Research into practice

Does more mean better? Not necessarily so. This is one of the findings of a recent report1 that looked at the increasing number of services and interventions developed to help and support children whose parents have separated or divorced.

The report found that there was “much duplication of information and formats. Many leaflets are simply rejigged and rebranded versions of leaflets produced by others”. The report argues that there is a need for a co-ordinated approach to providing information to children and their parents involving the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now the Department for Constitutional Affairs), the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the Family Advice and Information Network, the National Family and Parenting Institute and major children’s and parents’ charities, as well as local groups.

This important report addresses the distress experienced by children during periods of parental conflict and separation. It was conducted by the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge and the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, during 2000-1. The project included a review of children’s views of family change, and involved a screening questionnaire sent to 172 organisations in the UK (response rate 75 per cent). A second, more detailed questionnaire was then sent to those providing services for children from divorcing or changing families.

The authors highlight the findings from other research into children’s perspectives which show that:

– Children are not usually given an explanation of what is happening at the time of separation.

– They are not often asked what their wishes are regarding living arrangements.

– Most children want continuing relationships with both parents and often indicate that they want to spend equal time with them.

– There are age differences in children’s responses to parental separation that need to be taken into account.

The researchers found that of particular importance were the needs to facilitate communication between children and their parents and to help children understand what was happening. It was also important to enable children to build support networks.

The report provides fascinating examples of the literature that has been provided for children and for parents who are seeking to explain to children what is happening in the separation or divorce.

Among the biggest problems highlighted was the absence of any systematic evaluation of these materials. Instead, evaluations are often based on anecdotal accounts of “what worked for me”.

The report’s conclusions offer a framework for designing and evaluating services. They argue that “it is difficult to justify the expense and other resources involved in setting up a service if it is not evaluated or based on an evaluated model”.

Central to its recommendations is the “need to ask children about effective ways of designing services, and what are the best ways for them to gain access to services. Not all children want the same services or will access them in the same way.”

There is much more in this report, including excellent websites, useful addresses and a bibliography. It should become required reading for professionals working in this field.

1 Joanna Hawthorne, Julie Jessop, Jan Pryor and Martin Richards, Supporting Children Through Family Change, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2003

Bernard Moss is a learning and teaching fellow and principal lecturer in social work and applied social studies at Staffordshire University, and until recently was a national family mediator.


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