Professor Patrick Parkinson of Sydney University, in a report entitled “For Kid's Sake”, has said that the issue of family breakdown is one of the major causes of “ a large range of adverse consequences for many children and young people”.
Professor Parkinson, who helped shape family policy under the government of Prime Minister John Howard, added: “ Family conflict and parental separation have a range of adverse impacts on children and young people.”
His report 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.
According to the report, 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.
The report also highlighted 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.
The trends reflected 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.
The report suggests a plan which would involve providing relationship education at critical “times of transition” such as when couples begin to live together, when they are preparing for marriage and when they are preparing for childbirth.
The scheme, which the report proposes be administered by community trusts in each local government area, would not need much government support.
However, the report does recommend the establish to provide national leadership the federal government should establish a Families Commission.
Professor Parkinson also points out that, for 20 years or so, Australian family policy has treated 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,” he says.
Instead of taking this approach, he recommends that the government, in reviewing family policy, ought to ask whether policy encourage the maintenance of stable, safe and committed relationships between parents and whether it encourages the procreation of children in a context that maximises their chances of experiencing a stable, safe and nurturing home environment.