Involving vulnerable families in evaluation

This is the first of a 2 part series discussing how to include vulnerable families in programme evaluation by Nicola McConnell

Father and sonWe've just completed our evaluation of Caring Dads: Safer Children, a parenting programme for domestically abusive fathers, based on the original Canadian Caring Dads programme.

We were trying to measure whether the programme can change behaviour and prevent further abuse. Previous research suggested that perpetrators of abuse tend to minimise and underreport their abusive behaviour, so we couldn’t rely solely on what fathers attending the programme told us.

Ideally, we also wanted the views of partners/ex-partners and children - but as they are a potentially vulnerable group, we needed to know if this could this be done safely and ethically.

I wanted to share the challenges we faced.

Involving families in evaluation

Part of the Caring Dads: Safer Children programme involves practitioners trying to contact each father’s partner (or ex-partner) and children to provide them with information about the programme and make referrals for further support if required.

During these visits, we asked family members how they felt about the father’s attendance on the programme, what changes they hoped would occur and then, afterwards, what (if any) changes in the father’s behaviour they had observed.

We also asked them to complete questionnaires about the fathers parenting and controlling behaviour and their wellbeing.

The challenge of involving partners and ex-partners

To conduct research ethically, we have to ensure all participants, particularly recipients of a service, have given informed consent.

Even before we asked them to participate in the evaluation, we didn’t know if partners would be willing to be involved with Caring Dads: Safer Children at all.

Understandably, many women were wary of meeting with practitioners. For some, influence or pressure from the father prevented them speaking openly, or they were concerned that information might be fed back to the father.

"some of the men are like that...they want to get little snippets of information. And for the partners trying to move on…that’s not helpful"
Practitioner / Caring Dads: Safer Children

Some partners viewed the visits as an intrusion rather than support, and others didn’t feel the programme was relevant: they considered it to be a matter related to their partner’s previous relationship.

Sometimes practitioners and referrers decided that it was not in family’s best interests to be contacted, particularly if they believed the father’s motivation for attending the programme was to prolong his influence over a former partner.

As one Caring Dads: Safer Children practitioner explained, “some of the men are like that...they want to get little snippets of information. And for the partners trying to move on…that’s not helpful”.

Challenges when involving children

There were additional challenges when involving children in the evaluation.

These included:

  • whether the mother - or main carer - consented to being involved in the evaluation or service, and whether they consented to their children being involved
  • many of the children were babies or pre-schoolers and unable to participate in surveys or interviews. Mothers and carers were able to complete questionnaires about the wellbeing of children as young as 3-years-old, but the questionnaires weren’t valid for children under-3
  • practitionerssometimes decided it was inappropriate to use a questionnaire with the child, if the child was unaware their father was attending the programme, for example, or if they’d recently been taken into care
  • practitioners also avoided involving children if they didn’t want to discuss their fathers, particularly as this was only a chance to give their views, not receive a therapeutic service.

Importance of children and partners' views

In spite of the challenges, the value of involving children and partners with the evaluation was clear.

When we compared the children’s and fathers’ reports about parenting behaviour, for example, the fathers’ average scores indicated better parenting behaviour than would be found in typically warm and loving families, suggesting response bias within their data: the fathers either believed or presented an idealistic view of their own parenting.

The results suggested that children provided a far more realistic appraisal: the children’s average scores were within the normal range for the questionnaire.

Similarly, when partners and fathers were asked to report on controlling and abusive behaviour, both reported reductions in abuse - but partners reported more incidents, before and after the programme, than fathers.

Recognising different views

Families’ views about the programme could be extremely diverse. For different reasons they could feel positive or negative about the father’s involvement.

Recognising these differences enables us to be more sensitive and flexible in planning services to meet the needs of fathers’ families.

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Involving vulnerable families in evaluation

Read part 1 of this 2 part series by Nicola McConnell on how to include families in programme evaluation.

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Caring Dads: Safer Children

Helping fathers see the impact their violent behaviour has on their children and how they can make positive changes for the future.
Caring Dads: Safer Children service