Annual report 2011-12

Annual Report – October 2012

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1. Director's review

The 2011-12 financial year has been another productive one for the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). The Institute has advanced understanding of the factors affecting the functioning of families and the wellbeing of their members. It continued to undertake research and disseminate findings to policy-makers, service providers and the broader community, and has extended its work with a range of government and community sector agencies to help inform policy and improve practice to support families in Australia.

In January 2012, the Institute moved from the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) portfolio (responsible to the Minister for Social Inclusion, the Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP) to the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) portfolio. The Hon. Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs assumed ministerial responsibility for the Institute.

Research highlights

Throughout the year, the Institute continued to contribute to policy development by conducting timely and relevant research in a wide range of areas.

Past adoption experiences

One of the Institute's key research priorities throughout 2011-12 has been to undertake research into the current support and service needs of people affected by past adoption experiences, particularly closed adoption processes. This 18-month national project included surveying more than 1,500 respondents, and conducting more than 50 one-on-one interviews and focus groups involving approximately 300 people, throughout Australia. Input from professionals working with people affected by past adoption practices was also sought. The project used quantitative and qualitative approaches in studying this sensitive issue. The report was completed in June 2012 for submission to the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference in the new financial year.

Life Around Here

Commissioned by the Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), this study involved jobless families in three disadvantaged areas across Australia, and explored the barriers to their gaining employment. Participants from 59 households contributed by sharing their very personal stories of the long-term lack of paid employment. The study has provided valuable insights into the experiences of people who live with entrenched disadvantage, describing their challenges, aspirations and hopes, as well as capturing their insights into the factors that might facilitate their participation in the world of work. The report provides a valuable resource not only for policy-makers, but also for those who work in frontline services that deliver supports to such families.

Longitudinal studies

The ability to work collaboratively in longitudinal research continues to enhance the Institute's reputation as a leading research agency in Australia and overseas. Increasingly, this is a significant part of the Institute's work. The longitudinal datasets are rich resources for Institute researchers, colleagues in Commonwealth, State and Territory government agencies, the community sector and a steadily growing number of researchers. Throughout 2011-12, the Institute extended this expertise as a provider and manager of longitudinal studies as existing projects gained further maturity and the data were more widely used, both here and abroad, and as new longitudinal research collaborations came to fruition.

Growing Up in Australia

Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) continued to provide insights into the paths Australian children and their families take through life. Funded by FaHCSIA, LSAC is undertaken by the Institute in partnership with FaHCSIA and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Analyses of the data by researchers throughout Australia and internationally again showed steady increase across the year, with around 490 registered users. The Institute is collaborating with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to contribute analyses of LSAC data to a range of cross-national longitudinal data harmonisation initiatives being coordinated by the OECD.

This year, the study released the first LSAC Annual Statistical Report 2010, presenting key findings in a range of research areas, including: children's experiences of child care; language development; parenting practices and behaviours; and children's pre- and peri-natal health experiences.

Data from the LSAC project have also been highlighted in a series of documentaries broadcast on ABC TV - Life At 1 (2006), Life At 3 (2008) and Life At 5 (2011), with Life at 7 expected to be released in 2012-13.

Australian Temperament Project

The Australian Temperament Project (ATP) commenced in 1983 and has been conducted in partnership with research teams at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University. The study has been following young people's psychosocial development from infancy to adulthood, investigating the contributions of personal, family, peer and broader environmental factors to adjustment and wellbeing.

This year, the ATP investigated the development of problems such as: learning difficulties; antisocial behaviour; substance abuse, anxiety and depression; and positive development, including social competence, supportive family and peer relationships, and civic participation.

In December 2011, data collection commenced for a new ATP sub-study examining the experiences of ATP study members with children aged 11-36 months.

Stronger Families in Australia

Following the results of the first phase of the Stronger Families in Australia (SFIA) project in 2006, which evaluated the Communities for Children (CfC) initiative, the Institute has been funded by FaHCSIA to undertake phase two of the project.

This phase is evaluating the ongoing effects of the CfC initiative on the children - who are now in middle childhood - and on their families.

Pathways of Care

In the first study of its kind in Australia, data collection for the first wave of the longitudinal study of all children and young people entering into out-of-home care in New South Wales commenced this financial year.

