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Evaluating Family Support Service


Background. It is a very explicit value in Norway that children should primarily grow up with their parents. To place a child out of home is a very strong action that conflicts with fundamental views on child and family relationships. For a long time the political ambition has been that the Child Welfare Service should strengthen their efforts on enabling parents to take good care of their children and thus prevent out-of-home placements.

With support from national authorities Child Welfare Research Unit in Bergen has developed an evaluation model on family support services. This model has been worked out in collaboration with the employees at a newly established Family Centre and is designed to give maximum relevance in daily practical work with respect to both clients and therapists. Since late 2005 the evaluation model has been implemented at the Family Centre.

At the Family Centre 11 especially skilled social workers (therapists) are employed to work intensive and systematic with and within vulnerable families by using different methods to gain results. This approach is meant to empower parents and children. The solutions they achieve are meant to be complete and tailored to meet the family needs. Families are referred to the Family Centre from the local Child Welfare authority. They should have comprehensive problems and be close to having their child taken into care.

The developed evaluation model, and analysis of data gathered through implementation of the model, may contribute to improve intensive treatment procedures for troubled children and families, and encourage evaluation efforts in social work practice.

Purpose. By use of the developed evaluation model, we have recently evaluated both the Family Centre and the usefulness of the model. The evaluation model was assigned to answers the following questions:

  • who are the users of the Family Centre?
  • what kind of problems are supposed to be addressed by the centre?
  • what kind of problems are they in fact addressing?
  • what methods are applied by the centre?
  • what are the users'(public/private) opinion on the services provided by the centre?
  • what are the outcomes of the work done by the centre?

Methods. The evaluation model is exploratory, combining quantitative and qualitative data. Therapists should carry out evaluation in each case every third month using questionnaires and forms. Aseba (Children behaviour check list) was utilized at start and end of treatment. Parents were interviewed at termination of treatment. The sources of information are parents, therapists and child welfare officials.

Informed consent was obtained from parents in 41 families with a total of 70 children. Data from these cases, supplied through the evaluation model's different elements, constitute the material for this study.

Key findings. Several variables indicate that the correct target group was served. The majority of families were socially disadvantaged: 70 % unemployment, 55 % single-parent household, and four years, on average, former involvement with child welfare services.

Despite the comprehensive problems of the families, the Family Centre's efforts were centred on the parent-child relationship with little focus on other risk factors that cause difficulties. The centre's co-operation with other services was limited, for 48 % of the families there were no contacts with schools or kindergartens and for the rest of the families the contacts were few.

The main activities used by the therapists, were meetings with parents (predominantly mothers), mostly in their homes. Direct contact with children was much more limited, although the contact period lasted for about 12 months by average. Frequency of therapists contacts with the families members was lower than anticipated, 1,5 per week. Variation of methods applied was below expectation.

Children's improvement was considered satisfactory by parents, therapists and child welfare officials, although the children and their families were still in need of further support from health and child welfare services. Interviews with parents indicated that they especially appreciated their relationship with the therapists.

The quantitative findings might be less reliable because of problems with getting the social workers to enter all the data required. The validity of the findings would have been increased if an adequate reference group had been included.

Implications and recommendations. The purpose of this project has been both developmental and explorative. It has showed the difference between how the family centre was presented officially and how the daily work in fact was done. This observation was made possible by the locally developed evaluation design which gathered detailed data about a series of different work - components. It indicates that locally adjusted inventories as well as standardized instruments are required to achieve valid knowledge about contents and outcomes of multifaceted services, meant to meet the needs of families with severe and complex problems. Further, participation from the local professionals is vital, if evaluation efforts shall lead to improved services for vulnerable children and their families. On the other hand such comprehensive evaluations are demanding and challenging, especially for the social - workers / therapists involved, as this study has demonstrated. This leads to the need of balancing the objectives and ambitions for the evaluation with the resources available.

Key references

Biehal, N. (2005).Working with adolescents at risk of out of home care: the effectiveness of specialist teams. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 1045-1059.

Katz, I. & Pinkerton, J. (Eds). (2003). Evaluating Family Support - Thinking Critically, Thinking Internationally. Chichester: Wiley.

Lindsey, D., Martin, S. & Doh, J. (2002). The Failure of Intensive Casework Services to Reduce Foster Care Placements: An Examination of Family Preservation Studies. Children and Youth Services Review, 24, 743-775.

Contacts: Øivin Christiansen, University of Bergen, Christies gt. 13, 5020 Bergen, Norway, E-mail: oivin.christiansen@bus.uib.no, Phone +47 55583229, Fax +47 55589878.

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