Family Relationships Quarterly No. 18

AFRC Newsletter No. 18 – March 2011

Supporting children after separation (Anglicare WA): Program spotlight

by Catherine Caruana

When separating parents seek the assistance of family support services, or interact with the family law system, the children, until relatively recently, have had little direct presence in the process. Child-inclusive and child-focused practice, in both mediation services and the conduct of litigation, have helped provide a voice for children in family law disputes (McIntosh, 2007). In doing so, it became increasingly apparent that the psychological and emotional support needs of children whose parents were separating, particularly in high-conflict families and those affected by violence, were not being met. In 2008, the Federal Attorney General's Department in conjunction with FaHCSIA announced funding for the establishment of 14 dedicated support services around Australia for the children of separating parents. Catherine Caruana interviewed Jennie Hannan, Executive Manager of Services, Anglicare WA, and Tunya Petridis, Children's Consultant with Anglicare WA's Supporting Children After Separation (SCAS) Program, to find out more about one of these relatively new services.1

Background

Supporting Children After Separation Programs around the country aim to help children (aged from birth to 18 years) through the experience of their parent's separation, and in particular to:

  • adjust to the changes that arise from separation;
  • indentify and express their feelings and thoughts about the separation;
  • develop and enhance family relationships in what can be a difficult time; and
  • gain life skills and social skills that will enable them to build resilience to challenges in their lives (Anglicare WA, 2010).

The Supporting Children After Separation Program run by Anglicare WA evolved from another successful Anglicare WA initiative - the Parenting Orders Program, Mums and Dads Forever. In 2007 Anglicare WA conducted a children's pilot (as part of Mums and Dads Forever) which provided some counselling and group therapy specifically for children. Anglicare then went on to successfully tender for the Supporting Children After Separation Program in metropolitan Perth. The program was rolled out nationally in December 2008 and Anglicare WA began accepting clients in February 2009.

The program

The Anglicare WA program provides services to children via four streams. These include:

  • Schools program - educative workshops delivered in the school setting either as a one-off session, or over a number of weeks. The workshops are targeted at all children, and as such do not focus on separation specifically, but on a range of issues such as self-esteem, anger management, grief and loss, dealing with conflict, coping with strong emotions and managing stress and change. This program has proved very popular, with bookings some months in advance.
  • Group work with children - a psycho-educational program with age-specific groups of 0-5 years, 6-9 years, 9-12 years and teens. Over the course of six weekly sessions of 90 minutes, children are encouraged to explore their feelings about their parents' separation, using a "sideways" therapeutic model, that is, by sharing their experiences with children in similar circumstances. The aim is to normalise experiences of family breakdown, thereby minimising feelings of isolation. Taking a strengths-based approach, the groups provide a supportive environment for children to develop emotional awareness about what is happening in their families, and to develop coping strategies. The groups run continuously throughout school terms and in the school holidays.
  • In the 0-5 year old group, children attend with a parent. Run by Ngala (a Perth-based early parenting service) and facilitated by a psychologist with the assistance of childcare workers, this group uses attachment theory to help enhance the parent-child relationship and parental self-esteem. This is a particularly useful service for fathers who are estranged from their children.
  • Counselling service - the client group for this short- to medium-term, child-specific counselling service, is drawn primarily from children whose families are affected by a high level of conflict, domestic violence and/or other complex issues. This service also works as a referral gateway, offering additional assistance to children attending group sessions and referring to other specialist services, where required.
  • Camp program - a camp program, which aims to provide opportunities to develop physical skills and enhance self-esteem, was in development at the time of interview.

While interventions occur at the child, parent and family system level, approximately 95% of client work is done with children directly. Where appropriate, parents can be provided with feedback about outcomes from the group and individual sessions. However, like other Family Support Program providers, Supporting Children After Separation counsellors working individually with children are subject to the admissibility and confidentiality provisions under the Family Law Act 1975 and the program isn't court reportable.

Anglicare WA is in the process of developing a child-friendly website. There are plans to increase capacity to provide child-inclusive practice training for Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners. The SCAS service works very closely with the new Family Relationship Centres. All services are provided free of charge.

Pathway through service

When a contact is made at the service, the case is first allocated to one of the five offices covered by the service. An intake appointment is first organised with a counsellor and the parent during which screening for violence is undertaken, followed by an appointment with the child for assessment.2 Referrals are made where appropriate, either in the form of warm referrals (where the counsellor will make contact with the service provider in the presence of the client) to other Anglicare WA programs or other external providers. A decision is then made whether the child would benefit from attending the group sessions, or individual counselling. The majority of children first participate in the group program. However some children attend counselling prior to attending a group where it is felt it is needed. Where a child is on a waiting list for a group session, counselling can help keep them engaged with the service.

An attempt is always made to work with both parents, except where it would be dangerous to do so. However a child's participation in the program is not dependent on obtaining consent from both parents. If one parent objects to the child using the service, counsellors will work with that parent to reassure them about the child's involvement, but will generally proceed to see the child.

The majority of referrals come from Family Relationship Centres, schools, and the Family Court of Western Australia. When ordering parents to attend the Mums and Dads Forever program, the current practice of the court is to also make an order that the children attend the Supporting Children After Separation Program.

Barriers

One of the challenges faced by Anglicare WA in running the SCAS Program is responding to the high demand for services with limited resources. The service is only funded to see children, therefore the work done with parents, which Anglicare WA considers essential, is not included in their reportable client statistics.

The needs of clients attending counselling have been found to be much more complex than anticipated. However the ready availability of other Anglicare WA programs, to which clients can be referred, has enhanced the service's capacity to respond - illustrating the importance of embedding services such as these within an agency that can provide other supporting services.

The difficulty in securing qualified and experienced staff, especially for a specialist service such as Supporting Children After Separation, is a significant issue in Western Australia. Anglicare WA provides staff with in-house training on a range of subjects, including assessment and screening, domestic violence, working with children, and child developmental theory. Supervision and professional development are prioritised. The service is well supported by good infrastructure provided by the parent organisation.

Innovation

Anglicare WA view the Supporting Children After Separation Program as an innovative addition to Western Australia's family support services. The only other child-specific counselling service available in the region is that provided at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service - a specialist service for children with serious mental health issues, run by the Department of Health. The fact that SCAS can be responsive to local needs, can provide prompt and appropriate referrals, and has a strong presence in schools, and during the holidays via the camp program, further extends its reach to children requiring support during a difficult time.

Conclusion

The SCAS service provided by Anglicare WA works to both fill a service gap for a particularly vulnerable client group, and to contribute to the work of other services in fostering a greater child focus in parents who are separating. An evaluation of the service by researchers at Edith Cowan University will contribute to our knowledge about the efficacy of services such as these in supporting children and young people through the difficult family transition of parental separation.

Contact

For further information please phone (08) 9263 2104, or visit the Anglicare WA website.

References

  • Anglicare WA. (2010). Separation services: Supporting Children After Separation Program. Retrieved from <www.anglicarewa.org.au/separation-services/supporting-children-after-separation-program.aspx>.
  • McIntosh, J. (2007). Child inclusion as a principle and as evidence-based practice: Applications to family law services and related sectors (AFRC Issues, No. 1). Melbourne: Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Catherine Caruana is a Senior Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.

Endnotes

1. This spotlight profiles only one of the 14 Supporting Children After Separation Programs around the country. The author is unable to comment on how the Anglicare WA service differs from other services.

2. When a child makes the first contact to the service (a situation which has not as yet arisen), agency policies relating to obtaining informed consent guide how the intake process proceeds.