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Volunteer Family Connect Moves to Virtual Service

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Karitane - News - Volunteer Family Connect Moves to Virtual Service - illustration 37515712-272f-4a4c-9051-d041b75b3aeb

18 May 2020

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5 min read

Mental Health

What is Volunteer Family Connect?

Volunteer Family Connect (VFC) has successfully operated since 2012 and in that time has demonstrated positive impact on both Families and Volunteers. VFC is referred to as a structured social relationship program and was developed to test the effectiveness of a volunteer-based home visiting service to support families, carers and their young children. VFC is an evidence informed program.

Families, carers and children living in vulnerable communities are at risk of social isolation. Social isolation, as a risk factor for mortality, is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with a sense of belonging and connection being vital for a person’s health and wellbeing. The importance of social connection as a public health issue has gained much traction within the political arena over recent years. In 2018, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced its first Loneliness Minister in response to a call for action from the Loneliness Commission, and 2019 Australian Labour MP, Andrew Giles addressed federal parliament on the need for policymakers to pay more attention to the consequences of social isolation and loneliness.

VFC offers an example of a successful support model being delivered in Australia by a long-standing consortium of highly experienced child and family service providers, KaritaneThe Benevolent Society and Save the Children. The intervention works with families and carers of young children who are marginalised, experiencing social isolation or need additional support in their parenting role:

  • Improved parenting perception: improve and strengthen parent’s experiences, capacity, knowledge and confidence
  • Brighter outlook: support parents to be future orientated and aspirational for themselves, their children and their family
  • Increase community connectedness: improve participant’s support networks volunteer and community connections
  • Reduce social isolation/improve health: improve participants’ sense of inclusion, reducing health risks

How does it work?

recent Australian trial demonstrated the effectiveness of VFC in improving outcomes for families linked with a trained volunteer who provides emotional, practical and informational support, strengthening parents’ confidence, optimism and wellbeing. VFC reduces the service gap and provides structured social relationships for vulnerable families through the support of Volunteers. Structured social relationship interventions, like VFC, typically provide 1-1 in-person, home-based support. But in the midst of COVID-19, service providers have had to rethink service delivery to ensure families are able to stay connected when they need it the most.

VFC is a structured social relationship intervention in the form of volunteer home visiting for parents and carers of young children (0-5 years old) who are vulnerable due to social isolation and/or a lack of parenting skills and confidence.

The service is delivered by volunteers and overseen by a Program Co-ordinator. Families are matched with trained community volunteers who serve as a support and social bridge to the local community. Volunteers visit families for two hours per week for between 3-12 months. During home visits volunteers establish trusting, respectful and meaningful relationships with families, providing families with flexible practical and social support as well as information about appropriate community services to facilitate parent engagement and connection with these services and other community activities.

Since COVID-19 the VFC consortium has made a shift in the way families are being supported, with service delivery being responsive and flexible during these unprecedented times. 

Rigorous research has clearly demonstrated that VFC delivers value for money. $1.78 social value for every $1 invested. For most vulnerable families this increased to as much as $5.42 for every $1 invested. We have also seen:

  • 70% Improved parenting competence
  • 62% Stronger community connections
  • 67% Higher satisfaction with support services
  • 68% Increased sense of guidance, emotional closeness and belonging

Who delivers the service?

The VFC consortium consists of three family service providers, two universities that support and provide oversight of the randomised control trial, corporate support for the social impact evaluation and an anonymous donor who funded both the research and program delivery since 2012.

Prominent family service providers, Karitane, The Benevolent Society and Save The Children Australia have delivered volunteer home visiting programs within the Australian context for many years. Western Sydney University along with Birkbeck University of London have provided academic rigour and ongoing quality assurance. E&Y provided the social return on investment guidance providing the clear social impact evaluation that VFC can offer the service system.

The collaborative nature of the VFC consortium is unique as the VFC program is not part of a separate entity but shared equally across all members of the consortium. This offers eight years of experience in building the ability to move within existing structures, whilst creating space for sufficient flexibility and dynamism to be responsive to emerging opportunities. Such experiences have kept the VFC momentum not only moving but able to cope with the only known constant – change. The collaborative nature of the VFC program delivery has consolidated the benefits in improving outcomes for families as well as their potential to support positive outcomes for program volunteers.

How is it funded?

Although some government funding has been utilised, 100% of the research and ongoing program delivery funding (post June 2019) for VFC has been covered by an anonymous philanthropic donor.

VFC is a scalable model for early intervention with vulnerable families. The service has proven success in lifting parent and carer capabilities and strengthening community connections for isolated parents and volunteers.

Funding of $2.55M over two years to continue delivery in the existing seven sites, maintaining early support for up to 170 families and 90 volunteers. A seamless transition from philanthropic funding (expiring end 2020) would minimise inefficiencies from volunteer attrition to ensure continuity of service and maintain strong governance and quality arrangements.

It is critical that funders/governments invest in cost-effective, sustainable and scalable interventions that are evidence informed, and that promote social and community connection to support child and family health and wellbeing, now and post COVID-19.

VFC consortium would welcome an opportunity to engage with other investors/funders (the Commonwealth Government) on the emerging post COVID-19 family policy reform agenda, to explore ways to scale this low-cost, high impact model into further sites across the country and connect more systemically into the service continuum.

Exploring a virtual world

Due to the past eight years of experience of working collaboratively and with agility, each family service provider has successfully continued the VFC model provision utilising virtual application.

In doing so the existing providers have developed and demonstrated experience in successfully scaling a continuum of care to include virtual delivery as an option. In return this offers broader service delivery organisations an opportunity to also utilise such evidence-based services. The VFC training package is comprehensive and standardised, ready for expansion by any future service delivery partner.

Albeit not solely driven by COVID-19 the threat of COVID-19 required VFC delivery to physically distance to reduce the spread of the disease, staying connected to minimise the impact on communities social and psychological wellbeing.  The decision to move to virtual delivery was made to continue service where possible, primarily to best support families with young children in communities who were already socially disconnected. This included using digital means to reach out to those families likely to be feeling the effects of social isolation more acutely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Structured social relationship interventions, like VFC, typically provide 1-1 in-person, home-based support. But in the midst of COVID-19, service providers have had to rethink service delivery to ensure families are able to stay connected when they need it the most. The VFC consortium has made a shift in the way families are being supported, with service delivery being responsive and flexible during these unprecedented times.

Even when 1-1 in person meetings are no longer possible, families have remained socially connected with their community volunteers over the phone or through virtual ‘home visits’ using video conferencing and other online platforms.

This is a time of increased change for families, with more and more families experiencing stress and feelings of social isolation and disconnection. This will continue, for many families, well beyond the immediate health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My volunteer was loving, supportive and non-judgmental. Every week she provided me with support and encouragement. I don’t have family help close by and I honestly don’t know how I would have coped as a new mum without her support.” Volunteer Family Connect client

The ability to reach remote communities and engage in inter-organisation delivery across diverse geographic footprints has been an immediate benefit. For example:

  • Save The Children is exploring how excess volunteers in Inner West (NSW) could be linked virtually with families in Hobart (Tasmania).
  • The ability to offer support across the continuum of care with a combination of 1-1 in person and virtual has been successfully trailed in The Benevolent Society Gold Coast site (QLD).
  • Albeit an ongoing challenge innovative ways to manage translation for CALD families is being tackled virtually by Karitane in Sydney (NSW)

To learn more about Volunteer Family Connect, head to call Sophia Nabi, Manager. 
Karitane Linking Families I 0488 192 337  I sophia.nabi@health.nsw.gov.au 

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