‘They dug me out of a hole’:
Parental Perceptions of Home-Start Athenry.
Dr. Anne Cassidy
Home-Start Athenry has been in existence since 2005 and in that time it has sought to help families to deal with challenging situations such as marital separation, raising children alone and mental health issues. It provides individualised, parents-led support primarily through a volunteer visiting programme and looks to enhance families’ ability to cope with the struggles they face. While it appears to have had a significant impact on problems such as isolation, depression and stress the question remained unanswered as to what influence the parents who use this service feel it has had on their lives. Furthermore, while a significant body of research has been developed internationally on the Home-Start programme little has been done in the local Irish context. To this end a report was commissioned by the steering committee of this organisation to investigate the views of parents on the service they receive from this programme. Therefore, the intention of this research study is to explore parental perspectives of the Home-Start Athenry service and the impact it has on them and their families. In addition, the opinions of the volunteers who are involved in Home-Start were also sought for this work and are included where appropriate. The research question underpinning this work is:
- What are parents’ perspectives on the Home-Start programme?
This chapter looks at the literature that has already been written about Home-Start. It then moves on to detail the research methods used in the completion of this study and outlines the ethical guidelines that were followed so as to ensure that any issues of this nature were avoided.
The Home-Start service was established in 1973 in the United Kingdom and has since been replicated in more than twenty countries including Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. Each service is managed and run independently but follows the approach and structure laid out in the Home-Start guidelines. It was set up with the intention of providing support to vulnerable families primarily within the home environment through providing a volunteer to visit them once a week. Other services are also offered such as group activities and classes. Home-Start is built on the premise of providing non-judgemental support to families according to their specific needs. It aims to give consistent support over a long period of time so that the family can deal with the issues they faced. Home-Start is not bound by one particular theoretical model but rather is linked to a set of attitudes and values, which has at its core the development of a friendship between a volunteer and a family (Harrison, 2003). Each service has a paid coordinator who supports a team of volunteers who have the bulk of the contact with the families once the visits have been set up. The families who are visited should have at least one child under the age of five. Home-Start recruits, trains and supports volunteers who are usually a parent themselves or a more mature person with the life skills to assist families who are going through a difficult period. The issues that bring families into contact with the service include post-natal depression, lack of support in bringing up young children, raising children with special needs and relationship breakdowns. This support is reactive to parents’ needs and can vary from listening to parents, providing practical help with children, giving advice and so on. One of the core elements of Home-Start is choice; parents have the choice to start using the service and to exit the service if they so wish. In addition, Home-Start sets flexible guidelines around the kind of assistance the volunteers can provide. Instead, it is expected that the parents and volunteers will negotiate the boundaries of their relationship in terms of what support is offered. However, it is made clear to both parties that the volunteer is not a childminder (but can take care of the children occasionally) and should not mind the children in their own home since they are not insured to do so. Similarly once their official contact through Home-Start finishes it is a mutual decision as to whether they will continue to meet. The overall aim of Home-Start is that parents will gain sufficient confidence and independence that they become more able to support themselves without needing to rely on Home-Start. Families usually engage with Home-Start for a minimum of six months but support often lasts longer depending on the needs and circumstances of the family.
In Ireland there are three Home-Start services in Blanchardstown, Swords and Athenry. The Athenry branch covers the areas of Athenry, Loughrea, Oranmore and Craughwell. It was set up in 2005 under the auspices of Galway Rural Development, the HSE and Galway Childcare. Aside from the intensive one-to-one support provided by the volunteers, which in 2013 amounted to 50 hours per week, it also facilitates Family Mornings, which are weekly gatherings similar to parent and toddler groups that reinforce the work done by the volunteers. It also organises classes, for example, in cookery and stress management and runs social outings throughout the year such as to local pet farms. Attention is also paid to the needs of the volunteers and, for example, in 2013 social activities were organised for them such as trips away and ‘wellness’ days (Stapleton, 2013). There is an advisory committee in place, which meets four times a year and oversees the work of Home-Start including managing staff and organising funding. A paid coordinator manages the day-to-day work of the service including recruiting and training volunteers, carefully matching them with families. In addition, the coordinator liaises with families and volunteers so that a picture of what is happening in each situation is built up. While each service operates independently of national or international bodies part of the coordinator’s role is also to ensure that the service conforms with the overall Home-Start methods and practices.
Currently there are 23 active volunteers in Home-Start Athenry. In 2013 52 families were supported with 36 assisted through home visits and 16 engaged with the service through Family Mornings or PEEP Training. Typically the volunteers visit once per week for a period of two to three hours. Parents can self-refer to the service or else referrals are made by health care professionals such as Public Health Nurses and social workers. According to the latest figures available from 2013, 65% of families involved with the Home-Start Athenry service had concerns over mental health issues relating to isolation and emotional health while a further 40% of families have children with special needs. Furthermore, nearly 40% of families are one-parent families and 30% are dependent on social welfare (Stapleton, 2013).
This section briefly examines some of the main research reports that have been produced about the Home-Start service since its establishment.
Perhaps one of the most significant indicators of Home-Start’s strength is that it has been evaluated as operating at best practice level by the European Platform for Investing in Children. This commendation is based on a thorough examination of its usefulness as a support service for families. Evidence for this status was provided through a series of quantitative evaluations carried out in the Netherlands and the UK, which all demonstrated strong evidence of its effectiveness, the transferability of the programme from one setting to the next and enduring impact i.e. the influence of the programme continued to be felt after engagement with the service had ceased (Europa.eu, 2013). For example, a Dutch study demonstrated that a number of key indicators around mothers’ mental health had improved as a result of their involvement with Home-Start (Asscher et al., 2008; Asscher et al., 2008). Also a study carried out in the UK on the impact of Home-Start on maternal depression showed a decrease in instances of this arising and less likelihood of it occurring among families who availed of this service (Barnes, et al., 2009).
A number of other evaluation studies have been carried out on the efficacy of the Home-Start programme and its impact on outcomes for families who face challenging circumstances. The majority of these studies were carried out in the UK and in Denmark. These studies usually have quite strong empirical merit since they have a longitudinal evaluative focus with quantitative measurements used to assess the impact of Home-Start on familial outcomes. Some also contain a qualitative dimension including interviews with parents, volunteers and coordinators. Each of these studies have demonstrated that the Home-Start programme is effective in supporting families and that measurement indicators around, for example, social isolation and child behaviour show improvements when this service has been accessed by families. One such study that was carried out surveyed over 300 families across four English Home-Start schemes (Frost et al., 2000). This research showed that many of the families who were involved in this study faced complex needs as around three-quarters of the parents were dealing with self-esteem and confidence issues, while a majority of families also reported parenting difficulties. This study demonstrated that there was a probable link between the provision of support by Home-Start and emotional well-being with well over half of the women who were involved reporting increases in this aspect of their health. Other improvements occurred in areas such as growth in informal support networks and support for their children in terms of meeting their physical, emotional, social and educational needs. Crucial aspects of the programme as identified in this report were having someone to listen to them, the neutrality of the support provided and the depth of the relationships that were developed between the families and the volunteers (Frost et al., 2000). These findings are supported by a study carried out in Scotland (Kirkaldy and Crisp, 1999), which discovered that there was a significant reduction in the number of families noting behavioural issues in their children as well as an increase in self-esteem and confidence amongst the parents. Another evaluation carried out in Scotland again demonstrated that Home-Start gives valuable assistance to families in need and that both this group and the volunteers were very pleased with how the service was delivered with high degrees of enthusiasm also shown by the volunteers involved in the programme (Taylor and Nationwide Children’s Research Centre, 2001).
A recent Danish evaluation (Epinion, 2013) of the Home-Start programme found that engagement with this service had significant short, medium and long-term impacts. In the short-term families benefitted from the extra help they had as well as having increased breathing room, in the medium-term families felt that they had greater independence, self-confidence and energy and in the long-term further troubles could be avoided. This research showed that there were three features of the programme, which the participants believed to have an impact on these positive outcomes. Firstly, the families felt that the voluntary element was important because they were on an equal footing with their volunteers, thus reducing their fears about how they might be perceived. Furthermore, they felt that the flexibility of the support ensured that it was always compatible with the family’s needs. Secondly, the volunteers who took part in this study saw the organisation as being of a high quality with a competent network of individuals involved in it. Thirdly, but perhaps not so relevant to this current study as they were not included within its parameters, outside partners got involved with Home-Start because of its ability to prevent issues from reaching crisis poin where e.g. social workers need to be called in.
Another study carried out in 1996 (Shinman, 1996) suggested that the use of volunteers to provide the majority of support to parents meant that the Home-Start programme was a very cost-effective way to reach out to and help troubled families. This resulted in savings to the British National Health Service through reduced engagement with statutory services and increases in the number of medical appointments being kept by, for example, single and teenage parents. However, a word of caution must be sounded about this overwhelming level of positivity towards the Home-Start programme as an evaluative study carried out in England by McAuley et al. (2004) where one group of families received support and a control group did not, found that while parents who avail of the service and the volunteers who supported them praised the programme no distinct evidence had been uncovered of a difference in outcomes for those who had access to the service and those who had not.
