.
Perhaps the major research in this organisation is the follow-up of clients. Every client is contacted after they have concluded their work with us to find out what difference there has been. It is important for us to know what impact we have had and what we could have done to be more effective.
We aim to assess the usefulness of involving children directly in the mediation process and to identify any best practice issues. Questionnaires are being sent to families where children's issues were discussed and/or where children were involved and parents are being invited to consider their children's participation.
Two of the organisations successfully addressing the complexity of issues involved in actively engaging children were seeking research grants to deepen their understanding of the issues involved and the best ways to approach these.
Flexible and responsive models
In those organisations which demonstrated good practice, there was an agreement that no one approach is 'right' and that a range of approaches and interventions needs to be available to the counsellor/mediator.
Many of the organisations talked about moving from one model to a more integrated and holistic approach which included co-therapy and team approaches.
There is a strong sense of organisational ownership of the process that engages the needs of children both indirectly with parents and directly with children. When there is an indication that the children would benefit from some direct intervention the team consider the options. It may involve one of the staff with specific expertise in meeting with the children and then representing them to the parents, it could involve a joint family session with two staff present or it might even require a mix of both depending on the circumstances.
We have a range of options. Sometimes it is best to work with the parents so that they are able to talk with the children - we can even coach them on how to approach it. Other times we may use another family member to hear what the children have to say and present that to the parents. In an increasing number of instances we will meet with the children and/or the whole family.
We use a collaborative approach in which we encourage the clients to be the consultants in their own situation and engage them in looking together at the problem.
Depending on the age of the child or young person we would use drawing, puppets, picture cards. A useful tool is using the electronic whiteboard to create the story of the young person's life.
Exploration and development of child appropriate interventions
These organisations demonstrated a capacity to embrace the conceptual underpinnings, and a willingness to struggle with and develop theory and practice in this area.
From the beginning of the service being established there has been a commitment to addressing the needs of children. The Director has a background in children's services and key staff have expertise in children's development. Counsellors are encouraged to work with the whole family and to hold in mind the needs of every member.
Staff have gradually been trained so that there is now a team approach with some doing child play therapy and others co-counselling. It provides a flexible approach and builds the skill base.
Counsellors would use a range of techniques, depending on the needs of the family and the age of the child, including psychodrama, sculpture, play therapy, and narrative therapy.
It is critical to differentiate between the children's actions(what they do) and their behaviour (how adults interpret this behaviour). Far too much emphasis is placed on the behaviour and not enough genuine consultation with the children as to their actions and why they do what they do. Children must be given the opportunity to tell their own story.
Multi-disciplinary and/or multi-skilled team approach:
The organisation is committed to bring together a multiskilled and multidisciplinary team so we have youth work, counselling, social work, psychology, pastoral care, nursing and childcare in the team. It is very broad and challenging that way.
In addition we all have skills in family therapy and narrative therapy and we bring different perspectives to that.
Trying new approaches:
Running groups for children has proved to be extremely successful especially in helping them to deal with the impact of separation, dealing with their grief and loss in the situation. We have also conducted groups for children who have been abused alongside a parent group and this was very successful. We often run these programs in local community venues.
We held two day camps for women and their children where we did 'therapy on the run'. It provided a very different environment for the parents and children to interact and created a significant opportunity for raising issues that often don't get addressed in a formal counselling setting. We had child care workers and counsellors working together to support the parents and children.
Staff development, training and supervision
There are 3 in-service weekends a year and all staff are expected to attend. In addition they make a commitment to personal reflection and development. The organisation also encourages staff to attend state training and, although they can't afford to pay, staff regularly attend broader training opportunities.
It takes special skills to work with parents about their children and to work directly with children. There are some assumptions that it is easy to talk with parents about issues to do with their children; unless staff have the skills they will block the responses and think that it is all dealt with when really there are a number of issues. It's like we used to be about domestic violence and sexual abuse, if you don't want to hear it it won't be there! There are skills in opening up the opportunities, and talking with the children, and knowledge in knowing what works and what doesn't.
We spend a lot of resources on supervision with an external supervisor once a fortnight as a group as well as 1:1 supervision every month. In addition, we have case discussions once a month. This creates a culture of transparency within the team and has broken down all case territoriality.
A number of organisations raised the issue of appropriate supervision when those being supervised are challenging the boundaries and pushing into new territory. There would appear to be a lack of skilled supervisors who have experience in working with children and/or parents with their children through conflict, separation and divorce in the field, particularly in mediation.
To deal with this issue some organisations have developed their own approaches to peer supervision and/or co-supervision.