The study is being conducted by NSW Community Services, with AIFS leading a consortium of researchers who are contributing to the design of the survey at each wave and analyses of the data. It is anticipated that four annual waves of data will be collected from carers, caseworkers, the children involved and, possibly, teachers.

Findings from the study will provide the knowledge needed to strengthen the out-of-home care service system in NSW in order to improve outcomes for children and young people in care. These outcomes include children's and young people's permanency, safety and wellbeing, including their physical health, and socio-emotional and cognitive/learning development.

Longitudinal Study of Leaving Care

As the year drew to a close, the Institute formalised a relationship with the Victorian Department of Human Services to undertake a longitudinal study of young people leaving care. Over five years, the Institute will have responsibility for designing and collecting data to help the department to understand what factors assist with positive transitions for young people who have been in out-of-home care. The study will utilise case file data, interviews with young people, and online surveys of caseworkers.

Building a New Life in Australia: The Longitudinal Survey of Humanitarian Migrants

The Institute has also been commissioned by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to undertake a longitudinal research project about how humanitarian migrants settle into a new life in Australia. More than 1,500 families who are building a new life in communities around Australia will be asked to take part in the research about their experiences and paths to citizenship. Consultation with stakeholder groups will commence early in the new financial year, with data collection to start in 2013.

Family law research

AIFS continues its focus on research into issues related to family law, including the effects on family wellbeing following parental separation and divorce, and the evaluation of the services and supports available to families at such times.

Family Dispute Resolution

In 2011-12, extensive fieldwork was undertaken for an evaluation of a multidisciplinary pilot program for coordinated family dispute resolution in cases involving family violence. The study, conducted for the Attorney-General's Department (AGD), will assist with better understanding the processes involved in conducting "mediation" cases where there has been family violence, and whether effectively managing these risks can bring better outcomes for families and children at risk.

Independent Children's Lawyers

A new study looking at how independent children's lawyers (ICLs) are utilised in the family law system also began this year. ICLs can be appointed to represent children's best interests in family law proceedings. With recent changes to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) that included a focus on protecting children from violence, the study is relevant and timely. The project will include surveying professionals in the family law system and conducting in-depth interviews with parents and children who have been involved in litigated matters involving an ICL, as well as ICL practitioners.

Family Pathways

The Institute continued work on two longitudinal studies related to family law: Family Pathways: The Longitudinal Study of Separated Families (LSSF) and Family Pathways: Survey of Recently Separated Parents.

LSSF continues to provide valuable insights into the pathways that families take following separation and divorce. This year, LSSF began work on a third wave of data collection. Information being collected will be similar to that collected in the first two survey waves, covering a range of issues such as property distribution, inter-parental relationships, experiences of physical or emotional abuse and safety concerns, parenting arrangements and family law pathways, care-time arrangements, parenting decisions, and children's wellbeing.

The Survey of Recently Separated Parents began its first wave of data collection in 2011-12. The survey will help inform future policies and services that will benefit families who are experiencing relationship difficulties.

Disseminating evidence and informing practice

Information exchange

The Institute plays a key role in disseminating findings and assisting in the application of research to policy and practice. Through its clearinghouses and information exchange, AIFS identifies, collects, evaluates, synthesises and disseminates the latest research and best practice to service providers, practitioners and policy-makers.

Child Family Community Australia

This year, the Institute amalgamated three clearinghouses to form the Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange. The clearinghouses were: the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse, Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia and the National Child Protection Clearinghouse. The amalgamation was largely due to a growing recognition that the sectors serviced by those three clearinghouses were closely aligned. The CFCA aims to be a primary source of quality, evidence-based information, resources and interactive support for professionals in the child, family and community welfare sectors.

By the end of the financial year, the CFCA had published several papers on a wide array of topics, including: parental separation from adolescents' perspectives; parental involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullying; and natural disasters and community resilience.

Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault

The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA), has continued its valuable work in disseminating knowledge and information on reducing and responding to sexual violence.

During 2011-12, ACSSA published findings on a range of related issues, including: mothers with a history of child sexual abuse; women's experiences of intimate partner violence; and sexual violence and gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer communities.

Closing the Gap Clearinghouse

The Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, which operates in partnership with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), continues to provide evidence-based research on overcoming disadvantage for Indigenous Australians.

