This case study sets out how Tower Hamlets used a theory of change process to support the implementation of family mediation to reduce parental conflict.
The project highlighted the benefits of clearly articulating why an intervention is needed and what difference it is expected to make for children and families.
The story of this project is told by Luisa Dornelas, Practice Improvement Manager and Jane Towey, Family Group Conference & Lifelong Links Manager, both from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and Bethan Le Maistre, Senior Local Development Advisor at Foundations. Written by Robyn Tulloch, Project Support Officer at Foundations.
Our starting point
The Tower Hamlets Reducing Parental Conflict (RPC) Working Group has been working to understand the importance of reducing parental conflict and its negative impact on outcomes for children and young people, and how best to support vulnerable families experiencing relationship distress. The group had also spent time understanding the differences between parental conflict and domestic abuse, and considering how to provide clear direction to practitioners supporting families in Tower Hamlets.
Based on feedback from practitioners about the challenges of engaging with families where there is conflict between parents, and the need to develop the local support offer, the working group decided to strengthen the delivery of interventions to support families experiencing harmful parental conflict. Practitioners had proposed offering mediation to families at an earlier stage to both address conflict and enable them to access other support. It was agreed that the Family Group Conferencing (FGC) service in Tower Hamlets would deliver family mediation for those experiencing parental conflict.
Actions taken and impact
Tower Hamlets wanted to be clear about how implementing family mediation was going to improve outcomes for children and families. They decided to develop a theory of change, with the support of the Early Intervention Foundation (now Foundations), to identify the outcomes they were seeking to improve and outline how family mediation would contribute to the improvement of these identified outcomes. Tower Hamlets also planned to use the theory of change to inform the design of their family mediation evaluation. The figure below provides an overview of the steps taken.
Following the initial scoping and project set-up, Tower Hamlets began to bring together the underpinning evidence to inform the theory of change, which included summarising local population needs using the RPC outcomes framework to structure this stage of the work. Information on local need was collated from a recently developed Family Hub Case for Change report which set out the needs of children and families in Tower Hamlets. Alongside this, Tower Hamlets considered local service data from the Family Group Conferencing Service, which would host family mediation, and conducted a brief review of the existing national and international evidence on the effectiveness of family mediation.
The initial workshop to develop the theory of change took place with a small group of stakeholders, including the team of family mediators. The workshop focused on why family mediation was needed and what outcomes for children and families could be improved through family mediation in the context of reducing parental conflict. When planning the workshop, the quick reference guide to facilitating a theory of change workshop was helpful in structuring the workshop and identifying the resources and preparation required.
A second workshop was subsequently held with a wider group of around 40 stakeholders to test and further develop the theory of change. This group focused on who mediation was for, and what the potential referral routes would be. The group also considered the barriers, enablers, and unintended consequences of family mediation in the context of reducing parental conflict.
Following the two workshops, the theory of change was finalised and used to develop an evaluation plan. This ‘blueprint’ for implementing an evaluation would help the team begin to understand if family mediation is affecting outcomes for children and families in Tower Hamlets.
Whilst developing the theory of change there was also ongoing work to develop the new Family Mediation Service. This included training in mediation for the Family Group Conferencing Service and detailed work to develop the family mediation service offer in Tower Hamlets. Targeted activity with relevant stakeholders to generate referrals to the service was also a key part of the development of the intervention.
Learning from the project
Developing a theory of change presented an opportunity to test and challenge assumptions about how family mediation would work, and for what purpose. This enabled the team of mediators to consider and adapt their delivery approach so that it was more likely to affect the identified outcomes. The project was also a reminder that it is possible to innovate and work with creativity and speed.
It has been refreshing and enjoyable to do something quickly and innovatively and I want to take this into other areas of work.Luisa Dornelas – Practice Improvement Manager, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Developing a theory of change can be a detailed process but it kept a focus on the impact of the intervention on outcomes for children and families. This was key in the work that Tower Hamlets carried out, even though it will take time to see improvements in the outcomes detailed in the theory of change.
I’ve learned being involved in evaluation work is the best way to make a project happen because as well as providing a focus on whether anyone will be better off and what the outcomes will be, it also makes you accountable and motivated.Jane Towey – Family Group Conference & Lifelong Links Manager, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Involving a range of partners was particularly helpful for increasing awareness of the new service offer but also for creating a sense of shared ownership. The initial, smaller workshop allowed key stakeholders to establish an understanding of what the new approach was and what it could achieve early in the process; and the second workshop further developed this initial outline with a much broader range of stakeholders who could influence its successful implementation. Stakeholders felt like they understood what the project was trying to achieve and an investment in its success.
The priority now is making sure that the family mediation service in Tower Hamlets is well implemented, focusing on increasing referrals and embedding the service within the early help offer. Tower Hamlets is exploring self-referral options and how the offer could be expanded over time, such as through including children’s voice through an advocate, or exploring new funding opportunities to offer mediation in other circumstances.
Developing the theory of change on family mediation has supported thinking on how to embed evaluation within the service in a practical way and this work will continue. However, identifying suitable capacity and the specialist skills required to implement the evaluation is challenging. Tower Hamlets is considering ways to embed the collection of data on parental conflict in other services to help understand the landscape of parental conflict in the borough, and improve monitoring. This information will contribute to the sustainability of the project.
Read more reducing parental conflict case examples on our legacy site eif.org.uk.