Australia is known as the Lucky Country but a report on child welfare published this week suggests that its luck is running out. Like Britain and the USA, it has an increasing number of fragile families where children are at risk of abuse and neglect, thanks to marriage breakdown, single parenthood and cohabiting relationships which have a high risk of breaking up.
Professor Patrick Parkinson of Sydney University, author of the “For Kids’ Sake” report, says that, for Australia’s most troubled children, “the situation is deteriorating at an extraordinarily rapid pace.” The number of children who have to live in out-of-home care because their own homes are not safe doubled between 1997 and 2009. A substantial proportion of these are indigenous (Aboriginal) children.
More broadly, there has been a decline in the psychological wellbeing of young people, thousands of whom are on anti-depressants. More than a quarter of young people aged 16 to 24 have a mental disorder. There has been a huge increase in self-harming behaviour amongst adolescents, especially amongst girls aged 15 to 17, and binge drinking resulting in hospitalisation has soared amongst females aged 15 to 24. These trends reflect the situation in Europe and North America, the report notes, and “cannot be explained away merely by changes in awareness, or in diagnostic tests.”
Prof Parkinson, a family law specialist who helped shape family policy under the Howard government, warns that these problems are not just “spot fires” but signs of a “major bush fire” burning in the background. And that raging bushfire is family breakdown:
While it would be simplistic to posit just one or two explanations, if there is one major demographic change in western societies that can be linked to a large range of adverse consequences for many children and young people, it is the growth in the numbers of children who experience life in a family other than living with their two biological parents, at some point before the age of 15. Family conflict and parental separation have a range of adverse impacts on children and young people.
He highlights the “rapid rise in the numbers of children born into de facto relationships, which subsequently break down.” These together with births to single women accounted for 35 per cent of all children born in Australia in 2009.
But the report is more than a catalogue of woes. It suggests a comprehensive plan for strengthening family relationships which would draw chiefly on volunteers. It would provide relationship education at critical “times of transition” such as:
• Beginning to live together.
• Preparing for marriage.
• Preparing for childbirth.
• When children start primary school.
• When children start high school.
His scheme, administered by community trusts in each local government area, would not need much government support. However, to provide national leadership the federal government should establish a Families Commission.
That by itself (as New Zealand experience shows), or even together with the “massive expansion in relationship education programmes” that Prof Parkinson envisages, would achieve very little without something else that he recommends:
A final role for governments is to review the direction of their family policy. In the last twenty years or so, the dominant policy direction has been to treat all families alike without reference to family structure. Yet the overwhelming evidence from research is that children do best in two-parent married families, and this is not just the result of selection effects. The difference marriage seems to make is in the commitment that it involves, providing a greater degree of stability and resilience, especially when times are difficult. In reviewing family policy, the fundamental questions that ought to be asked are:
1. Does government policy, as far as possible, encourage the maintenance of stable, safe and committed relationships between parents?
2. Does government policy, as far as possible, encourage the procreation of children in a context that maximises their chances of experiencing a stable, safe and nurturing home environment?
As long as politicians and professionals persist in the “families come in all shapes and sizes” ideology and fail to support and promote marriage, any scheme to strengthen families will fail.