Since the aim of the research was to explore parental experiences of the Athenry Home-Start service the main focus of the data collection process was on this group. A purposive sampling approach was used to gather participants for this research study whereby the cohort was chosen from among those who use and volunteer within this service. While it was important that the researcher should be seen as independent and not allied with Home-Start, in the interest of confidentiality and protecting the participants from harm the service’s coordinator selected the initial pool of potential participants based on who would be willing to take part in the study or in a position to do so. This included parents who were currently using the service and parents who were no longer linked to the Home-Start programme. Through using both types of participants there was potential for a wider range of opinions to emerge as those who were no longer using the service might provide a different perspective to those who were still involved. In fact this appeared to have little impact on the data that was collected and this angle is not focused on in the findings of this research. In early July, 2014 the coordinator sent out an initial letter to the parents giving some information about the aims of this study and the researcher. Accompanying this was a participant information sheet and an informed consent form, which they were asked to complete and send back if they were interested in taking part. A list of the names and contact numbers of those who replied was sent onto the researcher and all further contact was solely between the researcher and the participants. Contact was made by the researcher with potential participants by phone in July and August, 2014 to arrange the interviews and answer any further queries they might have about their involvement in the research project. Of the 34 that were sent out 24 parents agreed to be contacted by the researcher about taking part in this study. Of this potential list of participants, 12 were interviewed for the study. Out of the 12, 4 of the parents have already left the service while the other 8 are still in receipt of support from Home-Start. 11 of the participants were female and one was male. This reflects the gender balance of the parents the Home-Start service primarily have contact with. All the participants were involved with the service for a minimum of nine months so have sufficient experience to have been able to give a considered judgement of their involvement with Home-Start. Given certain factors such as time and resource constraints as well as the relatively small-scale nature of the study requested by the funders 12 participants was sufficient for this research project. In any case the parents’ views were fairly uniform across the sample so this was a sufficient number to assess parental perspectives of the Home-Start service.
A qualitative approach to the study was taken as this was in keeping with the research brief and it is the most appropriate way to gather data about people’s perspectives of a situation (Bryman, 2004). The data collection method used was semi-structured interviews whereby a list of questions was drawn upon and these were expanded upon within each interview as need be. The questions mainly looked at parental attitudes towards the Home-Start service, what benefits they felt they derived from it, the relationship they developed with the volunteer and the coordinator, issues they had with it and any recommendations they could make for the further improvement of the service. The interviews ranged from 15 minutes to 45 minutes with the average lasting around 25 minutes. 9 of the interviews were conducted over the phone and three were in person. As the group lead busy and demanding lives each participant was given a choice about whether they preferred to be interviewed in person or over the phone as this allowed them to decide according to their own circumstances. While there are potential issues with conducting interviews over the phone such as around building rapport between the interviewer and the participant such losses in the possible richness of the data collected were compensated for by avoiding inconveniences for the parents. The interviews were audio recorded with the permission of the participants and transcribed by the researcher.
The volunteers who are involved with Home-Start were also in a position to contribute to the discussion so a sample was recruited from this cohort as well. A focus group was conducted with this set of participants because it is a quick and efficient way to gather information from multiple sources. As the coordinator had their contact details he approached 26 potential participants for the focus group. 14 agreed to take part in the research. The topics concentrated on were relatively similar to the questions the parents were asked as it fitted with the overall question that was to be addressed in this study. The focus group lasted for approximately an hour and twenty minutes and took place in the local community centre. The focus group was audio recorded and transcribed by the researcher. Contextual data about the service such as documents was provided by the coordinator at a series of exploratory meetings during the process. Also a meeting was held with Home-Start’s steering committee where further details were provided and the parameters of the research were teased out and laid down for the researcher to follow.
The parents’ interviews were coded individually and then the data was brought together under particular thematic headings and then analysed for patterns across the group and for exceptions to these (Braun and Clarke, 2006). The focus group was coded and subsequently analysed for themes as well. As the concern of this study was to examine the parental experience of the Home-Start programme the majority of attention in the findings section of this report is given to their views. However, where appropriate the volunteers’ views are included such as to reinforce the opinions expressed by the parents or to include their alternative views on the subject.
Every effort was made to ensure that the highest ethical standards were complied with. In order to protect the participants’ privacy no information was given by the coordinator to the researcher about the parents other than their first names, the length of time they were involved with the service and their phone number. Likewise, the researcher did not share any raw data with the coordinator of the Home-Start service. Permission was sought from the parents before the researcher was given their contact details.. The names of all participants have been changed and any names used are pseudonyms. Biographical details about the parents have not been included in the final report as the small sample size would mean that they are potentially easy to identify. Care was taken to protect the participants from harm as much as possible through careful phrasing of the questions. Also participants were assured before and during the research process that if there were questions, which they did not wish to answer such as what prompted them to begin using the service they were free to refuse to do so.
Two limitations to the study should be noted firstly, the small number of participants who took part thus making it difficult to generalise to the wider Home-Start setting. In addition, the composition of the research cohort could have skewed the findings as it is unlikely to have included people who have left the service who were unhappy with it since they would perhaps not have responded to the request.
Chapter Two: This looks at attitudes to Home-Start among the parents. It also focuses on the characteristics they identify as being important to the work of Home-Start.
Chapter Three: This explores the impact of Home-Start on the parents themselves, their parenting and their family. It also discusses the role of the coordinator as well as two issues with Home-Start that were highlighted as being of some significance.
Chapter Four: This summarises the main findings of the research. It also provides a short list of recommendations for ways to improve the Home-Start Athenry service.
This chapter looks at attitudes to Home-Start among parents and what they think are the important aspects of the support they receive from this service. It particularly focuses on the relationship with the volunteer and the nature of their interaction as well as the characteristics they see as being important to the assistance they receive.
The parents interviewed had an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards the Home-Start programme and struggled to think of any problems they had with the service or the people involved with delivering it. Each was asked whether they had any issues with Home-Start but very few concerns were raised (these are dealt with in Chapter Three). Overall the cohort felt that the support they receive or had received from Home-Start both generally and in terms of specific elements such as the volunteers’ visits or the work of the coordinator had made a significant difference in their family’s lives. These are some of the views expressed by one parent about their volunteer:
I'm telling you she came down from heaven, she just landed. I was lucky it was my door she landed on to be very honest (Gillian).
Further on in the interview she went on to describe her feelings towards the Home-Start programme:
I cannot fault it in any way it's an absolute fantastic service.
All participants felt that it had made a real difference to their circumstances whether this was connected to helping to improve their own self-confidence, change the behaviour of their children, draw the family out of a growing crisis or support them through a difficult separation or a combination of these and other challenges. Emily described her attitude to Home-Start as follows:
They dug me out of a hole when I really needed it, really really needed it and that's all I can say in a very supportive and very caring way and I'll be forever grateful to them.
At the heart of the Home-Start programme lies the weekly visits by the volunteer to the family. As such it is crucial to examine the views of the parents on the relationship between the volunteer and the family and to look at individual components of this dynamic.
The connection between the volunteers and the families they visit was discussed at some length by the parents who took part in this research. They felt that this was crucial to the success of Home-Start and to the positive influence the service has on their lives. The link between the volunteer and the family often appears to have evolved beyond that of giver of help-receiver of help. In some situations the volunteer was described as a friend while in others a familial type of relationship had developed. This is shown by the kind of language used to describe the volunteer such as aunty, granny, mother. The use of words like mother to describe the volunteer speaks to the kind of rapport that the families have with their visitor and the kind of role the latter potentially fills. A kind of maternal relationship appears to have emerged between Helen and her volunteer:
Yeah, yeah it is it's more-yeah it's more like friends now than just a volunteer cos we have a really good connection. I think she gets a friendship a really good friendship like I said we're like family basically we're just like family.
Other parents also noted that the volunteer had become almost like a member of their family as noted by Emily:
Maureen [her volunteer] became part of the extended family really and it was lovely.
This stance was reinforced by the volunteers; one of whom said she spent more time with the parents in Home-Start than with their own family:
the second family that I had we’ve become such great friends, I give even more time to them than I even give my own family but I find that there’s a trust there and a friendship.
One participant believed that the volunteer’s positioning as someone they are of equal status with is important for people who also deal with other service providers such as social workers. Furthermore, as the dynamic between them was based on equality the visits were less intimidating, more beneficial to her and increased the likelihood that an affective bond would develop between them.