Key research findings were published on issues such as: increasing Indigenous employment rates; early childhood and education services for Indigenous children before starting school; and strategies to enhance employment of Indigenous ex-offenders.

Families Week

The Institute again took the opportunity to participate in National Families Week, with the release in May 2012 of the Families Make All the Difference: Helping Kids to Grow and Learn facts sheet. It generated considerable community and media interest, as it highlighted recent statistics about: children's health; children's cognitive skills; children's social and emotional development; and parents' work and family balance.

With the Deputy Director (Research), Dr Daryl Higgins, I was again pleased to be an Ambassador for National Families Week this year.

Conferences

The Institute's conferences are an important forum for promoting the latest research on factors affecting family wellbeing. They also facilitate the sharing and communicating of knowledge among policy-makers, service providers and practitioners, researchers and community sector organisations.

Growing Up in Australia and Footprints in Time: The LSAC and LSIC Research Conference

During 2011-12, the first combined research conference for the two premier child development longitudinal Australian studies - LSAC and Footprints in Time: The Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC) - was held in Melbourne.

The program featured almost 50 presentations, all based on data from the Growing Up in Australia and Footprints in Time studies. The conference was very well received by the 210 participants, many of whom took the opportunity to take part in the data workshops run in conjunction with the event. Keynote and panel speakers included:

  • Professor Steve Zubrick, Division of Population Science, Telethon Institute of Child Health Research in Perth, Western Australia;
  • Professor Melissa Wake, Director of Research at the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne;
  • Ms Maria Huerta, Social Policy Division, OECD;
  • Dr Polly Atatoa-Carr, Growing Up in New Zealand, NZ Families Commission;
  • Dr Evalill Karevold, Norwegian Institute of Public Health;
  • Dr Synnve Scholberg, Norwegian Institute of Public Health;
  • Mark Rose, Deakin University;
  • Dr John Anley, Australian Centre for Educational Research; and
  • Dr Helen Campbell, Australian National Preventive Health Agency.
AIFS Conference

Throughout 2011-12, considerable time and effort was devoted to the delivery of the 12th AIFS Conference, to be held early in the 2012-13 financial year at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

A strong response to the call for abstracts resulted in a stand-out program being offered, which included three internationally renowned keynote presenters:

  • Dr Willem Adema from the OECD;
  • Professor Laura Lein from the University of Michigan; and
  • Professor Patrick Parkinson from the University of Sydney.

Interest in the conference grew steadily throughout the year, as indicated by the very large number of presentation proposals submitted following the call for papers, and the high number of registrations received by year's end. Together, these indicate that the conference again promises to be one of the leading events for sharing findings and insights in family-related research, and generating fruitful discussions among the policy-makers, service providers and researchers who will be attending.

Seminar Series

The Institute's monthly seminar series also provides an opportunity for information sharing.

Throughout 2011-12, the seminars continued to attract eminent speakers to discuss their research findings with participants, including AIFS personnel. Highlights of the 2011-12 program included:

  • Professor Nick Bala, Faculty of Law, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada;
  • Professor Louise Newman, Professor of Developmental Psychiatry, Director of the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology, Monash University;
  • Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson, a Jiman-Aboriginal Australian (Central West Queensland)/Bundjalung (Northern New South Wales) woman, and formerly Head of the College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University;
  • Professor Jan M. Nicholson, Director of Research at the Parenting Research Centre; and
  • Professor David de Vaus, Executive Dean, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Queensland.

Relationships

Throughout the year, the Institute continued to develop relationships with other organisations focused on family wellbeing in Australia and elsewhere.

National

The Institute works closely with a number of government departments and organisations, including FaHCSIA, PM&C, AGD, DEEWR, the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), and the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC). A new relationship was also formalised with DIAC to undertake research on an important longitudinal study of humanitarian migrants.

International

Sharing research expertise and knowledge

Internationally, the Institute continued to benefit from sharing expertise and experience with organisations involved in researching family wellbeing in Europe, the Asia-Pacific and North America.