A way of developing the team and providing supervision is in reflective team work where we would use a one way screen and have other members of the family reflect on their experience of the conversation in the counselling room. A worker would be in each room.
Child welcoming environment
There is a stark difference between organisations where children have been considered in the creation of the physical environment and those where they have not. The latter often have a 'corporate' feel of things 'being in the right place' and children not having a place. The former are welcoming and a little 'messy' with children's equipment and resources clearly in view.
The plans for the new facilities include a child waiting area which is fully visible from the reception desk, through a glass wall. The waiting area will have a range of age appropriate equipment and activities.
The child therapy room is more like a room in a child care centre or a children's bedroom, minus the bed and wardrobe. In this space the children are in control. It is their space in which they can tell their story and develop their response. The counsellor responds to their directions and allows them to jointly act out the situation.
The long term plan is for a children's service which is designed from the ground up to suit the needs of children and young people and their parents.
Perhaps the most exciting physical set-up from a child's perspective provided a total opportunity for children to explore and imagine - with the focus on creativity. There were 3 rooms for children to choose from when they came for a session. The child focus allowed them to tell their story and work with the parent(s) to find solutions.
Flexibility of hours is a factor in creating a child welcoming environment as very few services are available out of 'normal' working hours, on weekends and during school holidays.
The services need to be provided at a time when they best suit the family and the children are part of this. We run programs in evenings and weekends in support of this principle.
A further critical aspect is ensuring that the physical environment is completely safe for children, in all aspects. This includes details as varied as safety plugs on all electrical appliances and sockets and safe exit options for children in the event of physical peril.
Integrated service approach
While not always the case, there was a trend amongst the good practice examples, for a broader service base than only counselling or mediation. In some cases this was the provision of a range of counselling, mediation, education and training programs while in others it was even broader with the counselling and/or mediation being a component of an holistic service response to the community.
In this organisation there is a range of service responses such as accommodation, children's services, youth programs and parenting programs. The counselling and mediation are one aspect of an integrated service model and each part informs and develops the whole. Having the children and youth programs raises the awareness of their needs and has confronted workers with the challenge of finding ways to address these appropriately with parents and increasingly with the children themselves.
In those good practice organisations where there was not a range of complementary services and programs, there was a strong sense of network with the broader community sector and connection with appropriate services for two way referral, active partnerships and collaboration, particularly with other child focused services.
The key service networks for this organisation include the Contact Service, child care centre and adolescent services in the local community. There is indication of collaboration on a number of levels including training and staff development, service development and referral.
Most of the referrals come from the schools which see us as a key community resource. We have strong support from them and involve them in the process particularly in evaluating the impact and outcomes of our work.
The counsellors in this service 'belong' to the community and are seen as an integral part of it.
We undertake collaboration on the development of a number of programs and projects such as domestic violence groups which are co-facilitated with a domestic violence service. This is a crucial key for success. In a similar way we work closely with the Family Court in the running of an education program for parents and children.
The collaboration in this organisation is both intra and inter-agency. We find that as the collaboration increases internally so we are more able to model the type of collaboration we want with other organisations externally.
In addition there was a sense of the service networks being part of the 'promotional' activities of the organisation. Some of the organisations have well-developed public relations strategies which engage the wider community service network.
7.4 Mediation model
A Good Practice Example: Working with the Child Inclusive Model in Family and Child Mediation
The Pilot Child Inclusive Mediation Model, which was implemented as part of this research, provides a current example of the principles of good practice in operation. In particular, the organisations demonstrated commitment to innovation and practice development by agreeing to take on the challenge of this Pilot, and by involving all levels of the organisation in training and support of the project. Staff enthusiasm and openness were essential elements of the Pilot's success, including the fact that workers could elect not to be trained in child consultation when this was not their area of expertise or interest.
The model devised for the Pilot was implemented flexibly by staff, on a case by case basis. In two de-briefing workshops, staff demonstrated the ways in which they had felt free to explore the model and to develop further child appropriate interventions.
The organisations funded the purchase of necessary equipment and extra worker time required to run the Pilot. Staff made use of the supervision offered during the Pilot and were open to reflecting on their practice as they went. The research process was supported throughout, with excellent contributions around ethical and recruitment logistics from management.
From the workers' perspective, when the model worked, it had the following effects:
- encouraged honesty;
- kids benefited in their own right;
- resulted in change of focus for parents "let's behave like parents";
- parents learned;
- defused arguments;
- reduced blaming;
- reinforced care in the family system;
- workers felt they were making a difference.
