Family Matters No. 100 - May 2018

The evolution of family research at AIFS

Talking with past Institute leaders
Luisa Saccotelli and Aileen Muldoon

Abstract

To celebrate this 100th issue of Family Matters, former leaders of the Australian Institute of Family Studies reflect on some of the most ground breaking work the Institute has undertaken and reveal their ideas of what important issues are emerging for families now and in the future.

Since the inception of the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 1980, AIFS has been a leading influence on family policy and research in Australia. To celebrate the 100th issue of Family Matters, we have asked former leaders of the Institute to take the time to share their experiences, reflect on some of the most ground-breaking work the Institute has undertaken, and reveal their ideas of what important issues are emerging for families now and in the future.

Dr Don Edgar, Foundation Director, 1980-93

Early days

Photo of Dr Don Edgar, AIFS Foundation Director, 1983-93

According to Don Edgar, the idea for an Institute of Family Studies grew out of concerns regarding changes to the Family Law Act in the mid 1970s.

There was some concern the new laws would increase divorce and even destroy marriage, Don said. The establishment of a families institute would ensure there was a body that would monitor the impact of changes in family law, as well as look at other issues affecting Australian families.

Don had been working as a sociologist at La Trobe University, after a stint in Chicago with his wife Patricia and their young daughters.

When chosen as the Institute's Foundation Director, Don established it in Melbourne, to avoid disrupting the family and because he didn't want to live in what he saw as "that rarefied Canberra atmosphere".

Peering over the white picket fence

Few people knew much about Australian families then. Even the census ignored remarriage, stepchildren and adoption, and little other family research was being done. Don had to "pick the eyes out of whatever there was" and realised a major research program had to be set up. His first seven year plan set the Institute's direction for many years.

The first longitudinal study on family formation made headlines with findings about young people's delayed leaving home, delayed marriage, de facto living and the huge diversity of family life. Early work also looked at the child's-eye view of family life, child care and early childhood development, while the first national family database was set up, now the largest in Australia. AIFS' work exposed the stereotype of the white picket fence nuclear family and led to new policy approaches.

"I was from a one-parent family, my father was killed when I was 10, leaving five kids under 12 years. My mother worked in the Fletcher Jones factory and I cooked dinner most nights and did the shopping. I had never assumed that women didn't work."

The Institute was also starting from scratch examining family law, "there was no research being done there".

"There was also nothing on ethnic families, so we did the early work on migrant workers, including exploitation in the rag trade.

"We were putting out information that had never been seen before. Every social service agency and government department saw our research as relevant and valuable - except Treasury. They told me to stop sending issues of Family Matters 'because Treasury has nothing to do with families'. They changed their minds."

Fearless and independent

Don said despite being a federally funded body, the Institute and the Institute's board strongly guarded their academic independence.

The Institute used its family database to cost various parties' budget tax policies to test their effect on different types of families, which was unpopular at times.

"We were scrupulously non-partisan and fearless in presenting the facts and their social implications.

"The problem is that you're saying, 'here's the data and they don't support what your government or your party policies are trying to say'. We'd argue about that and both I and the board insisted on preserving our academic independence.

"It did mean the debate changed. Nobody could talk about families just in that blanket sense again."

Who pays for the children?

But it was a fight about who pays for the children in separated families that resulted in the most seismic piece of research.

"It was all very haphazard then, you'd get a bit of alimony, the odd payment for children and even though the Family Court was supposed to be non-litigious (there were registrars to talk about property, and counsellors to discuss custody and access issues) the lawyers were in there, of course, and they were about money, so it wasn't working.

"We did a number of studies that found that after divorce the women and kids were poor and the blokes were getting away with murder."

In 1984 the Institute released The Cost of Children in Australia report, which set out costs for different ages based on a simple basket of goods, food and clothing and minimal estimated expenses.

Don still remembers that the cost for two year olds was $975 annually and for 11 year olds $1,410.

"When that study came out it was huge. People would say 'that's expensive' but we were able to say, 'this is absolutely the minimum contribution that children need'.

"It helped governments and welfare agencies improve payments for foster parents and led to the creation of the national child support scheme. AIFS studies were major factors in improving policy. As were our studies on child care, maternity leave and the work-family balance.

