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Poverty and Family Crisis in Australia

Posted by lahar9jhadav on June 29, 2008


Crisis families need help, not judgment

Freda Briggs

PEOPLE seeing footage of the chaotic houses in the media this week were asking: “How could anyone live like this?” What do these images tell us? Unfortunately, dirty, overcrowded houses with chaotic back yards are not at all uncommon in Australia. Social workers confirm that the cases in the media are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to keep an overcrowded house clean but overcrowding doesn’t necessarily mean that children are deprived of love and care. What matters is what happens inside the home.

We can’t judge the family of 12 from images of their back yard. This is a mother whose children are said to have attended school regularly throughout the year and who are now housed safely in suitable accommodation.

By contrast, the worst case of criminal child neglect that I encountered was a family of 17 children and four adults living in an old Mini Cooper converted into a van. The men worked as casual fruit pickers. The children escaped attention because they didn’t attend school. The van stank, children were malnourished and sick and covered in sores, sitting in faeces.

All were hospitalised then placed in state care. The dads were jailed for a month. The mothers’ sentences were suspended. A year later I saw both mothers with new babies and both were pregnant again. Do health authorities offer to tie tubes, provide vasectomies or reliable contraception? Or maybe there was a priest in the background telling the mothers that contraception is a sin.

There have always been parents who neglect their children. The criminally negligent were usually deprived of sound parenting models in their own childhood. These girls look for the approval missing at home and engage in early sex, mistaking sex for love. They become parents long before they are mature and when their own emotional needs have not been met. They are likely to choose similarly neglected, immature partners who, because they don’t know how to look after themselves, often become chronically sick and unemployed. Uneducated, they lack child, financial and home management skills.

Successful relatives and neighbours distance themselves; why let your kids visit a dirty house and risk being infested with their vermin?

Child neglect and abuse are on the increase thanks to drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. Dangerous families are usually mobile. They can easily escape the scrutiny of child protection services by crossing state borders. This could be prevented by providing a national child protection register and better communications between health and child-related services.

Australia-wide there are only enough social workers to investigate the most serious cases and the pool of foster carers has run dry. Seriously neglected children should obviously be removed and placed together with a long-term carer who can provide good quality parenting. Where the issues are those of poverty, overcrowding and depression, families need ongoing practical help that social workers can’t possibly provide.

In the 1980s Flinders Medical Centre and Anglicare introduced successful programs where older, compassionate mothers and grandmothers were trained to assist families in strife.

The schemes helped mothers to spend money wisely, cook cheap, nutritious meals, clean their homes, provide routines, use positive child management skills and play with their children. They befriended overburdened mums and gave them a break. They enabled mothers to enjoy parenting. This week, I’ve received several calls from compassionate strangers volunteering to help the mother of 12.

Rather than sit in judgment we should work out how we can offer help to all these children.

Freda Briggs is a former police officer, social worker, teacher and is Emeritus Professor of Child Development at UniSA

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