Beyond this research Pilot, the organisations have decided to continue to offer a child inclusive approach, which is notable given the extra time and resourcing required to do this. Management estimated that the model required about an extra 6 to 8 hours of worker time, involving intake, briefing, child interview and write up, feedback to parents, coordination and administration and de-briefing.
Finally, it is of interest to compare the mediators' perceptions of the impact the model had on parents and children with what the children said. Mediators were more likely to believe that parents in high conflict had not taken in anything significant from the child feedback, whereas it was clear in the parent interviews that they often had. In general, while the mediators were very positive about the process, they did not estimate the benefits of it for the family as highly as the parents and children did.
The qualities and characteristics of a 'Best Practice' organisation have been found to apply across a wide range of sectors both in business and, more recently in human services. Although it was agreed that the terminology for this project would be 'good' rather than 'best' practice, the principles are still relevant.
An investigation of what might constitute good practice in Child Inclusive Practice, was carried out across counselling and/or mediation services and a set of 10 broad characteristics were identified as being the basis of good practice in this area. It is clear that many of these characteristics match with those outlined in best practice literature and link closely with the FAMQIS Quality Strategy and Approval Requirements. In particular commitment to a vision, mission or philosophy, policies and procedures which guide practice, commitment to continual improvement, workforce capacity and continual skill improvement, innovation and quality improvement, and an integrated service approach with strong internal and external networks.
The results of the Pilot of the Child Inclusive Model in divorce related mediation provided an example of good practice in action.
This aspect of the research led to the development of an integrated model or framework for Child Inclusive Practice in counselling and mediation which will be further developed in the next chapter.
8. Implementing Child Inclusive Practice
"Service delivery must come from the organisation's focus on social justice and children's rights. It is this that informs our practice and directs the way we work. Without it the counselling can be a means without an end." (counselling service provider)
"Australia is at the forefront of family mediation practice – we are innovators. It is time to review our practice to provide opportunities for children to be included in family mediation in safe, structured and supportive ways that can benefit the whole family and improve the quality and durability of agreements." (Gibson, 1998)
This chapter summarises major gaps in Child Inclusive Practice as identified through this research project and discusses a framework and recommendations for future development of the potential that clearly exists in the field for supporting both parents and children through conflict and separation.
Recommendations are made throughout this discussion, with overall project recommendations summarised at the end of this chapter.
8.1 Children's needs and gaps in service provision
Despite the cases of existing good practice reported in the previous chapter, a major finding from this project concerns the gap between what parents (and children) are saying they need to help them through conflict related transitions and what is currently provided for them by counselling and/or mediation services around the country. In summary:
Parents using counselling services reported:
- 76 % of their children (n=337 children) experienced a level of worry about the situation that had brought parents to counselling. 57 % were said to be very worried by it.
- 74 % of parents in counselling hoped their children would benefit directly from the process.
- Most parents (88%) reported that the counsellor had discussed with them the effects of parental conflict on children.
- In a random sample, an average of 8 % of children were personally seen by the counsellor, either with family members or individually.
- In a random sample, parents felt children had benefited significantly from the counselling process, either directly or indirectly, in about 40 % of cases. In 14 % of cases, children were said not to have benefited at all or had become worse.
- Greater benefits for children were associated with a combination of parent education and direct consultation with the children.
Parents using mediation services reported:
- 78 % of children in this sample (n=157 children) experienced some level of worry because of the divorce negotiation difficulties that had brought parents to mediation.
- 45 % of parents hoped that their children would benefit directly from the mediation. Many of the remainder would have wanted help for their children, but did not think that children could be catered for in the mediation; it was an adult service.
- In the random sample, 72 % of parents reported that the mediator had discussed with them the effects of parental conflict on children.
- In the random sample, about 4 % of children were directly consulted in some way during the mediation process.
- Greater benefits for children were significantly associated with a combination of parent education and individual consultation with the children.
- 89 % of counsellors included children in their work in less than one quarter of cases, with most in less than 10 % of cases.
- 96 % of mediators included children in their work in less than one quarter of cases, with most in less than 5 % of cases.
- In contrast, 69 % of AMFT workers said they included young people in their work in more than half of cases.
Organisational profiles indicated:
- Only 21 of 63 organisations collected data on numbers of children seen.
- For the 17 counselling services which collected statistics, 12,637 cases were opened in the period January-June 1997, of which 752 (6%) involved children being seen directly.
- For the 5 mediation services, 268 cases were seen in the same period, with 30 (11%) involving children directly. A number of other mediation services, without giving exact figures, stated that they had not seen any children during the period. (Broader statistics would indicate a more representative average of 4%)
If we profile parents' concerns about their children together with these service provision statistics, a significant gap is apparent in organisations' current provision of direct support to the children of client families.
