Volunteer Family Connect

Volunteer Family Connect

Strengthening families and communities through volunteering

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Volunteer home visiting is a service that aims to improve the lives of families with young children who need support. This could be due to isolation, lack of help from family and friends, multiple births or a disability in the family. Trained volunteers visit families at home over several months to support and connect them to local resources. Volunteer Family Connect (VFC) is a collaborative project to develop a common best practice model of volunteer home visiting and undertake an in-depth trial to test its effectiveness and cost effectiveness.

Your support will make a huge impact on the lives of young families struggling to cope and connect in their communities.  By building the confidence of young parents and boosting their well being, the program has turned lives around, improving parenting satisfaction and mental health in parents, and the well being of the volunteers. Your kind donation will aid research into this important community project.

It has turned my life around. I was in a different place before the volunteer came.

Background 

For some women the experience of having young children is one of isolation and uncertainty and as many as one in four report having low levels of social support. Others at risk of isolation include mothers who are new to Australia and those who have a child with high support needs. Social isolation is a significant predictor of poor outcomes for mothers and their children and increases the risk of post-natal depression. On the other hand, it is well-established that community connectedness and a sense of belonging to the local community are fundamental to a person’s health and wellbeing.1
One response to addressing social isolation among families with young children has been to develop structured social support programs such as volunteer home visiting (VHV). VHV services assist families by linking them to people (volunteers) from their local community who have experience in parenting and/or caring for children. They support the families 

to increase their parenting confidence, encourage positive parent-child relationships and build their social networks and connections to local services.

Existing research suggests that VHV programs contribute to improved maternal wellbeing, parenting skills, parent-child relationships and social connectedness. In addition, positive outcomes have been reported for the volunteers such as increased knowledge and skills, and reduced social isolation.

Volunteers often become significant and highly valued figures in the families’ lives. Research suggests that parent-volunteer relationships are most successful where the volunteers offer flexibility, compassion and non-judgemental support. 

However, there is a shortage of well-designed quantitative studies that have evaluated the impact and outcomes of volunteer home visiting services and, hence, lack of a strong evidence-base demonstrating their value to governments and other funders. To address this gap a partnership project, known as Volunteer Family Connect, was developed in 2012 between Good Beginnings Australia2, Karitane and the Benevolent Society and researchers then based at the University of New South Wales and the Centre for Social Impact3. The project’s aim was to develop a common best practice model of home visiting and to undertake an effectiveness trial (a randomised controlled trial) and cost effectiveness analysis (Social Return on Investment) of the model.

The trial is due to be conducted in 6 locations in 4 states. It will be the first effectiveness trial of volunteer home visiting to be conducted in Australia, the largest trial to be conducted world-wide, the first to focus on outcomes both for the families and the volunteers who support them and the first to include an analysis of the social return on investment. It aims to answer the key policy questions as to whether this type of service is worthy of investment by governments and if so, what its place should be in the range of services available to families with young children.

1 References are available in the full report of the pilot study.
2 Now part of Save the Children Australia
3 Now at Macquarie University, Western Sydney University and EY.

Research Partnership 

Research literature into volunteer home visiting suggests it has benefits for family wellbeing and for volunteers, However few existing studies have been rigorous or large and, as a result, governments and other funders have been hesitant to invest in volunteer home visiting on any scale.

In 2012, Good Beginnings Australia, The Benevolent Society and Karitane entered into a partnership with researchers Dr Rebekah Grace and Professor Lynn Kemp at the University of New South Wales (now at Macquarie University and Western Sydney University respectively). The goal of the partnership was to develop a common best practice model of volunteer home visiting and to undertake an in-depth trial to test its effectiveness and cost effectiveness. The joint project is known as Volunteer Family Connect (VFC).

Pilot Study Key Points

  • The pilot study found that families supported through Volunteer Family Connect experienced marked changes, especially in parent wellbeing, social support and connectedness, and parenting satisfaction.
  • There was also a clear trend of improvement in their mental health.
  • VFC families were more vulnerable on a number of variables than comparison group families at baseline. However by 6 months they had similar scores.
  • The study adds weight to the argument that VFC plays a valuable role for families who are vulnerable but who would usually not qualify for intensive professionally based support services.

Pilot Study Key Findings

Outcomes for VFC families

  • VFC parents reported significantly poorer general wellbeing than comparison group parents at baseline, but no significant difference by the 6 months follow-up, suggesting that VFC families had ‘caught up’ with comparison group families.
  • There was a clear trend of improvement in the mental health of the VFC parents over the 6 months. VFC parents were significantly more likely than comparison group parents to report that life had improved in the last three months, and to be optimistic that it would continue to improve.
  • VFC parents were significantly more likely to report having ‘someone in their life who reminded them of their own value’. There was also a marginal effect increase in those reporting ‘having someone in their life they could count on’.
  • VFC families had lower community connectedness scores at baseline than the comparison group,
    but had similar scores at 6 month follow-up, again suggesting that VFC families had ‘caught up’ with the playgroup families on this variable.
  • VFC parents demonstrated a significant increase in sense of parenting satisfaction at the 6 months follow-up.

Outcomes for both VFC and comparison group findings 

  • Both groups experienced a significant increase in social integration and in their global social provisions scores.
  • Both groups demonstrated an increase in child-parent closeness and a decrease in child-parent conflict.
  • Both groups were equally satisfied with the services they were receiving.
  • There was no significant difference in the physical health of the two groups at the start, nor over the 6 months.

Find out more about the pilot study.

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