However, while parents are largely in control of how the service is delivered to them this does not mean that the volunteer is solely regarded as a provider of a service. Instead, as mentioned earlier a friendship/familial dynamic emerges, which means that the volunteers become part of a two-way relationship. For example, some parents discussed how they asked for specific kinds of help according to what they felt the volunteer would be comfortable with. Amy spoke of how she would not expect her volunteer to help her son who has special needs in situations where she knows he might act out-something she did not feel that the volunteer would be equipped to handle. This was not meant as a criticism as she was very grateful for the support she received but rather she was conscious of what the volunteer could and could not be expected to do for her family and her potential nervousness in dealing with her child who has special needs.
There is often reciprocity shown in the relationship between the two individuals where the parents actively contribute to the relationship so that rather than the volunteers simply giving to the parents it becomes an exchange. It should be noted that there was no hint that this was expected or demanded by the volunteer but was freely offered by the parents themselves. For instance, one parent spoke of how she was able to give information to a volunteer about a course she was taking. Another mentioned that her husband had done some DIY work in their volunteer’s house recently. Similarly, a volunteer described how during a recent illness a parent she visits came to her house and helped her with household tasks she was unable to manage at the time. Other parents discussed how the volunteers would talk about their own personal experiences of parenting and the difficulties they had encountered, which shows that the volunteers bring something of themselves to the relationship rather than solely concentrating on providing assistance. This speaks to the power balance that exists between them and how the relationship often evolves from a situation of absolute crisis where help is only given by the volunteer to one where there is more of an ‘equal’ footing. Incidentally this two-way relationship might contribute towards the longevity of the volunteers’ time with the Home-Start service as in some situations they receive as well as give support.
However, while these relationships often develop into this kind of familial connection it should not be interpreted from this that the volunteers lose sight of the role they have within Home-Start. During their focus group volunteers emphasised that while they get something from the exchange in terms of friendship the goal of supporting the parents and their families remained of paramount importance. Even as their bond with the family is transformed they remain conscious of their responsibilities to them and the needs that they should meet for these individuals. Equally, they also discussed how if they had a child protection concern they would bring the matter to the attention of the coordinator, thus showing that their ‘official’ role is not neglected or forgotten.
In many cases as part of this shift towards friendship/familial type connections, the relationship between the parent and the volunteer has developed to such an extent that they intend to maintain contact even after the official Home-Start visits have ceased. This is borne out by the fact that among the group who had already officially finished with the service they have continued to have some kind of contact since then. However, it should be noted that this is not always the case, since in some situations while they are still happy with the service they received parents do not expect to keep in contact with the volunteer afterwards. In some cases such as Amy’s the relationship is cordial more than deep and while there is sadness at the prospect of the service finishing, contact afterwards is expected to be sporadic or to cease altogether. Likewise, some of the volunteers mentioned that they have not heard from their families after the latter’s time with Home-Start had concluded. However, others like Helen have a firm expectation that the contact between her and the volunteer will continue far into the future:
[I] definitely will keep in contact with her and I will visit her-I'll be going up and visiting her. I go visit her, she comes visit me we just live round the corner now before I used to live on the other side of town […] we used to meet half way but now we go round to each other's houses.
This longevity was commented on by Gillian as well in her description of the connection she has with the volunteer:
the friendship is going to continue on. It's not as if this fantastic person who came into our lives is just going to vanish as if she died do you know she's always going to be there. She has said to myself ‘‘do you know God when I'm finished coming to visit you, you can come visit me’’ and do you know it's going to be pretty much an open house both sides-we have a fantastic relationship.
A number of characteristics were mentioned and discussed by the parents as being important features of their Home-Start experience.
One of the most significant characteristics of the Home-Start service from the parents’ point of view is that it is led by their needs rather than imposed on them by guidelines set down by other people such as the volunteer. While these needs often focus on their children it is the parents who request and direct the support that the family receives. The fact that it is parents-led has particular consequences. Firstly, it means that the assistance they are given is specifically linked to what they need and want. This is not necessarily linked to the needs, which initially brought them into the service rather changes regularly depending on how they feel or what circumstances have arisen at that moment. This is crucial for the parents regardless of the situation they find themselves in. For instance, for those who use it because of the needs of their children it means that they get support when they have hospital appointments or when their child’s behaviour is difficult to manage. Similarly, those who come to use it because of personal needs such as depression can expect to receive support when they feel overwhelmed. Therefore, the support parents receive from the volunteers can be described as individualised, reactive and based on parents’ needs rather than a prescribed model imposed by the organisation. The approach adopted by Home-Start is evident from the outset where the coordinator tries as much as possible to fit the service to the needs of the parent. This is true from how they are matched according to personalities and also how the needs of the parents are foregrounded from the start. The Home-Start approach was noted by Emily in her interview:
The coordinator had made it very clear to me from the very beginning. He said ‘‘it's really up to between the two of you to figure out’’ he said ‘‘if you just want to sit down and put your feet up, if you want her to do x, y, z, you know if you discuss that, if she's happy to do that, that's, it's fine’’, it's not about how or you have to do certain things, it's really just meeting your needs at that particular time.
The second consequence of this and tied into the parent-led element of the service is that the kind of support they receive from the volunteer is flexible and can vary from emotional to concrete support depending on the circumstances of the time. This was commented upon by Gillian who stated that:
it wasn't regimental; it was as flexible as you wanted it to be.
This flexibility means that the volunteers were seen as highly responsive to the needs of the parents and, crucially, capable of meeting these. These are Gillian’s views on the subject:
At the start I'd always be behind with ironing and she'd do the hoovering and she'd do small little bits she'd always ask you what do you want me to do? Or do you know there was one day I opened the door there and I was in floods of tears and a cuddle was all I needed. Do you know she was great support, she was just an all rounder, just fantastic. I think she had a crystal ball! She always just came at the right time and knew what to do, knew what to say, helped in every way she could. They might be only small little things now but they were huge obstacles at the time. […] It was nearly a conveyor belt here at one stage with three in nappies and she just rolled up the sleeves and dug in.
The lack of imposed rules and regulations in the kind of support available to the parents is important because this flexibility can become a key dimension of the relationship between the volunteer and the parent and how the latter are assisted. This flexibility is based on a holistic view of families’ needs. Rather than solely providing concrete or emotional support it varies depending on the situation and, also as the previous quote indicates encompasses practical help when necessary. For example, one parent spoke of how when she had a job interview her volunteer came and babysat her children so that she would have the time and space to prepare herself fully for it. Another mentioned that when her car broke down her volunteer came to collect her and her children and brought them home. Furthermore, the flexibility of the volunteers’ support is demonstrated by how much it varied from one parent to the next. For example, one parent said that much of the time her volunteer brought the children for a walk so that she could have some time to herself. On the other hand another parent said that her volunteer minded the children at home, which enabled her to leave the house and get some exercise. In other interviews parents mentioned how the volunteer spent most of the time chatting with them as well as playing with their children.
Through following this ethos the Home-Start service remains true to a very simple underpinning principle of focusing on ‘helping’ at a vulnerable time in families’ lives. Rather than becoming entangled in a bureaucratic system of strictly defined boundaries and guidelines around the kind of support they can expect to receive, the parents feel that the goal of Home-Start is simply to help them. These are Gillian’s views on the subject:
It's a no nonsense approach really and truly. There's nothing expected of you, there's no rules and regulations-well treat them with respect of course-do you know there's no terms and conditions that would make any difference. It's just help there when you need it.
The flexibility of the support also undoubtedly depends on the willingness of the volunteer to operate in this way and to be prepared to respond to the immediate needs of the family. The fluidity of the support given by the volunteers is noted by one participant, Helen, in the following comment:
At first it was more spent time together she helped me with the baby and I had a problem with doing the cleaning at the time. I always had a big mess and sometimes she actually helped me do the cleaning and sorting that out at first.
As part of this parents often suggested that they feel in control of the service they receive because assistance is not imposed on them by other people who believe that they ‘ought’ to receive a particular type of support at a given moment. Instead, as previously mentioned, it is linked to what they and their families require at a given time and is expressly based on what they request. This signifies that they drive and control the support they receive from Home-Start. The fact that they are regularly asked by the volunteers what help do they need also emphasises to the parents that they are in charge of what is happening. However, although they shape the assistance offered to them, the parents believe that the relationship is negotiated and based on the expectation of compromise in terms of, for example, when the meetings take place. Despite the fact that the service provided is led by the parents that does not mean that the volunteers are imposed upon without consideration of their own lives. While the boundaries around the type of support provided are fluid there are limits as to what the volunteers is expected to do and the timing of the visit. While the service is driven by the parents they are also aware of the personal circumstances that might have to take priority for the volunteers. This is demonstrated in Rachel’s comment:
Well you know obviously if she couldn't come that would be it or whatever […] if it happened do you know I wouldn't say ‘‘well you have to come!’’ I'd respect if she had things to do or whatever or appointments and stuff like that you know but just work around it.
There is also negotiation in the relationship between the volunteers and the parents. This was discussed by one participant Gillian:
We kindda decided at the start we'd set times so that we all knew where we were and we set a day and a time and do you know any time there'd be a deviation from that we'd always text each other two or three days or when'd you know, give each other plenty of notice and we'd change to another day.