This gap is concerning, particularly in light of findings from the parent survey, where outcomes for a sample of children who were included in counselling or mediation were compared with those who were not. Better outcomes were clearly associated from a parent's perspective with children being included and consulted directly.
Equally influential in terms of positive outcomes for children was whether the mediator or counsellor had discussed with parents the effects of conflict on children. Here the service gap is far less, with the majority of parents in each sector (84%) reporting that this had at least been raised with them during the process.
As detailed in Chapter 4, better outcomes are clearly associated with an organisation's ability to provide both parent education and direct consultation with children.
Gaps in service
This research project has verified the gap between children's needs at the time of parental conflict and the services provided, as identified by FSB in establishing this project. It needs to be addressed systemically, at all levels of the sector. Resources will be required to assist organisations in refocusing its practice. The provision of such resources should be in line with recommendation 41 in the FAMQIS Final Report (December 1997), where costings for a Quality Strategy are recommended to be included in the in the FAMQIS Rollout Plan.
- 1. That the sector refocus its practice in line with legislation, such that children's needs during marital conflict or transition are better addressed. Recommended guidelines for doing so have been identified through the course of this research and are summarised in the Framework for Child Inclusive Practice in counselling and mediation services.
- That additional resources, integrated with the FAMQIS Rollout Plan, be included for organisations to develop strengthened Child Inclusive Practice.
8.2 Child inclusing counselling and mediation: A Framework
The framework presented below attempts to address the gaps identified in Child Inclusive service provision, outlining a model for the development of practice at all organisational levels. It draws together findings from literature, this research, good practice site visits, the National Steering committee workshop, the second round of State/Territory workshops, along with the trialing of the Pilot Mediation Model and the development of the Generic counselling model. This framework acts as a background for Child Inclusive Practice, to be developed and integrated into practice within both the FAMQIS Quality Strategy and the Approval Requirements for the Family Relationships Services Program.
8.3 The framework elaborated:
The key elements of the framework are elaborated below. There are 4 key aspects to the framework which has at its centre the elements of Child Inclusive Practice. Critical to its success are those features such as the underpinning philosophical commitments and identified pre-requisites. Finally the framework describes those contextual factors which hinder or support good Child Inclusive Practice.
Child Inclusive practice elements
This section addresses some of the key clinical or practice components of this model of Child Inclusive Practice. Clearly there are many ways of going about this work, and the following expanded model is only a guideline for basic processes and content that would be covered in counselling and mediation contexts, were an organisation to actively address children's needs during parental conflict or separation.
The model has evolved throughout the life of this project, beginning in the mediation context with the Child Inclusive Pilot Model for divorce mediation. Its successful outcomes and relative ease of use within a committed organisation lead the Consultancy team and the project's National Steering Committee to consider possibilities for adapting the model for counselling settings. An outline was produced by clinicians on the committee, which was then presented at our second round of national workshops for worker feedback. The outline that follows has been modified to include that feedback.
Steps toward Child Inclusive Practice
It is beyond the scope of this project to provide detailed clinical input around the consultation of children and work with parents in a child inclusive frame. The points that follow represent an outline of the key steps in the process. Further development of this outline must occur before it can be applied to practice.
Parent education: To make available resources and time to talk about parenting and the needs of children during marital conflict is to make a clear statement that, in your organisation, parents can discuss their children's needs too, and are not confined to a "couples agenda".
A wide range of interventions are applicable here, from simply making available in the waiting room posters and pamphlets on the needs of children during parental conflict to running parent education groups. Chapter 4 gives details of some key parent education strategies found to be effective in the USA. Our findings, particularly from the Mediation Pilot study, indicate that it is important for materials that are given to parents to be discussed with them and made relevant to their particular situation.
Parents should not be given these materials in a manner that suggests their children are damaged or that they have done something wrong! The supportive, invitational approach used throughout Child Inclusive Practice begins here: supporting parents with resources and opportunities to talk at a time when they are likely to feel overwhelmed and unable to think as clearly as they would like about their children's needs.
Appraisal of family needs and dynamics: Early in the counselling or mediation process in current practice, the needs of the couple or individual adult are usually assessed. In a child inclusive approach, parents would also be invited to discuss how they are coping as parents and how their children seem to be responding to the situation. It should become clearer at this point whether the couple dynamics allow for a consideration of children's needs, or whether further discussion, relationship education or some initial conflict resolution are necessary before this can happen.
The use of parent education resources and discussion provides a natural opening for a wider appraisal of parent, child and family functioning in the face of the conflict. At intake, basic developmental details about each child and specific concerns that either parent has about them in relation to the conflict should be discussed.
