Practitioners on evidence: Cathie Valentine
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After more than 20 years as a social service practitioner working with vulnerable families, Anglicare Victoria's Cathie Valentine still finds it "tricky" balancing the different perspectives of practitioners and researchers trying to establish evidence-based programs.
"It is like two opposite ends of the scale for researchers and practitioners to work through" she says. "The practitioner needs to be flexible and adapt to families, compared to researchers needing to prove that a program that is working is delivered exactly as it was written and that what caused the outcome was not from anything else. But it's not a disconnect - researchers and practitioners are simply working from two very different premises."
As Program Manager Community Services at Anglicare Victoria's Southern Region (located in Melbourne's southern suburbs), Valentine sees the tension between practice and research daily. She manages several programs including two Communities for Children sites (Frankston North and Cardinia) as well as other parenting services.
While Valentine works closely with on the ground services, she is definite about the value of research to improving services.
"Evidence tells us about the purpose of our programs, what are the outcomes and what have we achieved. We gather evidence for a range of reasons - predominantly for quality improvement for clients, but also planning and reporting to funding bodies, and making sure we are using the most current theories of practice. Where we can, we try to contribute back to the evidence base."
Since 1997, Anglicare Victoria has invested significantly in its research capabilities. It has an in-house research team - headed by Dr Tatiana Corrales - that plays an active role in evaluating Anglicare programs, translating emerging research into practice, advocating for policy change, as well as drafting funding and government submissions.
The organisation's research covers everything from literature reviews, analysis of existing datasets, improving program designs, quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis. It has contributed to national and local program evaluations and research projects.
"Given the nature of our clients, much of our research is mixed methods and quasi-experiential, working with various individuals and organisations. We try to look at areas where people are most vulnerable and bring that to the attention of government," Valentine says.
One of the challenges Valentine sees in making research "part" of everyday practice is for time-poor practitioners to see the value of regular data recording for research.
"The big challenge is keeping staff consistent in data reporting. The practitioners' focus is their direct work with clients, and research is often seen as a secondary component of their role. We have to show evidence is relevant to their daily work, that what they do has made a difference and improves work into the future - when we do that we have a high degree of staff completing records. If we get good data, we can highlight good outcomes. If we can show it helps clients, it keeps the fire in the belly of practitioners," Valentine says.
To improve staff support, Valentine believes program managers need to set aside funds and time for gathering evidence.
"Most managers seem to be concerned with having high client targets, but the targets aren't the only issue, we need to be building the evidence base. Then they can go back to increasing targets once they know what they've done is effective."
However, Valentine still sees tension in implementing and assessing evidence-based programs in real world settings. She recalls a time at Anglicare when an evidence-based program was being strictly run alongside normal services that were more effective because they were adapting to client needs.
"With evidence-based programs, it's a different way of working and a different relationship with clients. But I don't think the approaches are totally incongruent."
So, what does she think will resolve this tension between research and practice?
"It's around partnerships, ensuring that one discipline is not elevated above the other, and each can see the importance of the other. But at times it doesn't appear to be that way."
Valentine also believes researchers can learn from practitioners.
"Practitioners innovate on a daily basis to find the appropriate strategy to help a family. By the time the evidence base is built, workers may have already advanced practice two or three steps ahead. Research bodies can be far too slow to keep up with that."
Moving to an "outcomes" rather than an "evidence" focus is also what Valentine sees as preferable for delivering future services.
"Evidence-based programs are often a specific intervention for a specific issue. We need to move from single-issue responses to more complex responses to issues - rarely do single interventions cover the complexity families are experiencing. We've got to make the short time we have with families count, we don't get multiple goes at it".
Valentine believes collaboration between researchers and practitioners is required to help overcome the increase in what she calls "wicked" problems affecting families.
"We have to change practice and research to deal with these problems. It would be marvellous to have practitioners work closely with researchers. If we did that we would get some shifts and changes, simply by different questions being raised by both sectors," she says.
"We need to walk in each other's shoes - it's got to go both ways."
This article is part of series of practitioner profiles originally published in Family Matters No.99: Research to Results.
Other articles in the series:
- Practitioners on evidence: Karen Field
- Practitioners on evidence: Wendy Field
- Practitioners on evidence: Zoe Upson