Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Structured Social Relationships: A Review of Volunteer Home Visiting Programs for Parents of Young Children

Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Structured Social Relationships: A Review of Volunteer Home Visiting Programs for Parents of Young Children

Article excerpt


It is widely accepted, strongly influenced by biodevelopmental theory, that investment in early childhood development is critical to improving health and educational outcomes for those who are vulnerable or experience disadvantage.1,2 There are a range of services and supports available within communities that specifically focus on the early years and strengthening families so that they can provide positive and nurturing environments for their young children. Home visiting programs have been an important part of that service landscape for a very long time, both within Australia and internationally.3 Such programs are delivered by professionals (e.g. child and family health nurses or social workers), paraprofessionals or volunteers. The originsof homevisiting services can be traced back to philanthropic initiatives in the 19th century in England, where women worked in a voluntary capacity visiting families in their homes to instruct them on good hygiene and child care.4-6

Considerable research focus has been given to understanding thebenefitsofprofessional homevisiting programs for families of young children. Multiple reviews of parenting support programs conclude that clearly defined professional home visiting services may be the most effective service model to support positive maternal and child outcomes.3,7,8 Less attention has been focused on researching home visiting programs delivered by volunteers. There are important questions to be asked about whether there is a role for volunteer home visiting services as unique and complementary to professional services.

This paper presents a review of evaluation studies in the field of volunteer home visiting to determine what is known about the effects of such programs on family health and well being. We wanted to understand the role of volunteer home visiting services in supporting the health and well being of families with young children and identify the type of support they provide. We conceptualise how these services fit within the broader service landscape.


Defining volunteer home visiting and health

Home visiting programs using volunteers (unpaid workers) provide a purposeful offer of a supportive relationship in a lessstructured format than programs delivered by professionals. These programs aim to enhance family and social functioning during the postnatal period and through the early formative years in a child's development.

For the purposes of this paper, 'health' is defined according to the fundamental principles of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion,whichidentifiestheimportance ofsocial andpersonal resources as well as physical capacity.9 Health is viewed as more than the absence of illness, and it is more than the 'objective of living'; it is a resource for living.9

Data collection process

The present study was limited to evaluations of volunteer home visiting programs from Australia, the UK, Europe, the US and Canada. Twenty-two electronic databases were searched for studies published from 1980 to January 2014. Databases included: Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts (ASSIA), Australian Public Affairs Full Text, Australian Public Affairs Information Service - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Australian Public Affairs Information Service - Health, BiblioLine, Family & Society Studies Worldwide, CINAHL, Current Contents Connect, ERIC, Evidence Based Medicine Reviews Multifile, Expanded Academic Index, Family & Society Plus, Family Studies Abstracts, FAMILY: Australian Family and Society Abstracts Database, FAMILY-ATSIS: Australian Family & Society Abstracts - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Subset, Health & Society Database: H&S, Meditext, Medline & PreMedline, PsycINFO, PubMed, Scopus, Sociological Abstracts and Web of Science. The search terms included: (volunt* OR lay w/2 work* ORlay w/2 person* ORunpaid) and(homeANDvisit*) and (mother* OR parent* OR child* OR prenatal* OR postnatal* OR perinatal* OR famil*). …

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