However, despite parents’ willingness to be flexible, volunteers are usually consistent in the times they visit the families. The volunteers also put great significance on this and feel that in signing up to this service they commit to putting visits to the parents first where possible as noted by one member of the focus group:
if you say you are going every Tuesday morning, you do go on Tuesday mornings regardless […]. You know if you make an appointment with the dentist and he says ‘‘I’ve only got Tuesday morning’’,-tough I’ve got somewhere else to go!
A significant characteristic of the Home-Start service is that the interaction between the volunteers and the family usually takes place in the home. This requires trust to be built up as this is the private space of the family not usually shared with strangers in such an intense way. While some parents felt uneasy about this at the start it soon became an accepted and ‘normal’ feature of their engagement with Home-Start. They not only became very comfortable with the presence of the volunteer in their home but enthusiastically welcomed their weekly visits. These were Rose’s views on the subject:
It was a bit strange I have to say at the start it was a bit strange kind of we were just trying to get to know one another I suppose. Ah just to try to get to know one another as in, like you know yourself, a stranger coming into the house and not knowing who they are or their background.
However, not all parents felt like this as in some cases where they had children with special needs they were used to service providers coming into their home to work with their children. Likewise, other parents felt an immediate connection to their volunteer so that this issue never arose. In fact it is this characteristic of the Home-Start programme that makes it possible for some of the families to use the service. For one participant who had young twins the difficulties she would have faced in trying to get them ready to go and meet someone outside of the house would have proved to be an extremely stressful and virtually impossible barrier to overcome. Having someone come to her home meant that it was easier for her to consistently draw on this form of support as it was convenient for her.
The fact that the visits took place in the home also allowed the needs of more than one family member to be addressed. If for example, the support was provided to the mother outside the home then the children would not be able to benefit from it directly and vice versa. It also facilitates the flexible and needs-led support given by the volunteers. This is because it allows practical support to be given (such as helping with the children) as well as emotional support (such as talking and advice) that would not necessarily have been possible if the volunteers did not visit them at home. Where parents sought support because of the challenges of raising a number of young children this home-based aspect of the support can be very beneficial. For others it means that since the volunteer is able to mind their children at home they are able to leave the house to run errands or to have a little time for themselves. This is a crucial way to reduce their sense of isolation from the wider community and their social networks. While it sometimes took time to move towards leaving their children in the sole care of the volunteer it is regarded as a valuable part of the service. Nevertheless, it must be said that some parents were reluctant to leave their children with the volunteer and did not ask them to do so. Although the majority of support is provided in the home there are also group outings organised by Home-Start and weekly Family Mornings the families can attend that are discussed in Chapter Three.
The volunteers’ ability to create a trusting relationship with the families is vital to the success of the Home-Start programme. While as mentioned previously it can take time to develop this trust it eventually becomes an important feature of their engagement with the families. This is a delicate dynamic to build up as was spoken about by one of the volunteers where she described how one parent opened up to her quite quickly but then drew back and stopped using the service for awhile as she felt that she did not know her well enough to do so. It took some time for her to regain her confidence and return to the programme but did so eventually. The level of trust parents feel towards their volunteers is demonstrated by their willingness to entrust the care of their children to the volunteers on occasion such as to run errands or to pick older children up from school. These are Rachel’s views on the subject:
she's very gentle with the kids and you know I'd trust her now with anything especially trust her with the kids anyway. I'd be very confident to leave her but saying that I'd only go up and down to the school or you know there now during the summer I might even just go for a walk while she'd be here you know what I mean but I'd trust her with all my heart she's very good with the kids and that and they love her as well.
Another crucial consequence of this trust is that parents generally feel they can be very open with the volunteers around their emotional difficulties. These range from the issues that might have initially brought them into the service such as depression or present concerns arising in around their children. The volunteers also commented on this and noted that the parents were often wary about confiding in their friends about troubling matters in case they gossiped about this with other people-an especially worrying possibility in rural areas with small populations. By contrast the volunteers were seen as utterly trustworthy individuals who could be relied on to not discuss their problems with anyone else. Some participants even felt that they could talk to the volunteers more easily than to their own families. This was because they were afraid of what others might think of them or simply because they live quite far away from their families and might not have the opportunity to talk to them regularly. This could be especially important for people who are not Irish and whose immediate families live abroad. For others it gives them access to someone other than their partner to confide their fears and worries in. In any case where partners work long hours these kinds of conversations are not always possible or desirable as pointed out by Gillian:
Having somebody outside to talk to [is important] cos when my husband’d come home he'd be often very tired he'd have very long hours and long mileage and there's always somebody there outside that you can-do you know if you've got a query about something or a concern about something you've got Joanne [her volunteer] to talk to.
For others who were raising children alone having someone to confide in during difficult periods of their life such as the immediate aftermath of a separation or when children were ill or had ongoing medical problems was vital to the positive changes that have occurred in their lives since joining Home-Start.
2.3.4 The Role of Confidante
Talking with the volunteers comes across as being very important to the parents who took part in this research. In fact a couple of parents mentioned how at the outset they thought that practical help was what they needed but soon realised that talking and the emotional support they drew from this was what made the crucial difference to their lives. While the parents often described different forms of support provided by the volunteers that were unique to their situation all mentioned talking as an essential feature of the support they receive. These were Lisa’s views on the subject:
I could talk to her about everything and when I have bad days she often listens to me.
The volunteers are regarded as non-judgemental confidants who they can freely share concerns and worries with. Sarah sees her volunteer as someone she could freely talk to about anything and as someone who is not overly opinionated. This was important especially when it comes to the subject of child rearing:
You don't want somebody coming in whose very opinionated saying ‘‘oh no I'd do it this way; I'd do it that way’’.
This quote further demonstrates the subtle balance that must be struck by the volunteers in how they engage with the parents. While they must connect with the parents in a meaningful way they need to prevent conflict and avoid damaging parents’ self-confidence in their own ability to manage their family life. From the volunteers’ point of view this can be tricky especially where their views on parenting might clash with how the parents are raising their children. However, as their training guidelines state and as they noted in their focus group ‘they must sit on their hands’ and concentrate on supporting rather than directing the families they visit.
From the parents’ perspective an important underpinning dimension of this trust is that the volunteers are usually parents and often grandparents themselves. They feel that this ensures that their volunteer can usually understand what they are going through at a particular time as they have often encountered similar issues in the past. The empathetic position taken up by the volunteers was commented on by Gillian:
People just stopped calling and I used to think oh my God is it something I said? Do you know you start getting paranoid as well and I had that discussion with my volunteer and she was going no! She [the volunteer] had I think 4 under 5 at one stage- and she said ‘‘I totally know where you're coming from’’.
One could surmise that the volunteer’s first-hand experience meant that any advice she gave in this situation would be viewed as credible and more easily accepted because of this familiarity with the issue. This was reinforced by the volunteers in their discussion where a number of them said that the turmoil they had faced as young mothers had inspired them to join Home-Start. One parent spoke about how challenging it had been for her to give up her job but that the volunteer helped her to come to terms with this as she had gone through a similar experience. Also because they were usually parents it appeared to be easier to ask the volunteers to mind their children as they could be relied on to know what to do and how to properly care for this age group. In addition the volunteers seemed to be able to interact with the children quite easily and comfortably because they were used to dealing with them. This could have the added benefit of equipping them to help with children who were facing some kind of difficulty as in one instance where a volunteer assisted with a child’s speech development through playing games and talking with them. Within their role they can come to occupy a position where they can, if necessary, give advice as was noted by Rose:
if she had something to say or some advice she definitely would say it […] she has kids in school or she'd give me advice or something if I'd ask her something she'd voice her opinion or whatever and that kind of way yeah she would definitely.
The consistency of the support provided by the volunteers was mentioned frequently by the parents as being a core characteristic of the support they receive from Home-Start. For some this becomes a source of comfort and assistance at challenging moments of their lives even outside of the hours spent with this person. Thus, while the contact time is relatively short it can have indirect benefits when they are apart. One participant also spoke of how while her family offered her support when they could this was not always available at a time that suited her. She regards her volunteer as someone she can rely on and gain support from at a time that works for her and which she knows will be available. Others spoke of how as the novelty of having a child wore off for other people and their visits dwindled over time the volunteer continued to call. This consistency was important because it allowed parents to incorporate the visits into their regular schedules and plan accordingly. For some this became something they looked forward to as a time when they would be able to access support and have someone to talk to. There was a sense of security attached to this-of knowing that the support would, barring emergencies, be available at a given time. One participant, Gillian, discussed this in her interview:
No matter how bad your week has been kind of like oh God thank God it's Tuesday! She's coming she'll be here at 11. You're delighted for Tuesday to come.
