A call to action for the sake of Australia's kids

6 September 2011

Professor Patrick Parkinson: "The deteriorating mental and emotional wellbeing of each generation has an impact on the next."
Professor Patrick Parkinson: "The deteriorating mental and emotional wellbeing of each generation has an impact on the next."

A new report providing a comprehensive overview of the state of Australian children's wellbeing is a call to action to address the multiple and serious challenges it details.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, from Sydney Law School at the University of Sydney is launching his report, For Kids' Sake - Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People, in Federal Parliament today as part of National Child Protection Week.

Its major recommendations include the establishment of:

  • independent, non-profit community trusts in each local government area, with tax-deductible donation status, to support children and families
  • a Families Commission to coordinate the work of the federal government in strengthening family relationships and in reducing conflict between parents who have separated
  • a major new initiative in providing community-based education programs for couple relationships and parent-child relationships, targeted at times of transition, able to support parents through difficult circumstances and including discussion of domestic violence.

Professor Parkinson has chaired major reviews leading to the enactment of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 in NSW, and federally to the enactment of major changes to the Child Support Scheme in 2008. He has also chaired the federal government's Family Law Council. He is President of the International Society of Family Law and in 2009 was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to the law, especially in the areas of family and child protection law.

The research-based report tracks the deterioration in the wellbeing of many children and young people - especially adolescent girls - in Australia over the last 10 to 15 years and examines the extent to which this is the result of the increasing fragility of Australia's family life.

"Governments, perhaps the community at large, tend to see social problems as being like spot fires... rarely do we see the spot fires as a symptom rather than an isolated problem to be addressed. Rarely do we recognise the possibility that behind the visible spot fires, a major bushfire is burning," Professor Parkinson said.

"The evidence from international trends, including that from America and Europe referred to in this report, is that there is now a major 'bushfire' burning across the western world. Australia is not an exception to this trend."

The report covers child protection, adolescent mental health and a broad range of issues associated with risk-taking behaviours.

It includes previously unpublished data on the rise, over a 10-year period, in hospitalisations due to self-harm of 66 percent among children aged 12-14 years old and of 90 percent for girls aged 15-17.

Also outlined are the adverse impacts on Australian children of the rapid changes in family structure - including the rise in parental separation due to divorce and the breakdown of co-habiting relationships, and the increase of births to single mothers.

In Australia, the number of children who do not reach the age of 15 in an intact family with both of their biological parents has almost doubled within a generation.

In particular the presence of new partners not biologically related to the children, and the financial and other stresses of lone parenthood expose children to increased risk.

"While not all problems faced by Australia's children today can, by any means, be attributed to the consequences of unstable and conflictual family relationships, the fragility of Australian families over recent generations has been a major contributing factor," Professor Parkinson said.

"The 14 recommendations I propose are based on two key strategies to promote the wellbeing of our children and prevent their maltreatment. The first is to ensure that children have safe, stable and nurturing relationships and the second is to promote the protective factors in families that will help parents to manage when they are experiencing significant challenges, hardships and difficulties, and which help children in these circumstances.

"The deteriorating mental and emotional wellbeing of each generation has an impact on the next, creating a cascading effect. The accumulated evidence I present in this report convinces me that the need for new initiatives is both urgent and compelling."

This independent report was commissioned by the Australian Christian Lobby and made possible by a grant from the Vos Foundation. Antoine Kazzi, a recent graduate of the University of Sydney, assisted with research.

The research presented examines trends on a range of indicators in children's wellbeing. Professor Parkinson said, "There is a wealth of data about children's wellbeing at a given moment in time. What this research has done is to examine the trends over a period of time - and many of those trends, in terms of our most vulnerable children and young people, are alarming."

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