Family Matters No. 100 - May 2018

Director's reflections

Anne Hollonds

"No, not that one - use the other baking dish." On the crowded 5.50 pm train from Flinders St to Melbourne's eastern suburbs, she was on her phone giving instructions to a child at home about putting something in the oven. Forty-something and dressed for the office, this mother was just one of tens of thousands heading home across Australia.

Glued to smartphones on commuter trains and buses or stuck in peak hour traffic, working mothers were making the transition from work to home. The bridge between these two worlds - the "commute" - is increasingly blurred by digital technology but this transition still requires a psychological pivot from who we are at work to who we will be at home. Some are going home eagerly anticipating the warmth of people who love and care for each other, others are burdened by the stresses of care and fractured relationships. For most this contemporary work-to-home transition is just a part of daily life, as ordinary as brushing your teeth.

The scene on the 5.50 pm commuter train would have been different in 1980 when the first edition of Family Matters was published. Back then, 50% of mothers whose youngest child was aged 5-9 years were in the workforce (1981), compared with 71% in 2016.1 This was before the internet and digital technology had become ubiquitous. The boundary between work/school and home was less porous.

Social change has accelerated since the eighties. Many challenges are faced by families today as they manage their daily lives and relationships in increasingly disrupted times. Families are facing changes to work and the economy, the ageing of the population, cost of living increases - especially housing and energy - and arguably higher expectations of quality of life.

While a great deal has changed all around us, attitudes and behaviours within families have changed little, with the burden of caring responsibilities still strongly skewed towards women.2 This "stickiness" of responsibilities at home being allocated along gender lines has been the cause of some puzzlement. Is this long-term stability in how families arrange themselves a strength, especially in times of uncertainty, or is it evidence of an unwillingness to adapt that may prove to be a weakness?

In a recent media interview I was asked the question: "Is it us or is it the system?" One of the better questions I have fielded over the years, this generated some reflection about how we are approaching the complex social problems of our time.

The intersection between the individual and the "system" has long been the focus of ideological battles as evidenced in this landmark 100th edition of FamilyMatters.

At the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) we see the individual within dynamic family systems as well as the broader social systems and structural context. We seek to understand "what matters most" to individuals and families, and what helps or hinders their wellbeing, in order to identify through research the policy levers and service design elements that can make a positive difference.

Policy and service systems fail when they do not tap in to the interests and motivations of those they are seeking to help. In order for policy and services to be more "human-centred" we require intelligent co-design and the opening up of the traditional barriers between real people and the policy and service designers and deliverers seeking to help them.

In the past year we saw the completion of two royal commissions: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. Their recommendations present major challenges and opportunities for system reforms.

We have recently seen acknowledgement of the failure of the 10-year Closing the Gap initiative and a decision to review and "refresh" the targets. Australia is also building the Fourth Plan of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children (2009-2020) in an environment of increasing numbers of children in out-of-home care, especially Indigenous children.

Late last year we saw the national survey on marriage legislation and the subsequent votes in both Houses of Parliament. This issue brought something very private into the public gaze, ultimately seeing tears, applause and impromptu singing in the House of Representatives. This was an exceptional moment in the history of social policy reform.

The preceding period of public debate on the marriage legislation also saw some advocates claiming the territory of so-called "family values" and others proclaiming the importance of "individual rights". This was a new version of an old debate, which has been repeated many times since the first edition of Family Matters in 1980. The concept of the "family" carries many contradictions and values assigned by each of us. These contradictions find themselves reflected in our policy and services - with comparatively less critical analysis evident here than elsewhere, such as in the UK.

At the time of writing, the disruptive international #MeToo movement continues to generate public and private reflection on sexual harassment and assault experienced by women and may be a sign of changing social norms. And the Australian Law Reform Commission review of the family law system has just released an issues paper. Both will have an impact on families.

This 100th edition of Family Matters contains histories of family policy as seen through the eyes of some of the Institute's former leaders. These accounts of the past 38 years remind us that progress in this area of social policy is uneven and often fiercely contested. Much remains unsolved in our efforts to address complex social problems. The family, despite diverse views, remains at the heart of all of this. But we are yet to find a way of engaging effectively with this complex and dynamic human system with its many moving parts.

The relationships within a family system provide the scaffolding for the development and wellbeing of family members. Yet our policy and services tend to focus attention on individuals rather than these critical relationships. The failure to employ a systemic lens over family relationships leads to fragmented policy responses and missed opportunities to harness the unique power of the family as a "system".

Family relationships remain powerful influencers in our lives, for good or for bad. The "family", however conceived in our minds or constituted in reality, has unique power to influence our wellbeing throughout our lives. Our efforts to "fix" individuals, whether children or adults, may be successful up to a point but our inability to address the relational context within which each of us lives is limiting the effectiveness of these interventions. Is it time to "think family" in a new way?

We are also limited in our understanding of "what matters most" to people and what might motivate the kinds of behavioural change we are seeking to catalyse. Using evidence from the behavioural sciences and participatory approaches to service design will deepen our understanding and effectiveness.

We have released the program for our 2018 conference with the theme of What Matters Most to Families in the 21st Century. It is evident from the conference submissions that there is a great deal of work being done at both Commonwealth and state/territory level to reform service systems and the way that policy is designed. Governments and non-government organisations are focused on building and utilising evidence to improve policy and services. One notable promising example comes from child welfare reform in NSW. They have seen a 24% reduction in the number of children and young people entering out-of-home care (OOHC) in 2016/17 compared with 2015/16, including a 19.7% decrease in Aboriginal children and young people entering OOHC.3 We will bring you highlights from our conference in an upcoming issue of Family Matters.

Families policy is not a "soft" topic. Families matter to our economy and our shared wellbeing as a nation. When it comes to babies, children and young people, "family" is the main game, not a sidebar in their lives. Helping, not hindering, families to do their job well is a challenge for policy.

At AIFS we are trying to get knowledge about what works for families into action on the ground.

We would like to thank you all for your support and contributions to Family Matters over the past 38 years and for your helpful feedback. Since its earliest days, Family Matters has been about getting evidence to the people who influence the lives of families, through their research, policy making or practice. We look forward to continuing the conversation about families with you for many more years to come.

The AIFS Director Anne Hollonds' digital signature

This 100th edition of Family Matters will be the last to be published in hard copy. Following extensive consultation with our readers and stakeholders, we have decided to use this milestone to transition to a digital format for future editions.

1 Baxter, J. Unpublished analysis of census data.

2 Baxter, J. (2018). Stay-at-home fathers in Australia. Melbourne: AIFS. Available at <aifs.gov.au/publications/stay-home-fathers-australia>.

3 Information provided by NSW Department of Family and Community Services, 2018.