This was also mentioned by Amy:
I suppose overall it [the visit] does help because you have that knowledge that you know when you do your diary in your head-right Monday yeah I say I've this-I'm always trying to set up as much support as I can for myself […] but it was always good to know with Tuesdays I have this person coming to give me a hand for that-whatever length of time it is and I was just able to be more relaxed for that time.
The consistency of the support provided is no doubt important for this group since it provides a counterbalance to the turbulence and upheaval in their lives at that moment. The volunteers are also aware of how important this is to the parents and the sense of security it gives them. For them it is of far greater importance to the parents than it is to the children of the family that they come at a consistent time each week if only because of the trust it generates. While this support is provided at the same time each week the volunteers sometimes make themselves available outside of these hours. For example, one parent mentioned that when her children were sick her volunteer contacted her regularly for progress updates.
The speed with which they had access to the service was important for parents. They feel that because they were contacted by the coordinator quite quickly and often had the support of the volunteer available to them within a short time that the crises they faced were prevented from escalating any further. One participant, Gillian, was adamant that the speedy nature of the support her family received meant that the issues she was dealing with did not become more serious:
Absolutely yeah, very, very important [the speed of the support]-God I'd say if you were left a couple of weeks I don't know would you cope? You'd probably be admitted somewhere yourself through stress. Yeah the turnaround time was fantastic, which is incredibly important do you know when you're near rock bottom emotionally and the hormones are still gone mad and everything just seems so difficult and for them to turn around and be at your door that fast I thought was fantastic.
These were Rachel’s thoughts on the subject:
We'll say from me to ask the public health nurse, she got in contact with the coordinator, he got in contact with me and they came out with the volunteer. That process was very fast-you know you wouldn't be sitting here for weeks going out of your head going ‘‘oh my God I can't cope’’ and then for them to land too late. That wasn't the case-I was actually very surprised at how fast the whole thing turned around, which is great.
In some situations where a volunteer was not immediately available to the parent the contact with the coordinator and knowing that help was on its way helped to ease the tension of the situation and reduce their stress. However, one parent mentioned that the lack of volunteers was a slight issue she had with the service as she had to wait a couple of months before her visits started. Although the coordinator had been in regular contact with her and she was understanding this was still something of a problem for her:
I suppose maybe one thing-well obviously there were no volunteers at the time when I jointed up so I did have to wait until the following March before I got a volunteer maybe that was the only negative thing but that couldn't be helped because there was nobody there at the time you know. The gap was about 3 or 4 months (Gillian).
At the core of the service provided by Home-Start service is the voluntary ethos whereby the parents do not pay for the volunteers to visit or the other activities it provides. This is an important aspect of the service and it is worthwhile to examine the views of the parents on this issue. The voluntary dimension of the service ensures that Home-Start is accessible to a wide group of parents regardless of their financial circumstances. While a small number of parents intimated that they could have afforded to pay something towards the cost, in the majority of situations either because of their socio-economic background or because their income was temporarily reduced due to being on maternity leave, parents stated that they would not have had the money to do so. In some cases as discussed earlier, like Helen’s the idea of the volunteer as being a ‘volunteer’ had been replaced with that of friendship. Helen summarised her attitude towards the volunteer as follows:
It's basically just friendship now. She's a volunteer, she still volunteers me but from my eyes she's more of a friend than anything else.
Nevertheless, many see the voluntary aspect of the service as being vital to the dynamic between them and the person who visits them. They feel that this showed that the volunteers are involved in the service out of compassion and indicates that they want to visit rather than doing so out of compulsion or obligation. In addition, one participant, Sarah, noted that the kind of person who signs up to take part in a service such as this is driven to give something back. This is because they had often had similar experiences and are therefore of a particular frame of mind that is almost preset to be supportive and helpful. The lack of compulsion or financial reward meant that for her:
you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart, compassion all the rest of it and you know you want to give something back.
For one parent who has a child with special needs the voluntary aspect to the work is beneficial for another reason. In her case most of the people who are involved in her child’s life such as the family support worker are paid to play a part in their life. However, the volunteer is seen as someone who is involved in their child’s life because she wants to be rather than because she has to be. In a situation where the child would have difficulty making friends easily this is regarded as an important relationship for them to develop.
While not touched upon in much detail in the interviews those who did discuss it did not believe that the status of the Home-Start volunteers had any impact on the quality of the support they received. They see the volunteers as being well trained and equipped to fulfil their roles. Similarly, the volunteers mentioned the training they took part in at the start as being key to their ability to deliver a good standard of service to the families. In many cases the parent do not feel that the lack of payment makes any difference to the kind of support she requests from the volunteer. One parent, Emily, pointed out that from the very start the coordinator had made it clear that it was between the parent and the volunteer to decide and that the main thing should be that the needs of that moment would be met. She also feels that her volunteer is very approachable and that she can ask for specific kinds of support when she needs it:
I knew she was very approachable. No, no I never really thought of her that I couldn't do that [ask for specific help] because she was a volunteer no.
Gillian also noted this dimension of her relationship with the volunteer:
When she came in the door she put that very, very plain to me I'm here out of I want to be here you're not to feel like you can't change the day or she said ‘‘if you want to get rid of me do’’ and she was very open from the very start of it.
However, not all the parents were this comfortable with the voluntary dimension of the service. One of the parents thinks that because she was not paying for the service that it is difficult for her to complain about recent changes to the service. In her case the length of time the volunteer spent with her family each week was reduced and while she wished that the original agreement was kept to she did not feel that she could protest about this change to the arrangement. This is partially because she is grateful for the support she receives and also because she does not feel she can ‘nitpick’ because she is not paying for it. In this case the voluntary dimension of the service means that she does not fully feel in control of the service she receives. At the same time it should be noted that elsewhere in her interview she was at pains to point out how beneficial she found her family’s overall involvement in Home-Start to be. Despite feeling a little powerless, at the same time she was very grateful for not having to give money for it. While she believed she would have more control over the situation if there was a monetary exchange she still prefers keep the situation the way it is. These are her views on this issue:
I thought wow imagine having something and not having to pay for it so I didn't think...I suppose in regard to would I have more control I probably would have a bit but I'd prefer not to pay for it (Amy).
Another parent, Rose, also mentioned that while she greatly appreciates the service not paying for it had an impact on her expectations of the volunteer and what she would help her with. She stated that if she was paying for the visits then she would be able to ask her to do more. In some ways it almost seemed like this parent felt she had to entertain the volunteer as if she was a guest in her home rather than seeing her as a source of unconditional support. For some parents this fear seems to have been negated by the volunteer’s assurances from the outset that she was there to support the family in any way she could. These accounts do demonstrate the need to carefully handle this aspect of the relationship so that this kind of concern can be supplanted by a focus on providing flexible and reactive support to the parent. This particular parent did feel that if she asked for more help that the volunteer would be willing to do so but, nevertheless, it seems this lack of payment does to some extent limit the boundaries of the support asked for and received.
The findings in this chapter showed that the parents have an extremely positive attitude towards the service provided by Home-Start Athenry. They believe that the support they get from their volunteer has been an invaluable resource for them to draw upon and that the needs-led approach enables them to receive tailored assistance. Various characteristics of this support were also highlighted such as its consistency, timelines and location as being crucial to the delivery of the service and Home-Start’s ability to offer relevant and flexible assistance to them. The voluntary dimension was also highlighted as an important element of its work albeit one that needs to be managed carefully so as to avoid parents’ self-restricting of what they ask for from the volunteer.
This chapter looks at the impact of the support families receive from Home-Start. It also focuses on the role of the coordinator and participants’ views of this individual. Finally, it explores two issues that were brought up by the parents around this service.
This first section focuses on the impact of Home-Start on the parents themselves, their family life and their children.
The parents interviewed for this research believed that Home-Start had quite an important impact on their lives. Regardless of the circumstances that brought them into contact with the service parents felt that one of the most important outcomes is that they are able to relax more when the volunteer visits. Having someone available who could share child rearing tasks-whether as in some cases there was a child with special needs or simply where there were a number of young children who required care eased their workload and stress levels considerably. This has consequences for their personal situation in that for the duration of the volunteer’s visit they feel less overwhelmed by the challenges they face. This support becomes part of parents’ coping strategies so that if they are stressed out they can look ahead and feel some relief at the idea that the volunteer will help out on a specific day. Parents also think that the volunteers’ visits help to improve their overall mood and reduce their general anxiety and stress levels. This impacts on their own mental health, which in turn increases their ability to cope with the demanding situations they face. This was mentioned by Lisa in her interview:
when you have kids who are sick people can get so depressed, so upset, so much stress really because you don't know what day of the week you will have to go to the hospital or what can happen and I think since I met my volunteer you know I started to be a bit calmer and I know that every week when she comes that I know that I will have a little of time for myself that I could a little bit relax as well.
