Strong families needed for sustainable communities

Family is the core of safe and sustainable communities. Get families back on track and communities will follow.

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

27 August 2014

I recently read a report detailing profiles on troubled families. The stories have common themes: a history of abuse; teenage pregnancies; violent relationships; long term unemployment; constantly shifting family units with networks of half and step-siblings, absent fathers, children in and out of care, grandparents raising children; truancy; drug and alcohol abuse; criminal activities; child behavioural problems; anti-social behaviour. The problems are intergenerational, children repeating the patterns of their parents. Problems persist despite plenty of services to help them.

These families are not Indigenous. They’re not even Australian. They’re British families profiled in a 2012 report “Listening to Troubled Families”  by Louise Casey CB. She heads the country’s Troubled Families Programme that aims to turn around 120,000 families by 2015 with another 400,000 earmarked.

Casey believes basic family functioning must be restored for these families to turn around.

It’s unfashionable in progressive circles to talk about the importance of family. At the other end of the spectrum, conservatives can get too caught up in moral dimensions – whether parents are single, or divorced or gay. Both miss the mark. It doesn’t matter if the family unit resembles the Cleavers, the Waltons, the Brady Bunch, the Huxtables, the families from Modern Family or the Addams Family. A good family is one where parents do their job. All those TV shows depict good families.

Family is the core of safe and sustainable communities. Get families back on track and communities will follow.

For communities to function, parents must perform their minimum responsibilities – ensuring children are fed and have good hygiene; taking them to a doctor or hospital when sick; ensuring they have clothing and shelter and go to bed; sending them to school every day; and keeping them safe – which means knowing where they are and who they’re with and ensuring they’re safe in the home. And parents need to seek help if they’re struggling to do any of these things. Parents who don’t perform their responsibilities are neglecting their children.

This is common sense. But people don’t say these things publicly because of the mentality that requiring parents to do their job is blaming and shaming the unfortunate.

What about their unfortunate children?

We’ve seen what happens when we acquiesce while parents fail. Three shocking examples resulted in the deaths of 6 year old Kiesha Weippeart, 2 year old Dean Shillingworth and 7 year old “Ebony”, all killed at the hands of parents after a history of abuse.

These families exhibited the same patterns identified in the Troubled Families report. Each was known to family services who failed to act. A NSW Ombudsman’s report documented utter failure of multiple agencies in dealing with Ebony’s family over nearly 15 years.

None of these parents performed their minimum parental responsibilities. There was no indication they ever would. Yet children were left in their care.

Children enter the world totally reliant on their parents. There’s no excuse for parents failing their minimum responsibilities. Too often people make the excuses for why parents fail rather than how we can work with them to ensure they succeed.

We often hear poverty causes these problems. Rubbish. Poverty doesn’t make you helpless, addicted, anti-social or a criminal. My parents raised 11 children in poverty and met all their parental responsibilities. Billions of people live in poverty and still do their job as parents.

Troubled families need case-managed intervention and help to turn their lives around. That help starts with getting kids to school and getting parents into a job, using the demonstrated model that focusses on the whole person and addresses all barriers to employment using specialised services.

That help should not be optional.

We must also address long term welfare dependency. Governments provided Ebony, Kiesha and Dean’s parents with welfare, public housing, free schooling and medical and social services; money that was misspent; housing that was the backdrop for abuse and murder; schooling the children didn’t attend; services that weren’t accessed. Failure to enforce the law meant the parents were never held accountable, never required to send their kids to school and never required to look for work as a condition of their benefits.

Long term welfare dependency reinforces helplessness and failure to take responsibility. Welfare was created to help people who’ve fallen on hard times get back on their feet. Not to keep people in hard times.

We need welfare reform and we need it across the board. Whether people agree with Andrew Forrest’s cashless welfare proposal or not, it’s right to apply reforms to everyone, not single out Indigenous people.

The best welfare reform is to get people into a job. Most politicians know this. Some won’t admit it because it suits them to be partisan. For others it offends long held ideologies about the welfare state, socialism and causes of poverty. This is irresponsible and cowardly. We owe it to the next generation of children to turn troubled families around. We need political leadership on these problems from all politicians.

This article was firs published in The Australian on 27 August 2014 under the headline “Child protection must be colourblind“. It is based on a speech given by Nyunggai Warren Mundine to the Australian Institute of Family Studies on 19 August 2014. The full speech is available here.

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Comments

  1. Richrd Downs says:

    Andrew Forrest report gives all of us an opportunity to make changes, we agree income manage Parents, set up children’s funds under our organization or Women’s centers across Alyawarr region. so as grand parents only have access.
    Our families who are living in towns who maybe are repeat offenders through alcohol, self abuse we totally agree Governments and Centre-link need to put them on new welfare card system to purchase food and other living expense only and not lining up at bottle’ o or pub and walking around drunk.
    Governments need to support the strong families and people across the region who are doing the right thing, its the family’s and people who will show the path for people who are caught up in alcohol or drugs.
    We feel the new card system should be trialed in townships targeting repeat offenders.
    we also agree the card system can be applied to both black and white repeat offenders across
    Australia.

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