If after these discussions the worker and parents appraise the situation as appropriate for consultation with the children, an invitation can be made to parents to discuss this with their children. Contracting must occur with parents around what feedback they can expect from the children's interview and how this information would be used to facilitate the remainder of the mediation/counselling.
Facilitating parents: Throughout the course of mediation or counselling, workers need to enable parents to focus on and identify the needs of their children and the likely impact of decisions on them. Information and discussion should continue throughout about ways of speaking to their children about the conflict or separation and the decisions they are trying to reach.
Particular sensitivity is needed in preparing parents to receive feedback from children's sessions. The art of feedback is to represent the child's needs in a way that empowers parents to listen to and absorb as far as possible the information and its implications, and to be joined rather than divided by what is said.
Consulting directly with children (school age): This step is a process of once off consultation, not decision making, not counselling and not a full developmental assessment. It does, however, provide a natural opening for further assessment or counselling if required.
This level of consultation may appear deceptively simple, however the interview requires of the worker considerable clinical skill in putting children at ease, enabling them to talk, handling distress and so on. Good training is essential to this process, covering:
- rapport building;
- contracting and confidentiality;
- developmentally specific consultation;
- use of specific family drawings and projective materials;
- knowledge of strategies to help children cope with parental conflict;
- confirming what is to be fed back to parents; and
- ensuring the child feels supported and reassured by the process.
Through use of play, drawings and talking, the worker can explore in a focused manner the child's response to the family situation, their hopes, wishes and fears. Contracting with each child is essential, so that they understand the boundaries of the session, including confidentiality and feedback to parents. Written guidelines for contracting and discussing duty of care and for conducting the interview need to be further developed.
Children can be asked what information they would like the worker to share with their parents, and whether they have questions they would like answered about the separation or the mediation/counselling. This interview may be conducted over 1 or 2 sessions and some later feedback to the child or follow-up would also be desirable.
Children for whom this kind of consultation does not provide enough support should be taken on or referred on for further counselling.
The decision about whether the worker seeing the parents also sees the child or engages another worker needs to be a case by case decision, bearing in mind:
- the skills of workers;
- the family dynamics; and
- the nature of the conflict.
Feeding back the child's needs and views to parents: The child interviewer would meet with the parents to feedback what the child has asked them to, with their general assessment of the impact of the separation on the child and the child's current needs with respect to the separation. In counselling, this may be done as a family session, if appropriate. In family and child mediation, it would be rare to include the child in this session. If the worker is not the same person who has seen the parents, prior briefing between workers is essential, in order for feedback to be given in a manner most likely to be "digestible" for parents.
Integrating the child's needs and views into ongoing work: Child Inclusive processes would not replace the kind of work already done with parents in family and child mediation around property settlement, or in counselling around marital issues or individual adjustment. Current practice in this area would continue and be incorporated with these processes of child consultation.
Following the child feedback session, counselling or mediation may continue, with ongoing thought given to the needs of the children based on earlier discussions and on the information gained from the child consultation if this occurred. Decisions would then be made regarding whether to continue to include the children, see them individually or not involve them further but to continue to hold them in mind during the remainder of work. Work over a longer time period is often necessary for some couples to come to work together around the best interests of their children.
Parenting plans may identify in some detail the needs of each child and the manner in which the parents have agreed to address them. This stage should foreshadow developmental changes as the children grow older, and the likelihood that plans will need to be reviewed in light of the children's changing needs.
Once the model developed for this research project has been revised, a separate training strategy will then be needed to introduce it to the mediation sector. Such a strategy will need to be more than one-off training. There will be a need for a broad organisational re-orientation towards working with children and support to integrate this approach with the ongoing work in the service. Thus, a process of organisational change is needed, beyond a standard training event, or even series of events.
Research has demonstrated the potential of Child Inclusive Practices to provide a greater level of support to parents (through information and facilitation) and to children (through direct consultation) than non-inclusive practices, at a time of marital distress.
- That as a practice minimum, organisations refocus their work and develop their skill base to support Child Inclusive Practice with parents and that they plan strategically to develop the capacity for direct child consultation. Both levels of practice development and consolidation require a commitment to appropriate training and skilled supervision.
- That the generic model of Child Inclusive Practice be further developed by FSB and made available through a training strategy to the wider field, particularly as an example of how the counselling sector might engage further in both parent facilitation and direct consultation with client children.
- That the specific model and manual for Child Inclusive Mediation developed for this research project be revised and developed by FSB in light of the Pilot findings, and made available through a training strategy to the mediation sector.
