at a glance

Step Up – Building Healthy Relationships, is a voluntary program that was rolled out by Barwon, Child, Youth & Family (BCYF) in 2014 in the Barwon region (Geelong). It provides therapeutic, early intervention support for families where a young person was identified as using violence towards their parents/carers at home. The program supports such young people to develop skills and learn strategies to articulate their strong emotions and communicate in a safe and respectful way. It seeks to understand the adolescent in the context of their family, school and community and supports their safety and stability in the home.

The original Step-Up program supports young people from the ages of 12-17, alongside their parent/carers and family. The modified version of Step Up now caters to 10- and 11-year-old children too.

Step Up is funded to provide support to 100 families per financial year and there are 8 caseworkers within the program.

The key elements of the program are:

  • Intensive case work
  • Assertive outreach
  • Group work program (including an online delivery mode which was designed as a response to Covid-19 restrictions)
  • Support and clinical supervision, and reflective practice for staff

Partners:

Step Up is delivered by Barwon, Child, Youth & Family (BCYF) and The Sexual Assault and Family Violence Centre (SAFV Centre). BCYF partnered with Deakin University (Geelong) to conduct a study and evaluation that enabled the age expansion of the program and included 10- and 11-year-old children.

 

The Challenge

In 2018, BCYF identified a gap in the existing Step-Up model as it did not support 10 and 11-year-old children. Even though these children were eligible for support relating to their use of violence in the home, the existing age criteria of Step Up was 12 and above, which placed the younger ones on a wait list. Therefore, to better support an early intervention model, BCYF decided to invest in adapting and expanding the program to meet the needs of this younger cohort.

BCYF’s research team partnered with Deakin University, and the resulting literature review provided a roadmap for adaptations. The review identified strategies and supported the inclusion of modifying the validated assessment tools to work with 10 and 11-year-old children.

These adaptations allowed for gathering more detailed information which supported delivery of targeted and age-appropriate interventions.

Lessons Learned

  • Not respecting the young person’s right to participate reduces engagement — Where appropriate, attempts may be made to engage young people who have explicitly declined participation. They are provided with a choice to engage, which reinforces that their views are important and to be respected, as is the voluntary nature of the program. Step Up aims to obtain informed consent from the young person. If they continue to decline the support, they are provided with the opportunity and information to engage in the future, if they change their mind.
  • Moving away from the family focus does not work — The young person must be supported in the context of the family. If a family is experiencing a period of transition or significant change, there may be limited capacity for the young person or parent to implement suggested strategies. Therefore, thinking of whole family as a unit is vital.

The Journey

The Step-Up program needed to be adapted for the younger cohort. The existing Step-Up program already took a child rights approach which ensures that children are holders of rights, are entitled to safety and stability, can enjoy positive wellbeing and development, and feel their voices are heard. This approach was implemented using the following practice principles:

  • Best interest case practice
  • Strength-based practice
  • Trauma informed care
  • Culturally sensitive practice

Two theoretical frameworks further complemented these principles:

  • Family system theory which takes a whole of family approach. It considers the family as a unit instead of focusing just on the young person; looks at family’s communication style and dynamics between parent and children.
  • Attachment theory is the other framework that guides the above-mentioned principles. It seeks to understand the different attachment styles within a family and identifies attachment disruptions that impede on a young person’s development.

When Deakin University team did the literature review to inform the age expansion of the program, it suggested the implementation of several strategies that would complement the existing practice model and make it suitable for the younger cohort. These strategies include:

  • Building rapport and trust: Rapport and trust building is a key part of the process to effective engagement. It is important that sufficient time be allocated to the rapport building phase and not raising the concerns about the young person’s behaviour too soon.
  • Simplifying abstract language: When working with younger cohorts or those with a disability/cognitive delay, there is a need to avoid the use of concepts or language that may be too abstract for them to comprehend (e.g., empathy, different communication styles).
  • Using visually appealing tools: Visual tools and practical exercises need to be adopted to support the clients who may have lower or limited literacy skills. Engagement with the younger cohort of clients was increased through using practical activities, visual tools, and a more conversational style during sessions. Some assessment tools and group-work sessions were slightly modified to reflect this.
  • Taking a child development lens to work with young person and parents/carers: Stronger focus on supporting the young person is needed to increase their emotional literacy and support an understanding of emotional regulation and co-regulation with parent/carers.  Similarly, educating parents/carers on age and stage of development and the impact of trauma. It is also important to ensure that the age-appropriate information is being provided to the young person and their parent/carer.

These strategies were therefore added to the existing model and adapted version was then rolled out for all age groups, including the 10-and-11-year olds.

The Outcome

The developmental evaluation of the revised program reported on success rates based on the team’s observations:

  • Increased parental capacity in understanding and responding to their young person’s use of violence
  • Increased understanding and awareness of co-regulation in parent/carers
  • Positive and consistent engagement with the program
  • Referrals being made whereby Step Up has been recommended by a previous client or professional from a different field
  • Positive feedback provided directly to practitioners from parent/carers during and upon conclusion of the program

A limitation of the evaluation is that there was no long term follow-up to assess the impact of the adaptations. Therefore, there is no data to conclude whether the intervention effects lasted over time.

The adapted version of the program will continue to delivered in Barwon and has reinforced the need to deliver it to support 10-11 year olds.

To know more about the current work happening in the program, contact grace.jones@bcyf.org.au