Western Sydney UniversityWHY PAYING A VISIT PAYS OFF


Image: Copyright Alexander Dummer, Unsplash

Volunteer visits are helping isolated parents feel more confident and optimistic.

A program whereby volunteers visit people’s homes is helping vulnerable parents in need of extra support. Volunteer Family Connect (VFC), matches families of young children with trained volunteers who visit once a week for between three months to a year.

“My visits could involve reading to the kids while the parents cook dinner, going to the doctor together, or simply listening to their concerns,” explains Kathleen McKinnon, a volunteer who has worked with several families. “It’s only two hours a week, but it makes a huge difference to the families.”

In addition to anecdotal evidence, social scientists are working to demonstrate empirically that programs like VFC make a difference.

In 2012, the government cut funding from volunteer home visiting programs citing a lack of evidence for their effectiveness, explains Professor Rebekah Grace, chief investigator and Director of TeEACH (Centre for Transforming early Education and Child Health) at Western Sydney University. “If the only reason for the funding reduction was the lack of evidence, what we had to do was clear,” says Dr Jayne Meyer Tucker, a former CEO of one of the three national not-for-profits that partnered on the research. She initiated crisis meetings with the research team. “We chose to run a randomised control trial, the gold standard methodology in assessing program effectiveness, which randomly allocates families to either receive the service or to continue on without the support of a volunteer.”

Getting the program implementation staff, the volunteers, and volunteer coordinators on board with the trial, however, was a challenge. “The volunteers and coordinators are very motivated by the drive to help families make positive change. They worried that families in the control group were essentially being denied help, and the idea was heartbreaking for them,” says Grace. “We went to each of the seven trial sites many times to talk to program volunteers and staff about why we needed to employ this methodology, to help them understand that the trial would give us the strongest evidence possible to argue for the survival of this program. This helped reframe their thinking.”

The trial commenced in 2015, and the analysis has been completed, showing that families who received the service felt more competent with parenting, were better connected to the community, experienced improved wellbeing, and were more optimistic about the future than those in the control group. Moreover, they showed volunteer improvements such as wellbeing, community connection, and sense of purpose.

VFC currently operates with funding from an anonymous philanthropist, and the team continues to advocate for government funding. The team’s analysis shows that government investment in programmes like these ultimately produce savings by preventing small problems from worsening into those that require more intensive intervention. Following the trial, two additional communities have contacted the academics asking for the VFC programme to be implemented in their areas. As a result, programmes are underway in Taree on the northern coast of New South Wales and in an indigenous community in Wanslea in Western Australia.

A social impact evaluation, underwritten by Ernst and Young, was performed in tandem with the study to value the improvements and social benefits generated from Volunteer Family Connect. They found that every dollar invested achieved a $1.78 to $5.42 return in social benefits.

“Even if you’re economically well off, it’s quite alarming how isolated and distressed you can feel as a new parent without a support network,” explains Dr Kelly Baird, project manager and a former Research Fellow at Western. “Services are already available for parents who need professional care, like treatment for clinical depression, or who require more intensive tertiary parenting interventions. But we need to remember that the families who aren’t at that level now, without intervention, could be at the edge.”

“The issue with belonging is significant,” adds Grace. “People are more isolated now than any other time. We need to be addressing social inclusion with the same seriousness and sense of urgency as we do with issues like smoking, alcoholism and obesity.”


Need to Know

  • 15% of Australian parents report feeling isolated.
  • The Western team’s study was the largest trial of volunteer home visiting worldwide.
  • The program demonstrated financial, social and health benefits.


For more examples of how Western Sydney University is driving social transformation, refer to their latest, special SDG edition of Future Makers: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/future-makers/sdgs-issue  

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