Practice developments related to the implementation of this recommendation need to be directly linked to the Quality Strategy as proposed by FAMQIS. As services develop their practice, they will need a set of approved quality requirements which will form the basis for a more formal quality assurance process. As with FAMQIS, the first step is the agreement to the 7 'Approval Requirements' which have been outlined in recent FAMQIS reports.
It would seem logical to integrate the development of good Child Inclusive Practice in the sector with the entire FAMQIS Strategy. This will require the FAMQIS Quality Management Group, to take note of these practice elements and integrate them into the Quality Strategy and also the Approval Requirements.
Underpinning Organisational Commitments:
Within each organisation a number of commitments are required as the basis for effective child-inclusive practice.
Family Law Act 1975: The first organisational commitment is to the changes implemented by the Family Law Reform Act 1995. As quoted on the first page of this report, the overall aim of the 1995 Act is to ensure that children receive 'adequate and proper parenting' and to ensure that 'parents fulfil their duties and meet their responsibilities concerning the care, welfare and development of their children.' The Act then goes on to outline 4 principles which underpin this aim:
- Children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents, regardless of whether their parents are married, separated, have never married or have never lived together.
- Children have a right of contact, on a regular basis, with both their parents and with other people significant to their care, welfare and development.
- Parents share duties and responsibilities concerning the care, welfare and development of their children.
- Parents should agree about the future parenting of their children.
A commitment to the Rights of the Child: This commitment is perhaps best articulated in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
States shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due w8 in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, whether directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.
A commitment to strengthening the capacity of parents: This research project has reinforced international findings on the impact of parent education in alleviating conflict related stress for children. Approaches that strengthen the capacity of the parent to think about the needs of their children, the impact of conflict and strategies for reducing impact provide the foundation of any Child Inclusive Practice.
A number of parent education models and resources are already available, some of which have been carefully evaluated (see chapter 4). Identifying a pool of resources across the sector would be an expedient approach to strengthening organisations' capacity for child inclusive work. This would be a valuable role for the Quality Management Group as recommended in the FAMQIS Quality Strategy Report.
A commitment to innovation and learning: There is now considerable research which focuses on an organisation's capacity to learn, and the ways in which this contributes to continual improvement in practice and service quality. Key elements include:
- active learning by acquiring and building upon new knowledge;
- ongoing attempts to improve practice by absorbing new concepts and innovations;
- efficiently and expediently adapting to changing environments;
- focusing on leadership to develop a sense of purpose and commitment in the organisation;
- articulating organisational policies which are supportive of learning and creating an environment where people are encouraged to take risks and try out new ideas;
- including and encouraging participation of staff, and sharing of expertise;
- encouraging flexibility in organisational structures and work roles;
- developing a staff profile with a variety of skills, knowledge and experience.
A commitment to systemic reflection on practice: Learning organisations continually strive to improve the quality of service provision through a commitment to ongoing learning. They make time for reflection on experience, and use time effectively to address and identify learning and change needs. Broad definitions of training and learning, fostering the benefit of reflective, experience based approaches, and commitment to planning for staff learning and development are also critical features.
The role of counselling and mediation organisations in strengthening the capacity of parents appears to be well addressed throughout the sector. However, the rights of the child and a commitment to alleviating the impact of parental distress for the child are rarely articulated in organisational mission statements or practice guidelines.
- That organisations review their mission and philosophy statements to ensure they reflect a commitment to the approach reflected in Section 60B of the Family Law Act 1975, to strengthening the capacity of parents, to innovation and learning around Child Inclusive Practice and to systemic reflection on this practice.
6 organisational features have been identified as crucial to an organisation's capacity to undertake high quality Child Inclusive Practice. They are:
Governance: The governance of an organisation embraces Vision and Philosophy, Direction and Leadership. Best practice research indicates that a clear statement of vision and direction is a critical feature around which leadership can be provided, to ensure that the principles and philosophies are demonstrated in practice. In examples of best practice the Board or Committee of Management take an active role in defining the vision and philosophy and in providing the leadership for change; in this case to embrace Child Inclusive Practice.
An example of child inclusive governance would be the adoption of wording in the organisation's mission and philosophy which demonstrates a clear commitment to the inclusion of children in the organisation's practice which is also consistent with the Family Relationships Services Program Statement of Purpose. The Committee or Board of Management of the organisation would commit itself and the organisation to a shift in culture and practice in support of children.
Management: Key aspects of this component as they relate to Child Inclusive Practice, include organisational communication and decision making, and all aspects of administration such as data collection, reception, record keeping and resource allocations. Senior management in the organisation will provide active embodiment of such communication and decision-making processes, ensuring that the process of change and the supporting policies and practices are implemented.