This again demonstrates that while the direct contact between the volunteer and the family might appear to be quite short in duration it has powerful knock-on effects outside of this time frame. In addition the volunteer is seen as an important source of personal support because of the outlet they offer as a confidante as Amy pointed out:
it was nice to know there was somebody coming in and we could have a bit of a chat and a bit of craic.
It can be seen from this that it is not necessarily the type of support that is important but rather the concept of support in general that is of significance to the parent. The volunteers also discussed this idea and concurred that generalised support for the parent is the most important aspect of the Home-Start programme. However, a number of parents referred to specific kinds of support as being beneficial to them. One participant discussed how the visits allowed her to take a break from their parenting duties and get some rest, which helped her to feel rejuvenated and more capable of dealing with her challenging home life. Other people mentioned that it gave them time to do tasks outside of the home, which also reduced their sense of isolation a topic that is returned to subsequently. For one parent of a special needs child the visits allowed her to be ‘be better, stronger, recharged’. For another parent, Sarah, the support received from the volunteer had the following impact:
it was just that I couldn't cope because I was so tired all the time that was the main thing for me and they were invaluable from that point of view just to give me that break once a week to do the things with [my child] and to alleviate the tiredness.
While Home-Start had positive consequences for the parents themselves, it was also perceived to have an effect on their parenting. It should be pointed out that most did not seem to believe that the volunteers influenced their parenting style or capacities but rather that having this support available allows them the space to be better parents. This is partially because when the volunteer visits they can pay particular attention to individual children. Usually some children can get a little overlooked either because they are older and thus require less help or because they have a sibling with special needs who takes up much of their parents’ time. However, during the visits, parents can give more attention to these children or, equally, the volunteer spends time with the child while they take care of the rest. In one case a parent described how the volunteer entertains her younger children freeing her up to spend time helping her older offspring with their homework. Another parent who has a number of young children mentioned that when the volunteer visits she is able to pick her oldest child up from school and leave the younger ones at home. This gives her a little bit of one on one time with this particular child. A different parent mentioned that when the volunteer takes the younger children out for a walk she is left alone with her older son-something which rarely happens on other occasions:
It gave me a chance to do his [her eldest son’s] homework in peace with him because he was sort of missing out a bit […] -he came in from school and it was all kicking off here and whatever so it gave me a bit of nice time with him as well sometimes he'd go with them and sometimes he'd just stay here with me and we used to have nice one-on-one time so he benefited and it was nice for him (Emily).
The support Home-Start gives can be described as enabling i.e. that the volunteer facilitates improved parenting by, for example, allowing them to relax a little and feel less stressed. This not only has an indirect impact on their parenting but also a direct one because they can give attention to individual children. Lisa spoke about this duality at length in her interview:
I was so stressed and confused about the boys but it was so so good that somebody wanted to help me that I could get dressed or somebody gives some attention to my boys as well it helped me too. But then like every week I was looking forward to meeting my volunteer and having a cup of coffee with her and my oldest son of course he did homework with her and played after that-that was the treat all the time.
The volunteers believe that if the parent is helped to become happier then this has a ripple effect on their children. This was a point also noted by one of the parents, Sarah:
it was great for me as well because I'd get my time to do other tasks so I'm less stressed when I'm with them I'm happier with them and they're happy.
The volunteers also influenced some parents’ skills through the advice and encouragement they give to them when they visit. One participant spoke of how at the outset she spent a lot of time on the computer and less time with her children but that with her volunteer’s support and direction this was greatly reduced and she now interacts a lot more with her children. These are her views:
I was in my little bubble all the time on the computer […] I’m not as bad as I was. So it's good sometimes we have family time, watch movies together and I like that. […] Before I always pushed everything away now she helped me get more confidence and push it altogether (Helen).
Volunteers also recognise that this could be important but added the proviso that this had to be a very subtle and patient intervention since it might damage parents’ trust in them and their relationship overall.
The service also has an impact on the overall quality of family life as well according to the parents. Some described how having the volunteer around to take care of the children meant that they could make dinner and spend time with the family as Amy noted in her interview
I was just able to be more relaxed for that time, I knew I could have a dinner on the table like when she'd go out the door it'd be nearly ready and that was great. Whereas if I'm on my own well then I have to leave the kids, I have to make the dinner I can't just leave it or else there'd be no dinner on the table and I do like to have a dinner on the table if I can. We've an older boy as well who’s 15 and just you know and my husband comes home that we'll be able to sit down all of us and have some kind of a dinner. I don't know is my overall parenting improved because of it but the quality for that hour and a half I know I'm more relaxed I know I can give more of myself because there's more help.
In other cases it helped strengthen relationships with partners as they are less likely to be stressed when they come home from work. This reduces the instances when they take out their frustrations on their partners so they can develop a more ‘healthy’ and peaceful relationship. Another parent described how having the volunteer around gave them the chance to spend time with their partner, thus giving them the chance to discuss important matters, something they are often unable to do because of the demanding nature of their family circumstances.
While a lot of importance should be placed on the volunteer-parent connection it must not be forgotten that the relationship forged between the volunteer and the children can also be very significant. Although the volunteers feel that the service was primarily aimed at the parents, the parents themselves believe that Home-Start has a direct impact on their children as well. One parent described their child’s delight at eating an ice cream with her parents without her special needs’ sibling being present as she was afforded quality time with them. It is not just that the volunteer can be useful through giving the parents a break but also that the children develop a relationship with the volunteer, which they enjoy and feel comfortable in and come to see in a familial light as was discussed previously. These were Emily’s views on the subject:
the small fella who is three years younger than my other son was always there, like you know he was involved in it [the volunteer’s visit] so he benefitted from it as well and he'd say ‘‘oh Joanne [the volunteer] is coming today!’’ and I'd say ‘‘yeah, yeah brilliant’’ and he'd say ‘‘we're going out for our walk’’ and we'd get them some fruit and they'd head off with a little snack and he benefitted from it as well definitely.
The parents portray the volunteer as being very good with their children and as being kind and highly competent caregivers as noted by Emily:
she was very capable-I knew that she got on with them you know what I mean […] they cared for her and she cared for them.
Parents also commented on how much their children loved the volunteer and how excited they were to see her coming. This potentially deep and affectionate relationship was noted by Rachel:
Oh they love her [the volunteer] absolutely love her. Even the dog-she was only saying here last week she said it does your heart good to come out. The second she gets out of that car there's three running towards her, two with the little arms up, the dog is running towards her with the tail wagging-it's definitely a case of Aunty Gloria's coming to visit. It's fantastic now to stand back and watch the way-they absolutely love her.
This underlines how comfortable the children appear to be with this volunteer and how they have few issues spending time with them away from their parent. One parent felt that this was a very important relationship for her children to develop because she was the first person they got to know outside of the immediate family. Through this they learned to trust and interact with other people as well as having someone to play with. It can be seen that it is not only the parents who directly benefit from Home-Start service but also the children. However, not all the volunteers have a close relationship with the children in the family; as Rose mentioned in her interview since the visits usually coincide with their naptime meaning that they rarely spend any time with the volunteer. For other parents the majority of the volunteer’s time is spent with the children in the family as they either minded the children at home or took them out for a walk. The kind of relationship that the volunteers have with the children appears to depend on the needs of the parent and, consequently, the kind of support they seek from the Home-Start service.
3.3.5 Influence on Reducing Isolation
One of the areas that the Home-Start service has a major impact on is reducing isolation. All the parents spoke about how much they were affected by isolation and loneliness. This was also identified by the volunteers as something they are conscious of being an issue for the young parents they visit. In fact it was their own isolation at the same period in their lives, which inspired several of them to get involved with the Home-Start service. For some participants this isolation arose from living in remote rural areas, which when combined with having young children makes it difficult for them to go into the local town since it involves car journeys, loading prams and so on. Regardless of the cause of their isolation it is seen as a definite problem that leads to mental health issues and feeling overwhelmed and alone. One mother, Gillian, described the isolation she felt as ‘horrendous’ since she rarely saw any other adults during the day once the initial excitement of the baby had worn off for others:
Now the first two months it was great do you know you spent your time washing cups and teaspoons. Four months of hell [after that] […] four very lonely months there very, very lonely months.
For others the isolation arose out of parenting alone and/or living in a foreign country while a number of parents attributed it to the challenges associated with raising children with special needs. The volunteers’ visits enabled this sense of isolation to be reduced as it gave the parents someone to talk to and became a kind of comforting focal point of their week. Some also felt their isolation decreased because they were able to leave the house more easily, a point that was emphasised by Sarah:
You'd get in the car, shoot into town get all your bits done and you just feel you're back in reality again you know.
Having someone in the form of the volunteer to talk to on a regular basis has significantly decreased this sense of isolation. This was noted by a number of participants who saw the Home-Start volunteer as a social outlet that gave them a chance to talk to someone:
we have good chats and everything, she's a lovely girl. […] Oh even just that for a few hours just to sit down and have a chat like with the coffee or do you know just for awhile they'd be in bed or whatever like it's nice just to sit down and talk to someone (Rose).