In 2011-12, Institute staff received invitations to present Australian findings at international conferences in Europe and North America, including presentations on:

  • child care, early childhood education, school starting age, children's development and children living in rural and regional areas, using LSAC data, at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health;
  • LSAC, at the conference of the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, in Germany, which brought together a number of major national birth cohort studies from around the world; and
  • the Institute's family law research findings, at the US Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago and the International Commission on Couple and Family Relationships in Boston.

The Institute and the quality of its research benefits from sharing research experience and expertise, from ensuring international quality standards are maintained, and by identifying potential international trends of relevance to Australia.

The year also saw the strengthening of relationships with other organisations that undertake research on family wellbeing, such as the US Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, and the College of Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.

International visitors

This year the Institute again had several international visitors. These included visitors from Statistics New Zealand, the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the University of London, the Korean Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the Korean Labor Institute, the National Islamic University in Malaysia and the Institute for Family and Gender Studies in Vietnam. These visits enable the Institute to learn more about the work of international researchers, while also providing opportunities for AIFS to share its research.

Future directions

Over 2011-12, the Institute reviewed its strategic and research directions in preparation for the close of the 2009-12 planned cycle.

Key social trends that would influence AIFS research activity were analysed, and an extensive consultation program was undertaken. These included incorporating views from a diverse range of stakeholders, including AIFS staff, peak bodies, government agencies and research bodies.

The AIFS Advisory Council also provided very valuable input and advice to help shape the Institute's directions for the next three years. The AIFS Directions 2012-15 document is due for official release at the AIFS Conference in July 2012, and will outline four key research directions:

  • family change, functioning and wellbeing;
  • social and economic participation for families;
  • child and family safety; and
  • services to support families.

These are supported by core strategic goals for the Institute, to:

  • undertake high-quality impartial research relating to the wellbeing of families in Australia;
  • share the information and transfer our knowledge;
  • value and develop our relationships; and
  • manage our organisation.

AIFS Reconciliation Action Plan

To complement our research and strategic directions, the Institute has also developed its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which will be officially released at the AIFS Conference in July 2012.

The plan formalises the Institute's commitment to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The actions set out in the plan demonstrate - through everyday activities - the Institute's vision for recognising, respecting and valuing the histories, cultures and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The RAP was developed with support from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives external to AIFS and Reconciliation Australia.

Advisory Council

The Institute's Advisory Council continues to be a highly valuable contributor to the success of the Institute and its activities, and has again helped to ensure that the Institute has achieved another very productive year.

Chaired by Reverend the Hon. Professor Brian Howe AO, the council provided advice on a range of strategic matters. In particular, this year, the council contributed to the development of the Institute's research directions, which will support our capacity to deliver rigorous, relevant and timely research on issues affecting family wellbeing.

The end of 2011-12 coincides with the end of the three-year terms of the council members. Three of the members will thus be departing the council:

  • Professor John Dewar;
  • Dr Marie Leech; and
  • Professor Bruce Chapman AM.

I would like to thank these members for their valuable commitment to the Institute and its work, and for so generously making their expertise, support and ever-wise counsel available to us over the years.

From 2012-13, three new members will be welcomed to the council:

  • Professor Dorothy Scott OAM;
  • Professor Barbara Pocock AM; and
  • Professor Ross Homel AO.

They each bring specialist research and social policy expertise that will greatly benefit the Institute.

Concluding remarks

This year saw the Institute continue to make significant contributions towards identifying and understanding family trends and how these are influenced by and, in turn, influence contemporary Australia. It has strengthened existing relationships and built new relationships with a range of government agencies and international partners.

The Institute continues to focus on sound financial management across our operations, with oversight from the Risk Assessment and Audit Committee.

In this financial year, AIFS operated with $3.512m of government appropriations and $6.04m of other revenue, primarily from contracted research. As detailed in the financial statements, the Institute incurred a deficit of $460,159 for the year, due to depreciation expenses and the impact of the government bond rate on employee provisions.

The Institute's work plan has been extended with commissions to undertake several new research projects, which has helped to advance our reputation as the lead research agency on family wellbeing with expertise in longitudinal studies.

The new research, together with the continued development of core research activities, ensures high-quality and productive years ahead. Through the development of the AIFS Research Directions 2012-15 document, the Institute has also committed itself to focusing research on key transitions experienced by Australian families and the factors that influence the paths they take through life.

Professor Alan Hayes AM
Director, Australian Institute of Family Studies