Some examples of child inclusive Management practice would include:
- the adoption of a plan embodying the proposed strategies and implementation plan;
- the development of data collection protocols which demonstrate the involvement of children at all phases of counselling and mediation;
- the provision of resources and time to bring about the necessary changes.
In addition, the revision of statistical data collection to reflect Child Inclusive Practice represents a significant challenge for management. Given that such practice extends beyond direct contact with children, it will be necessary to devise methods of collection which reflect the breadth of approaches taken in including children in the overall counselling and mediation process.
Policies and Procedures: Policies and procedures manuals which address such issues as occupational health and safety, legal, liability and safety issues are fundamental to quality practice. As was discussed in Chapter 6, very few of the counselling and mediation profiles included explicit policies around Child Inclusive Practice, and fewer still around direct child consultation.
Introducing Child Inclusive Practice and ensuring quality service provision in this area will require a thorough review of policies and procedures. Organisational planning, monitoring and review processes need to integrate new models and approaches which broaden the scope of the client base and address the subsequent implications for service provision if Child Inclusive Practice is to be the norm.
Evaluation is pivotal to an organisation's growth and development. The search for ways of describing and measuring quality is not new for community workers, and the need to justify or substantiate both service outputs and/or client outcomes has been the subject of considerable debate over recent years and is reflected in the outcomes to date of the FAMQIS project. Those organisations which adopt a best practice, total quality management, and/or quality assurance approach to their service provision recognise that the final service outputs are only one component to be considered. Equally important are the internal processes and relationships.
With respect to child inclusive evaluation practices, indicators may include measures of parents' skill or resource base, children's adjustment and family satisfaction with outcomes.
Workforce Capacity: The selection, training and supervision of staff underpins any organisation's capacity to deliver quality Child Inclusive Practice. As was demonstrated in Chapter 7, good practice organisations usually had a critical mass of staff committed to creating Child Inclusive Practice which included direct child consultation. This can be achieved by deliberate recruitment processes, training and staff development, and supported by appropriate supervision.
Clearly, written practice guidelines should not substitute for hands on training and experience, supported by supervision. The practice guidelines provided in the following section for example are a beginning step and need to be supported with the development of training materials and the implementation of suitable training schemes within organisations and across the sector. Particularly in the direct consultation of children, workers involved in this line of practice must be suitably skilled and experienced to deal with the complexities of this kind of consultation and the art of parent feedback. Not surprisingly, findings from this project indicate that staff with graduate training in social work or psychology were more likely to consult with children. Even indirect work through parent education and facilitation will require a level of specialist training or experience in developmental issues.
Organisations able and willing to offer the range of services represented in the model would have an established supervision structure to support direct work. Workshop participants routinely underscored the importance of regular access to mentor figures who bring established skill and expertise to this area of work.
Integrated service model: A key factor in all good practice organisations is their integrated approach to service delivery, focussing on the needs of the client and ensuring a holistic response. This may be achieved by internal and/or external linkages which are built on collaborative approaches and protocols. The associated services which may need to be included in the service network of a child inclusive organisation could include an updated specialist referral network. Child inclusive practice for some organisations may centre upon the identification of children in need and their appropriate referral to specialist services.
Environment: The environment of an organisation encompasses its culture, resources and facilities. All have the potential to undermine or support Child Inclusive Practice. Appropriate child and parent friendly facilities can create an environment where parents and children feel welcome and valued. As was discussed in Chapter 7, the costs associated with creating such an environment are not exorbitant however thought needs to be given to appropriate resource allocation. While not all organisations will be able to develop exclusive facilities for children, it is well within the resource base of all to have posters and brochures which demonstrate the commitment to strengthening the capacity of parents and toys and books which indicate that children are welcome.
Some aspects which would contribute to a child inclusive environment would include a family friendly waiting area, reception staff who can make children feel welcome, toys and drawing equipment for various ages and ideally, a specially equipped interview room.
There are 6 features of an organisation that have emerged as crucial supports to Child Inclusive Practice. They are governance, management, policies and procedures, work force capacity, integrated service models and environment. These complement the FAMQIS Approval Requirements. In addition, statistics on activities with children need to be collected, to reflect the broad range of activities undertaken where children form a focus, i.e. to reflect the various options as outlined in the 'Steps' on Page 100.
- That there be commitment from board and management to providing leadership and direction around Child Inclusive Practice. This includes revising as necessary policy and procedures regarding occupational health and safety, duty of care and confidentiality protocols. Strategic or business plans need to reflect a commitment to the ongoing development of Child Inclusive Practice.