In some situations it seems to be the case that while ostensibly it is practical support, which they needed, what they actually derived the most benefit from is having someone to talk to. However, it should be noted that this is not the case for all participants since in some cases what they primarily seek and receive from the service is time for themselves during which they can relax and clear their heads away from other people.
The Home-Start Family Morning sessions and the group outings were frequently mentioned as further lessening parental isolation. This is the case for two main reasons since firstly, they give the parents a relatively stress free social outlet. The group outings, for example, are usually to local amenities, which makes it easier for parents to attend them. These are seen as useful since they provide an opportunity to meet other parents and volunteers. These were Gillian’s thoughts on the value of group activities to her:
I went for the Christmas dinner with the volunteers and the mums and that was lovely. It was like sitting down at home having the Christmas dinner and getting to know everybody and yeah there was a lovely atmosphere in it.
For those who do not or did not attend the Family Mornings the outings were a focal point they look forward to and were easier to commit to because, for example, they occur less frequently. Secondly, they are important because through these can potentially develop a network of contacts and friends to meet with outside of the Home-Start framework. This is particularly important where people do not know many people living nearby or where perhaps because of issues with depression they had previously withdrawn from close contact with others. Through these outlets parents can begin to build up their confidence again and also develop a social circle in their local area to engage with and draw on for support. The impact of these outings on social networks was commented upon by Rose:
it's lovely to meet up when you kind of know the people to see again like you can stop again like to chat with them. You might see them again in town or something so it's nice then to meet up anyway and to get out of the house as well I suppose a bit more do you know?
Home-Start’s activities such as the Family Mornings also give parents the chance to discuss issues and worries that they might have with others who are in similar situations. This gives them access to a practical source of support and advice in addition to the emotional or psychological benefits they derive from it. As the other parents have children around the same age they can exchange tips on how to deal with problems that they have in common. However, not everyone feels the full benefit of these aspects of the Home-Start programme as some struggle to attend them or think that there should be more outings organised during the year. One parent suggested that perhaps the Home-Start group outings might be on at different times as they are not always suitable for someone like her who works.
Involvement with Home-Start is also regarded by some parents as having an impact on their confidence levels. In some situations, as mentioned in the previous section, this seems to be linked to their participation in group activities but in other situations rising confidence levels are also connected to the support they receive from their volunteer. One participant spoke of initially being very nervous and unsure of what to say to her volunteer but now has completely overcome this issue. For her this deeply treasured relationship has acted as a catalyst for deeper levels of engagement with other people and organisations. The volunteers also actively help build parents’ self-confidence through the praise and encouragement they give around their parenting skills. One parent sees the Home-Start volunteer as a more impartial observer of her skills than her mother who she felt would be obligated to say that she was a good parent while the volunteer could be more honest. For others however, since self-confidence was not an issue to begin with, the relationship with the volunteer had little impact on this. This is highlighted in the following quote from Sarah’s interview:
Well I think to be honest that was never one of my issues [lack of self-confidence] anyway I would have a lot of self-confidence. I think it was more the tiredness that was getting to me and it was just that I couldn't cope because I was so tired all the time that was the main thing for me and they were invaluable from that point of view just to give me that break once a week to do the things with and to alleviate the tiredness and that makes them happier.
This again demonstrates the individualised nature of the support given by Home-Start since it is able to cater to both those who need a boost to their self-confidence and others for whom this is not a problem.
3.4 Role of the Coordinator
Within the Home-Start Athenry service the coordinator plays a significant role not only in the initial stages of a parent’s engagement with the service but also throughout the period of time they use it. At the start it is important because he represents the first step in the process of becoming acquainted with what Home-Start provides and establishing trust. For parents who are often unsure of what the service will involve and equally where they are going through a sudden crisis or a prolonged challenge in their family life the coordinator’s attitude is delicate and vital. All the parents described how easy-going and friendly the coordinator’s attitude was and the emphasis placed on their centrality to the process and to the importance of meeting their needs. His manner was also shown by how even where there might be a delay in accessing a volunteer, regular contact was maintained and they were kept informed and asked for their opinion at each stage in the process. In addition, every effort was made to match the volunteer with the right family and to ensure that the visits were organised at a time that was most appropriate for the parent. The promptness of the contact by the coordinator parents was noted by one parent called Gillian:
the turnaround time was fantastic, which is incredibly important do you know when you're near rock bottom emotionally and the hormones are still gone mad and everything just seems so difficult and for them to turn around and be at your door that fast I thought was fantastic
All the participants whether volunteers or parents described the coordinator in this service in glowing terms with emphasis placed on his trustworthiness, pleasant and caring demeanour as well as his general helpfulness. These were one parent, Sarah’s, thoughts about him:
I found him very pleasant, very informative and again you know not a bit opinionated […] obviously very diplomatic as well, well used to dealing with people who might be going through different issues and problems and just a perfect type of personality for that role I felt.
Both parents and volunteers also mentioned that the coordinator was in contact with them throughout to make sure that they were satisfied with their involvement with the programme. This is a crucial aspect of the successful management of Home-Start. Since the guidelines around the service are quite fluid and open to negotiation and interpretation between the parents and the volunteer there is potential for issues to arise over boundaries being crossed by either party. Thus, the coordinator has a role as an arbiter in situations where either side is unsure of whether a request or an action is ‘permitted’ by the Home-Start service. This ready access to the coordinator takes pressure off both sides around the boundaries of what is acceptable as this can be tested through this third person. This also gives a measure of safety to both parties in that they can check what is allowed according to, for example, child protection guidelines. The coordinator could be described as acting as a kind of conduit where although the boundaries surrounding the support given are very flexible, as discussed earlier; there is an outside party to refer to where people are unsure of what is permitted. This was discussed by Amy in her interview:
there was once when I said ‘‘can I go out?’’ and she [the volunteer] wasn't sure if that was right so she rang Michael and he said that's absolutely fine if she was comfortable with it and she was.
Where volunteers are concerned about child protection issues they feel reassured by the fact that they can contact the coordinator to highlight significant problems. While they stated that these rarely arose the availability of this support is seen as an important assurance and safety net for them. Although once the initial contact was made and the volunteers’ visits have begun contact between the parents and the coordinator is not as frequent, the parents noted in their interviews that he did phone to check in on occasion. Similarly, parents are aware that if an issue arose with the volunteer that they can contact him with their concerns. In this way the coordinator is a vital cog in the successful delivery of the Home-Start programme as not only does he facilitate group activities he also supports the interaction between the parents and the volunteers. Furthermore, he ensures that while there is great flexibility in the individual volunteer-family relationship that Home-Start’s standards and ethos are adhered to. While both the parents and the volunteers knew that they could contact the coordinator if necessary the coordinator’s proactive approach was noted by Lisa:
he wasn't calling to me as often as my volunteer but he visited me so many times and we had chats, we had a cup of tea and we talked about what it was like with my boys and how they get on and he was asking as well how are things with your volunteer and he was talking about that as well.
There are two issues with Home-Start that were discussed in the interviews that should be explored. While all parents expressed satisfaction and gratitude for the Home-Start service there were some issues that were raised by the parents or became apparent during the analysis of the interviews. It must be noted that most parents had no recommendations for improvements as they felt the service suited their needs and was a smoothly run organisation.
One issue that was discussed is their lack of knowledge around the exit date/strategy from the programme. In general the level of communication between the coordinator and the service users is seen as excellent. Also there are potential difficulties around providing an exact date due to the lack of set parameters around, for example, how long someone can make use of the service, but at the same time a couple of parents talked about how they did not know what the procedure for exiting the service was or when it would occur. At the moment this does not appear to cause too much stress for them but this lack of awareness could cause confusion or make it difficult to develop alternative coping strategies or long-term plans. In fact, in some ways how the exit strategy is prepared for or discussed appears to be at odds with how well organised entry to the service is. For example, one parent, Gillian, praised the service for how she was kept so well informed at the start and how included she felt in the decision making process but then mentioned that she did not know what the procedure was for exiting the programme. Another parent also stated that she did not know if she would have access to a volunteer when the visits were due to resume in September partially due to the age of her children. While she did not seem too concerned about this and was aware of Home-Start’s parameters and the pressures on it in terms of volunteer numbers it would undoubtedly be simpler for her to plan for the coming months if she knew what was happening. She also noted that she would have found it easier if she had been told at the start that the coordinator would check in with her every now and again so that she did not have to worry that the service was about to be terminated when he unexpectedly contacted her to arrange a meeting. While it is important for the service to be flexible and to appear to be ‘easy going’ it is also necessary that sufficient lines of communication are kept open especially regarding these issues raised here. Although this might not cause disquiet for every parent for some this could raise stress levels especially if they rely on the support they receive from Home-Start.
