Legal Studies Research Findings No. 29An Evaluation of the Parent Information Programme
Gillian Mayes, John Gillies, Raymond MacDonald and Graeme Wilson
This study investigated the efficacy of The Parent Information Programme (PIP). This programme aims to provide information to aid parents in understanding and helping their children during parental separation.
- The PIP is an excellent prototype for interventions aimed at providing information to parents in connection with helping their children through parental separation.
- The content instantiates priorities outlined in the Children (Scotland) Act, 1995.
- Interviews and focus groups with children, participants at PIP and individuals who provide mediation and counselling services to children all provide evidence that the content of PIP is relevant to the experiences of children whose parents have separated.
- Although individuals working in the legal profession are broadly supportive of the content of PIP they are often unaware of the precise aims and objectives of the programme.
- The delivery of the service could be developed, taking in a range of locally based presenters from FMS or other service organisations; training could be offered to these individuals and those wishing to initiate programmes elsewhere.
- The current referral route for participants does not allow the programme to maximise its potential. This referral route should therefore be modified to incorporate either a broad-based approach or an enhanced referral route through the lawyers of potential participants. Both these options require improved and formalised communication channels.
- A parent education programme should not be made compulsory for all divorcing parents.
- The role that the PIP has within current mediation and counselling services should be assessed.
INTERVIEWS WITH PARTICIPANTS AT THE PIP
The main reason stated for attending the PIP was to gain information on how best to deal with issues relating to the participants' children. Apart from this, the precise expectations that participants had of the programme were somewhat vague. In terms of what the participants had already talked about with their children, there were a number of important issues. At a general level, it can be concluded that parents had not discussed issues surrounding the divorce with their children in any great detail. For example, only about one-third of the participants had talked to their children about their own (i.e. the parents' feelings). A similar proportion stated that they had discussed their child's feelings in relation to the separation. By contrast, the majority of the participants had discussed practical issues regarding their children with their partner, although in only half of these cases had agreement been reached.
Most of the participants interviewed after the programme evaluated the PIP very positively. A few individuals felt the group attending the session was too small. Although expectations were vague about what exactly would be contained in the PIP all participants agreed that the reality of the programme had differed from their expectations. Almost all respondents stated that the PIP had been helpful, and aspects such as opportunities to talk and ask questions, watching a video where children give opinions, and having a group discussion with other parents were seen as definite strengths of the programme. The low numbers of other parents at meetings and initial feelings of embarrassment were two of the drawbacks mentioned. In general, respondents felt that the PIP had given them information that would be useful in dealing with the children's needs, although it is important to note that most of the participants stated that they would still not talk about their own feelings with their children. Larger groups and a greater range of people presenting were seen as important in terms of making improvements to the PIP. However, most participants did comment that the current standard of presentation was very high.
When interviewed 6 months after attendance, all respondents continued to speak positively about the PIP. Interviewees indicated that, while their overall opinions and attitudes had remained the same, they had gained valuable insights from the PIP, in particular the importance of being "child-centered" in their approach. It remains to be seen how this may translate into direct behavioural outcomes. Several respondents spoke at length about the parenting agreements that had been reached but it is difficult to say what impact the PIP has had on these arrangements. None of the respondents had been to court regarding their separation since the meeting although it is anticipated that this would be a likely outcome in at least some cases.
Focus groups and interviews with children of separated parents.
The main points highlighted by the focus groups and interviews with children are outlined below. The majority of children were told about the separation by their mother. All participants reported either being very upset around time of divorce or being too young to remember. All participants but one were also currently staying with their mother. One particularly interesting finding from the focus groups was that many of the participants voiced extreme reservations about talking about their parents' separation to others. Reasons such as 'not being able trust people' and 'feeling vulnerable' were given for not talking about their feelings. However, there was recognition that talking about how they felt was an extremely important part of dealing with separation. Most participants said they would like to talk to one or two 'special people' (a relative or friend) about how they felt. Another issue that was discussed was the impact of parents' new partners on children's circumstances. It was felt that this can be particularly stressful since situations such as lack of parental attention often arise. Very often the separation involved the children moving house and this process was also seen as anxiety producing, particularly in the first instance.