- That organisations develop recruitment, training and supervision strategies and structures suitable for all levels of staff to support holistic Child Inclusive service provision.
- That broader referral networks and subsequent collaborative arrangements be developed.
- That resources be allocated to the creation of a child inclusive environment throughout the organisation and that specialist resources such as parent education materials and child interview equipment be developed and maintained.
- That broader methods of data collection be developed, to reflect the increased emphasis on the inclusion of children in counselling and mediation practice. These recommendations, when linked in with the processes being developed by the FAMQIS Project, will form a firm foundation for services seeking to develop a more Child Inclusive Practice and a range of organisational supports to back up this development. We have placed considerable importance on ensuring that organisational supports are in place for improved practice, a philosophy directly espoused by FAMQIS.
A number of features of the broader sector provide an essential context for the development of Child Inclusive Practice. In particular:
Legislation: As has been evidenced by the changes to the Family Law Act 1975, legislation can initiate significant changes in a sector. A further example is the impact mandatory reporting has had on practice in various parts of Australia. Supportive legislation in this instance has acted as a catalyst for this research project and the potential for significant change in practice.
Government policies and directions: The nature of government policies and funding processes have considerable impact on organisations and subsequent worker practice. Federal, State and Territory Governments, from time to time, adopt different policies in relation to children and families, with subsequent funding implications. Such government and political shifts can significantly influence community attitudes as well as the general environment in which the services operate.
Funding sources and programs: The structure of funding, the way that programs are integrated or isolated and the reporting requirements from government agencies all have considerable impact. The extent to which State and Federal funding programs overlap or are inter-linked can be a factor, as well as the extent to which there is encouragement to cross refer and develop cross sector collaboration.
Community attitudes: The attitudes within communities towards counselling and/or mediation services and the acceptance level of marital conflict and breakdown can have an impact on the nature of services. Further, the extent to which there is appreciation in the community of the potential benefits for children through counselling and mediation will affect referral rates for children. Supportive community attitudes create a positive environment for the development of Child Inclusive Practice.
Sectoral approaches: The extent to which other services within the sector adopt a child-inclusive practice will influence the approach of counselling and mediation organisations. Further, the history of collaboration and networking will affect the potential for efficient and effective cross-service referrals.
Training Strategy: As outlined earlier, any training strategy undertaken in this sector requires an associated organisational change process to ensure maximum effectiveness. This change process, incorporating the FAMQIS recommendations and the framework detailed in this report, needs to be comprehensive and encompass all aspects of a service.
Professional attitudes: A supportive attitude within the profession (including professional bodies representing the different occupational groups) is a critical factor in affecting practice. As concepts are debated and opinions developed, the overall stance of the professional bodies and individual workers will have a significant bearing on actual practice and the extent to which change is possible.
Many key elements at government level that enable the development of Child Inclusive Practice are already in place, specifically; legislation, research, FRSP program integration and the FAMQIS project. Peak bodies are largely supportive, as are client attitudes. The missing elements include appropriate data collection, training strategies and funding structures to support the change process. Supported change in professional attitudes is also needed to enable the developments required by this paradigm shift. The challenge for the entire sector is to appreciate, plan for and implement the significant cultural and organisational change processes involved in bringing practice into line with legislation.
- That consideration be given as to how FRSP data collection including FAMnet can identify ways to more accurately reflect and support a diversity of Child Inclusive Practice.
- That a coherent training strategy and associated organisational change process be developed and supported by FRSP (particularly through the FAMQIS Project) and Peak Bodies.
- That funding guidelines be revised to encourage and support Child Inclusive Practice.
- That FSB resource an effective change process in support of increased Child Inclusive Practice.
- That Peak Bodies work collaboratively to support a change process.
- That the recommendations from this report be referred to the FAMQIS Quality Management Group, for development of a detailed Implementation Plan.
The evidence collected through this project indicates that counselling and mediation services are poised to make a significant contribution to the wellbeing of children and their parents; some are already doing so. In all aspects of these organisations, from policy to clinical practice there is a commitment to and understanding of the value of Child Inclusive Practice.
Change occurred during the life of the project, with innovation and creative development taking place within a number of services and across the sector. Given the identified gaps between what children and parents would like, and what services are providing, there is still considerable room for improvement.
This report has suggested the first steps required to address those gaps, to make the improvements required to ensure that children and parents are positively supported through the painful experiences of family conflict, separation and divorce. The changes required may be challenging, at both the organisational and practice levels, however the rewards will be well worth the effort.