For Kids’ Sake

A long-term deterioration in the social and cultural habitat of young people lies behind worrying statistics about the wellbeing of children. So argues Patrick Parkinson, who believes there is an urgent need for action by the government and, above all, by the community.

For very good reasons, Australians of all ages, backgrounds and political persuasions are concerned about the environment. What we do now in terms of looking after the environment will affect the nation not only in the present, but for generations to come. Rightly, we are thinking about what legacy we are going to leave our children, and their children, in terms of the natural world on which we all depend.

However, little attention has been paid to the social environment in which our children are growing up, and the dangers that the deterioration of this environment presents for the future. Indeed, many of us may not even be aware of how bad things are becoming.

On some measures, the wellbeing of Australian children has improved, particularly in terms of physical and economic welfare. Yet overall levels of wellbeing, and even upward trends for the majority of the population, can disguise increasingly serious problems for many children. When the position of the nation’s most troubled children and young people is considered, there are indications that all is not well, and that on numerous measures, the situation is deteriorating at an extraordinarily rapid pace.

Consider the following trends.

There has been a dramatic increase in the last 15 years in the numbers of children who are reported as being victims of, or at risk of, child abuse or neglect, the numbers of children where that abuse or neglect has been substantiated after investigation, and the total numbers of children in state care.

The Council of Australian Governments estimated in 2009 that State and Territory governments currently spend in excess of $2 billion annually on child protection services, with average annual increases of more than 12 per cent.

Perhaps the most worrying statistics are those about the numbers of children who have to live in out-of-home care because it is not safe for them to be cared for by their parents. A substantial proportion of these are Indigenous children. In just twelve years, from 1997 to 2009, the total number of children in out-of-home care has more than doubled, and in some states and territories, the rate of increase has been much higher.

Foster care programs are now stretched to the limit – and beyond. The main reason for the dramatic increase in the number of children in out-of-home care is that fewer children are leaving care than entering it, and this has been the case for a decade or more. It seems that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of families in which the problems are so serious that restoration is not possible.

However, the crisis in child protection is just part of a broader pattern of serious deterioration in the wellbeing of many children and young people. It is a warning sign that all is not well with society as a whole. We may be healthier and wealthier than a generation ago, but contentment has proved much more elusive.

Consider some of the numbers about what is happening more broadly.

More than a quarter of young people aged 16-24 years have a mental disorder, compared with one in five (20%) in the general population. A further 24% of young people who have never experienced a mental disorder are experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress.

Evidence around the country indicates the problems are getting worse. In New South Wales, public school data indicates that there has been an 8% per year increase in diagnosed mental health disorders other than autism. More than half the calls to Kids Helpline in Western Australia now involve a mental health issue, almost double the number just five years earlier. Nationally, in the last three years, there has been a large increase in the numbers of children being prescribed anti-depressants.

This psychological distress is reflected in the data on self-harming behaviour. There was a 66% increase in the numbers of 12-14 year old children having to be hospitalised as a result of intentional self-harm between 1996 and 2006. The level of self-harm by young teenage girls in this age group leading to hospitalisation is about six times the rate for boys. In the same period, there has been a 90% rise in hospitalisation of 15-17 year old girls due to self-harm incidents.

These are not just Australian problems. Numerous studies both in North America and Europe point to a very substantial increase in adolescent psychopathology in the last thirty years, and this cannot be explained away merely by changes in awareness, or in diagnostic tests. This ought to be a grave concern, because many mental disorders burdening adults begin in childhood or adolescence.

It would be tempting to see these problems as affecting just a minority of Australian young people. Governments, perhaps the community at large, tend to see social problems as being like spot fires, one here, one there, another in the distance. If the spot fire is threatening enough, action may be taken to deal with it. Too rarely do we recognise the possibility that behind the visible spot fires, a major bush fire is burning.

In this case, it is the social environment of many young people that is going up in smoke. In particular, it is Australia’s increasingly fragile families that are making children vulnerable.

Much needs to be done by governments and the community to rehabilitate the social environment of the nation. The question is now whether governments and concerned members of the community will have the vision and commitment to do so.

The task of repair begins with us, and will continue with us. Governments can assist in certain ways, and need to do so; but local communities must take responsibility, and as individuals, as families and as voters we need to consider what kinds of family life we should aim to foster and support.

The deterioration in the social environment has been rapid. The recovery will be much harder; but it is important to make a start, for kids’ sake.

This is a short extract from Professor Patrick Parkinson’s research report, For Kids’ Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People. Please refer to the report, which can be found here, for more in-depth analysis and recommendations for action.

Professor Patrick Parkinson AM is a specialist in family law, child protection and the law of equity and trusts at the Sydney Law School. He served from 2004-2007 as Chairperson of the Family Law Council, an advisory body to the federal Attorney-General, and also chaired a review of the Child Support Scheme in 2004-05 which led to the enactment of major changes to the Child Support Scheme. He is President of the International Society of Family Law. Professor Parkinson is also well-known for his community work concerning child protection. He has been a member of the NSW Child Protection Council, and was Chairperson of a major review of the state law concerning child protection which led to the enactment of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. He also works with churches on child protection issues.