Children appear better able to cope with the stresses of separation and its outcomes:
- when parents have talked to them about what is happening
- when parents' pre-separation relationship was openly acrimonious
- when parents are perceived as happier after the separation
- when they do not perceive their situation as unusual
- when they feel there is someone dependable they can talk to, should they want to.
Children broadly verified the content of the PIP booklet "Parents Apart". Concerns were expressed regarding relationships with their fathers. The contributions of children in groups which had undergone mediation suggest the positive effects of such intervention for children following their parents' separation
Interviews with people who work with children of separated parents
The role of the counsellor is essentially person-centred i.e. the therapist offers time, privacy and a non-judgmental approach. Children can talk about whatever they want and a variety of techniques are employed to help the children feel at ease. The most common themes the children wish to talk about are: a sense of loss; fear and anxiety about the future; rejection; guilt; anger; powerlessness; new partners; contact problems. The service is not open-ended and children usually attend for one hour a week over several weeks. The children are made aware of, and prepared for, the end of the counselling sessions. The workers felt that a parent information service should be offered early in the process of separation. It was seen as important for both parents to maintain contact with the children, and it was emphasised that both parents will always have responsibilities. Having a number of weekly sessions was suggested as the best way to achieve these goals.
Interviews with sheriffs, sheriff clerks and lawyers.
Most lawyers interviewed were aware, in very general terms, about the content and nature of the PIP sessions. There appeared to be two approaches for notifying clients of the service. Some lawyers would simply pass on a leaflet and let the clients decide themselves, while others would discuss the programme and recommend attendance. It was suggested that a possible reason for the low uptake was the way in which clients were referred to PIP and that, if more publicity was employed, the uptake would be greater. A number of possible benefits for children as a result of PIP were mentioned. These benefits seemed to stem from parents having better insight into their children's thoughts and feelings in connection with the divorce. No specific drawbacks for children were referred to.
Relevance of PIP in terms of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
The service provided by the PIP supports many of the objectives of the Children (Scotland) Act, 1995, relating to divorce and separation, and can facilitate their implementation. However, the programme was developed independently of the Act's introduction, and is intended to have a wider remit than a specifically legal one.
Conclusions and Implications
The study has produced evidence that the programme is an excellent prototype for interventions aimed at providing information to parents to help their children through parental separation. For example, it delivers a service that can enhance the lives of children in line with the priorities of the Children (Scotland) Act, 1995. Interviews with participants at the PIP indicate that the meetings provide information that parents themselves find helpful in making the process of separation less traumatic for themselves and their families.
Interviews with counsellors experienced in working with young children whose parents have separated suggest that the content of the PIP also meets important requirements for this age group. Solicitors, sheriffs and court officials were also broadly supportive of the content and purpose of the programme; however, at times these individuals were uncertain of its precise objectives. Focus groups and interviews with children also highlight a clear need for a service of the type provided by PIP.
It appears, though, that while the PIP provides a valuable service for parents, its implementation does not permit the programme to maximise its potential. The number of parents making use of this service is small. Members of the legal profession cited low uptake as a reason for their dwindling involvement in the project; however, the lack of solicitors' involvement itself may be a contributing factor. It would therefore be worthwhile to re-evaluate the recruitment of clients to PIP, considering broader or different referral routes, strategies for raising awareness of the service, and an ongoing liaison with the legal profession in the area.
Regardless of how the referral route is amended, the role that PIP has within all current mediation and counselling services available to parents and children should be evaluated. Evidence from the interviews with people who provide counselling services to children suggest that the service could also be delivered thorough, or with the assistance of, other branches of Family Mediation or organisations such as Stepfamilies Scotland, Couple Counselling or One Plus.
Another commonly expressed concern for the implementation of information programmes is whether they should be made compulsory for all parents considering separation. There is little evidence from the input of sheriffs, lawyers or PIP attendees to suggest that compulsory attendance for all parents would be a welcome or practical measure. It was generally felt that part of the success of PIP depends on parents' willingness both to participate in the session and to think about its contents at a later date.
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