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Volunteer home visitors support families

A ‘grass roots’ family support program run by Mater’s Child and Youth Mental Health Service (Mater CYMHS) that gives parents the tools to be better care-givers celebrated 30 years of operation in July 2009.

Mater Parent Aide Unit began in 1979 to provide specialised support to families with children who had been identified as ‘at-risk’ of abuse and neglect. A team of volunteers, from various backgrounds, were recruited to make home visits with families and assist them with various aspects of parenting, from discipline and behaviour management, through to budgeting and home management, as well as linking families with additional services and advocating more generally for them and their children.

During the past three decades, the unit has evolved with the changing make-up of family life and in-line with research into the child protection arena and an emerging evidence-base for intervention in the early years.

Infant Mental Health Program Leader at Mater CYMHS Neil Alcorn, who manages the Mater Parent Aide Unit, explained that in recent years the unit has shifted its focus from more established families to women and couples during the antenatal and early postnatal period.

“Current research suggests that the greatest opportunity for success in bringing about change in parenting style, beliefs and attitudes is to engage with families before a baby is born,” Dr Alcorn said.

“During the past five years we have broadened our referral base from the child protection system to also encompass maternity care.”

“We are developing strong relationships with the Mater Mothers’ Hospitals’ clinics and services and we now get increasing numbers of referrals from them,” he said.

According to Dr Alcorn Mater Parent Aide Unit’s one-on-one, volunteer-based approach is the key to its success.

“We have found that clients respond very well to volunteers. They are not social workers, but ‘ordinary’ people who have experienced being a mum or a dad and they can develop a rapport with clients on this basic and non-threatening level,” he explained.

“They come to a client’s home to help support the family during this time of great transition and adjustment. Help varies from assisting women to attend antenatal appointments to encouraging ‘bonding’ between mother and child ... whatever the need is.”

Mater Parent Aide Unit works with between 20 and 40 families each year and currently has a team of 22 volunteers.

Dr Alcorn said one volunteer summed up the service provided by Mater Parent Aide Unit best.

“This volunteer said, ‘we are here to listen and to walk the journey with them [the client], not to tell them what to do’. I think that is why the unit is so successful,” he said.

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