OPEN Forum: Capturing client voices in challenging contexts
On 9 December, OPEN ran its first ‘After the Symposium’ Forum to profile further promising and innovative practices occurring within the children and family services sector.
The OPEN Forum ‘Capturing client voices in challenging contexts’ featured speakers from three different organisations who have been using lived experiences data to inform their projects.
They spoke about fully engaging with clients to identify their needs, possible solutions, inform service delivery and provide information for research/evaluation. The speakers emphasised that seeking understanding of the lived experiences of clients provides nuanced insights into their complex experiences. They went on to discuss challenges and solutions in capturing their voices and methodological and ethical processes that can make the data sufficient for a robust evidence base.
These presentations reflect an increasing interest within the sector in involving clients in services and programs. The presentations invited us to re-think existing structures, hierarchies, and power dynamics.
Discussions following the presentations steered towards working for an inclusive and strength-based model to support clients’ capacity to participate in research and evaluation activities. There were further discussions on respecting the willingness of clients to participate in such activities and providing a safe space to share opinions about their needs.
Presentation title: A voice for lived experience
Speakers: Melanie Field Pimm (Development Manager) and Dr Aaron Hart (Strategic Research and Evaluation Designer) from VACRO
VACRO is a community organisation which supports people and their families who have first-hand experience of the correctional system in Victoria. The presentation discussed VACRO’s framework to capture ‘lived experiences’ to inform their services to its clients, build strong evidence base and advocate for increased acceptance and recognition of lived experience data across the sector.
Why is it relevant to the sector?
The VACRO framework builds on the principles of solidarity, empathy, respect and esteem. It recognises that gathering clients’ perspectives is vital to get a nuanced understanding of complex problems that impact them. It can further enable organisations to develop need-based solutions for their clients. Such a framework that privileges the needs of clients will support VACRO’s future service development agenda, particularly around employment opportunities for people leaving prison and families who have an incarcerated parent.
The speakers emphasised that when qualitative data (for eg. collected through case studies, interviews and focus group discussions) is combined with thematic analysis, case study approach and population-level data, it can build a robust evidence base on social issues. VACRO is currently advocating the importance of gathering lived experience data among funders and policy makers and drive change in a way to promote social inclusion.
Presentation title: ‘Giving voice’ to youth justice clients: challenges and opportunities
Speaker: Dr Shelley Turner (Senior Lecturer, Social Work) from Monash University
In 2019 and 2020, two separate qualitative studies involving interviews directly with youth justice clients in NSW were conducted. In both the studies, the main aim was to privilege the marginalised voices and perspectives of justice-involved young people in research. The presentation outlined insights and lessons from these studies, and ethical methods to engage with this group.
Why is it relevant to the sector?
The presentation emphasised the value of understanding the system from the young people’s point of view instead of relying on the more dominant expert/adult understanding of youth justice policy, procedure, and practice. Dr Turner stated that they faced several challenges while working with this group, but she shared strategies to build trust and relationship with them. For instance, she used a non-threatening, encouraging, conversational style of interviewing as opposed to an interview with pre-set questions as suggested by previous research. This step enabled her to have simple conversations about things that mattered to this group of young people.
Dr Turner also acknowledged the power disparities between researchers and the young people, and suggested researchers to find ways to remain accountable, and realistic when working in difficult contexts.
Presentation title: ‘Advocating for Parents involved with Child Protection: Independent Family Advocacy and Support (IFAS) pilot service’
Speaker: Dr Chris Maylea (Senior Lecturer, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies) from RMIT and Sherie Thomas (lived experience consultant and member of Shared Experience and Support reference group
Dr Maylea and Sherie Thomas, in partnership with Victoria Legal Aid, are working on an evaluation of the Independent Family Advocacy and Support (IFAS) pilot service which was started in 2018 and will end in 2021. The presentation shared the methodology and findings of the mid-term evaluation of the pilot service IFAS. The program provides non-legal advocacy and support to parents and primary carers who are involved in the early stages of the child protection system. Capturing voices of carers and enabling them to share their experiences about the system has been central to this evaluation.
Why is it relevant to the sector?
During the evaluation study, parents and care-givers provided deep insights into the barriers that they face when they come in contact with the child protection system. For instance, parents and carers felt pushed around or were not given enough information, which made the process stressful. The parents and care-givers advocated the need to balance the interests of both children and parents where possible and found the IFAS valuable in this endeavour.
The evaluators used a mixed methods methodology where in relevant literature including legal policies, IFAS documents and case studies were reviewed, interviews and focus-group discussions were conducted, and quantitative data was collected and analysed. Initial findings have revealed that the parents and carers are finding great value in being part of this pilot service.
Some feedback and quotes from attendees:
- The forum garnered positive feedback as attendees observed that the presentations were thought provoking and interesting. Some themes and quotes:
- On the value of capturing lived experiences:
- “It’s really interesting to balance the ‘nothing about us without us’ principle with all this – thanks for the thought-provoking talk!”
- On the idea of participation:
- “recognising the vexed nature of participation. On whose terms? The interaction is so often initiated /determined by the holder of power, not by the person whose voice is being ’empowered’.”
- On power disparity between client and researcher/worker/staff:
- “Even the language – ‘we need to give you a voice’ – hands all the power to the asker, implying the person has no voice unless they are given it by the person with power.”
- “It is patronising rather than empowering, that language. Great how the speaker problematises this!”
Some additional resources on client voice
- If you want to know more about DHHS guidance and policy framework on client voice, check the link here.
- If you want to check out the OPEN quick guide on what is client experience and how to engage with them, check the link here.
- The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare has recently commenced the Voice of Parents project. The project will develop a framework for parent voices to be heard through a Charter of Parental Participation, an agreed principles that can be applied across organisations and programs in the child and family services sector, and a Parent Participation Model (with a practical tool kit of resources). To know more, click here.
- And finally, here are is an OPEN Blog post where the Centre’s youth consultant, Brittany spoke about the value of understanding client experience and an event reflection on Dr Penny Hagen’s work on authentic participation and family-centred practice.