Many of the parents mentioned that in their view there was insufficient awareness of the Home-Start service in the area in which it operated. Very few, if any, had heard of the service before they began to use it. This raises the question as to whether there are other families in the Athenry/Loughrea/Craughwell/Oranmore area who could benefit from Home-Start but who do not know that it exists. While there might not be sufficient numbers of volunteers at present to meet these needs, greater awareness of the service around the locality could also generate increased interest in getting involved in this way. Although one parent mentioned that when they started to use the service she began to realise that other people she knew had availed of the Home-Start programme most only heard about it through health care providers. However, even amongst health care providers awareness of the service appears to be intermittent and depends upon individual awareness rather than systematic knowledge of the service and/or its integration into the post-natal care process. In two cases it was parents themselves whose friends had told them about Home-Start and they in turn had had to tell their Public Health Nurse (PHN) about it as they had never heard of it before. As Sarah noted the service is somewhat hidden until they are absolutely in need of it:
You don't see it advertised anywhere nobody talks about it only for that one Public Health Nurse suggesting it to me-you know all the health services don't talk about it so maybe they just need to have more of an awareness about it and suggest it to people.
Rose also mentioned this as well:
it's just that maybe […] people might like to know more about it as well...and might avail of it.
However, while this works out well when they can use the service this then becomes a matter of luck as to whether they find out about it and dependent on either their PHN knowing about it or meeting a friend/acquaintance who has been involved with it previously. This implies that the person must be either involved with a service provider who knows of its existence or to have a wide enough social network that someone they know will be aware of it. Given that the volunteers had mentioned that there were a number of migrant families using the service this might mean that people in this category might be largely unaware of the presence of this service. This could have an impact on Home-Start’s ability to reach marginalised or isolated families in urgent and dire need of support.
This chapter demonstrated the parents and volunteers’ belief that the Home-Start service has a significant and continuing influence on the family life of those who are supported by it. The evidence given here shows that Home-Start reduces parental stress, increases their self-confidence, provides them with concrete and emotional support and so on. It also helps children directly and indirectly through, for example, giving them access to another supportive adult as well as enabling their parents to spend more time with them. While the volunteers and group activities are crucial to the successful provision of this service, the coordinator plays a vital role in managing the service and the boundaries that exist within the relationships that are developed within Home-Start. However, while it is viewed in a very positive light there are some issues around communication and awareness of the service’s existence that have the potential to cause some difficulties. In general, these are heavily outweighed by the benefits derived from this service by the parents and their families.
All twelve of the parents who took part in this research found the Home-Start service to be hugely beneficial not only to themselves but to their families. Both those who have left Home-Start and those who still access its services believe that it has had a major influence in terms of improving their family’s quality of life, their own mental health as well as helping them to come to terms with or deal with challenging situations such as marital separation or raising children with special needs. Furthermore, most of the parents described how their isolation has been reduced and stated that engaging with the Home-Start service has enabled them to expand their social networks and develop support systems such as friendships. This undoubtedly will have an ongoing impact on their ability to navigate their way through crisis situations as they will have more resources to draw upon and will be better equipped personally to deal with them. In addition, a number of parents reported feeling more self-confident and calmer as a result of the relationship they have developed with their volunteer. This is partially due to the volunteer’s role as a trustworthy confidante but also because they provide support and encouragement to this group, which helps to, for example, build self-esteem. This is particularly important in situations where people had felt overwhelmed or depressed and struggled to cope with stressful family lives.
While direct contact between the families and the Home-Start service, whether in the form of volunteers’ visits, participation in its group activities or engagement with its coordinator, is limited to only a few hours per week it appears to have a lasting and powerful impact on families. In the short-term even when the volunteer is not present parents described how they were better able to cope with daily life through knowing that they would have regular access to this support. Equally, in the long-term parents believe that the Home-Start programme has had an enduring influence on many aspects of their family life including their own mental health, their children’s ability to form relationships as well as deriving significant benefits from their parents’ increased coping and parenting skills. This shows that while the contact Home-Start has with each family might appear to be relatively brief in the overall framework of their lives, it has the potential to have a disproportionately significant impact on outcomes for families who are in difficulty. This is especially true when the financial inputs and the outcomes for families are compared and where the Home-Start programme appears to offer an extremely efficient return on the financial resources it requires to operate successfully.
Home-Start is founded on the concept of friendship developing between the families and the volunteers. As such much of its success rests on the ability of people involved with Home-Start, either in a paid or voluntary capacity, to develop successful relationships founded on trust and empathy whilst at the same time maintaining focus on its goals. This was mentioned in the Epinion study (2013) carried out in Denmark as being an important element of its achievements. In the case of the Athenry Home-Start service parents appear to be very satisfied with this crucial aspect of the support they receive as many describe their volunteers in familial or friendship terms. Likewise, the coordinator was praised as being highly supportive and approachable. While the closeness of the bonds that develop and the fluidity of their boundaries could mean that concerns would potentially not be reported, for example, around child protection issues the coordinator’s willingness to make regular contact with both volunteers and parents as well as his ready availability to act as an independent arbiter assuages this doubt. Equally, the training given to the volunteers and their general sense of duty reduces this concern even further.
One of the most important factors in the success of the service provided by Home-Start Athenry is its flexibility. This is apparent from the outset with parents offering very different reasons as to why they availed of it including depression, struggling to cope with a number of small children as well as parenting away from the immediate family. Furthermore, it is demonstrated in the varying kinds of support provided to the parents by not only the volunteers but the coordinator. This flexibility is underpinned by a parents-led approach to the service, which is allowed to evolve over time so that the needs initially expressed by the parents can give way to other considerations as time goes on. In this way Home-Start Athenry can be described as offering concrete, practical and emotional support depending on what is asked for by the parents. This flexibility is crucial as it allows parents to access support to address their own family’s specific needs rather than having to fit within a particular category or have outsiders’ ideas imposed on them in terms of the kind of assistance is available to them. From the parents’ point of view the volunteers have a dual role of providing nurturing personal support and also spending time with their children. The individual attention that the volunteers give to the children also lessens their parents’ stress as it reduces feelings of guilt at not being able to give ‘enough’ to each of their children. In cases where a parent faces overwhelming demands caused, for example, by raising a family on their own or where children have special needs the care and attention given to individual children is a crucial element of the Home-Start service. It should be pointed out that while the guidelines, which are in place around the kind of support provided are flexible the boundary of what is acceptable to parents or families does not seem to be crossed.
However, while the Home-Start programme is portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive way by the parents who took part in this research and the volunteers who joined the focus group there were some issues that emerged in the research. One of these was around the notion of control where the voluntary dimension of the service, while broadly welcomed and indeed integral to the Home-Start identity, causes some parents difficulty around what they feel they can ask of their volunteer. This could be something that prevents some parents from fully accessing the kind of support they want and need. Furthermore, another issue that arose was around communication, with some parents unaware of when or even how they would exit the service. In general communication between the service and the volunteers and families was described as excellent but this is an area that perhaps requires some attention. While their exit is usually at their own volition it is important for families who are in distress or who are emerging from a crisis situation to feel as secure as possible and to be able to plan for the future especially with regard to developing alternative sources of support to Home-Start.
- Flexibility in the times the group activities are organised. This would allow a wider range of parents to attend especially those who are working.
- Greater interaction with health care providers and other relevant agencies in the locality area so that potential users are made aware of it.
- Provision should also be made for the possibility of self-referral through raising awareness among the general population. This would potentially increase the number of volunteers available to the service.
- Decrease the possibility of the voluntary dimension of the service becoming a barrier to families accessing the support they want through, for example, training volunteers to be aware of this.
- Extend the service provided beyond the age of 5. While this goes against Home-Start guidelines, ongoing support to families with older children could be helpful to them.
As can be seen from the findings and conclusion of this report Home-Start Athenry clearly follows the practice guidelines laid out by the overall Home-Start programme. Similarly, the qualitative evidence provided in this report mirrors the findings of other research carried out on this service internationally (see for example, Asscher et al., 2008; Asscher et al. 2008; Barnes et al., 2009; Epinion, 2013) in terms of its overall impact on improving outcomes for parents and their families, for instance, around mental health. Overall, from the point of view of the parents Home-Start Athenry is a worthwhile and crucial component in their coping strategy for dealing with and overcoming the issues they face in raising their children and improving their quality of life.
The significance of the service provided to families who are under or are reaching a point of considerable stress by Home-Start Athenry cannot be underestimated. For those parents who took part in this research it has proved to be an extremely important tool in their recovery from various crises and/or helping them to deal with ongoing issues. As a group the needs these families have are often complex and multiple and cannot be dealt with in a short period of time something which is recognised and taken into account by Home-Start. While the support received each week from Home-Start might appear to be brief, the patient and caring approach taken by the service and the volunteers who contribute to it helps to alleviate short-term tension and stress and at the same time assist families to deal with the issues that had brought them into contact with it in the first place. In the eyes of the parents interviewed for this report, Home-Start is a vital component of their coping strategy and has led to positive changes to their family, which will resonate into the future.
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