"Family Matters was a major instrument in publicising the need for change; every journalist would pounce on each issue and spread the word, so we always had major support when cost cutting was in the air."

Re-inventing middle age

In 1993 a brush with prostate cancer saw Don step down as director of the Institute. Fortunately, it was treated successfully and these days Don and his wife Patricia are immersed in the fallout from one of the great demographic shifts of our time - the middle ageing of society.

They're exploring the shift to longer life and the fact that already seven million Australians are aged between 50 and 75 - the new middle age - and they're all going to need work and a sense of purpose. "Not all of them have super and fancy houses."

"People will need to reinvent themselves on a personal level and social policies across employment, relationships, education, finances, lifestyle and health will have to change too."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten launched their book Peak: Reinventing Middle Age, and Don was also gratified to hear Federal Ageing Minister Ken Wyatt start to use terms such as "lifelong education" and "the longevity economy".

Nowadays, Don is relishing his freedom while keeping his finger on the pulse of the latest social trends in a continuum of the work he began as the founding director of the Institute.

Professor Peter McDonald, Director, October 1993-February 1994, Deputy Director, 1983-93

Demographer drives AIFS early landmark research projects 

Professor Peter McDonald, Director, October 1993-February 1994, Deputy Director, 1983-93

Other people's marriages are generally a taboo subject but former AIFS Deputy Director Peter McDonald spent his early career immersed in them, or at least the study of the marriage patterns of Australians. In what is arguably the most comprehensive study of Australian marriage ever undertaken, Peter's PhD examined marriage in Australia from early settlement in 1778 through to the tumultuous years in the 1970s when the principle of no-fault divorce was introduced in the Family Law Act. Surprisingly, it was not his knowledge of Australian marriage that landed him a job at the Institute. Rather, it was his multidisciplinary skills as an economist and demographer that were the winning combination for a highly diverse social policy Institute keen to establish its credentials.

"In selecting the deputy director's position, they were tossing up between a policy person - which was not me but I grew into it - and someone who was more statistical, more multi-disciplinary and more of a demographer," he said. "The Institute was an interdisciplinary place then with economists, lawyers, psychologists and sociologists and each group brought different skills but we all learnt to work together. That was the real strength of the place."

Establishing its research credentials

Not long after starting in his role at the Institute, Peter was asked to lead a major study on the Economic Consequences of Marriage Breakdown. The study was a recommendation from the Australian Law Reform Commission's review of matrimonial property. According to Peter, it was the first major policy study undertaken by the Institute and it was critical to its future.

"The study was an opportunity to prove ourselves," he said. "It was also really important because it had to establish the Institute in research terms, and we had to do it well. If we had failed, the Institute would probably have been wiped out."

The study did go well, gaining national and international acclaim for its breadth of research and its findings. Peter remembers the tense discussion with the Law Reform Commission over the terms of reference.

"Initially the Law Reform Commission was interested in a narrow legal study," he said. "We had to work with them but our group was aware that marriage breakdown has a lot of psychological aspects to it and the relationship between the couple was important. We had to argue with the commission for a much broader study but in the end, they agreed."

While the study did not result in any changes to matrimonial property law, there were unforeseen consequences that would have financial implications for divorce settlements. "Our study found that property settlements were ignoring superannuation," he said. "This tended to disadvantage women as the superannuation was generally in the man's name and women didn't get access to those funds." Superannuation benefits were subsequently considered the same as any other item of property on divorce.

The study also yielded detailed information on child maintenance, which greatly assisted the then government to introduce a Child Support Scheme ensuring children of separated parents were not financially disadvantaged by the breakdown of the marriage.

Later, the Institute published a book based on the research titled Settling Up. A follow-up study examined how people fared a few years following the marriage separation. According to Peter, the study showed that most people were able to recover financially after a marriage breakdown "even though the economic consequences were severe at the time". From the follow-up study, the Institute produced another book, Settling Down, which cemented its international reputation.

Contributing to social reforms

Following the success of the marriage breakdown studies, the Institute continued its involvement in major social policy issues of the time. Peter cites the Institute's work in the area of social security that contributed to the government increasing the low-income supplement to families as children got older and more expensive, and the Australia Living Standard Study that recommended a dental scheme for low-income families.

According to Peter, families are much better off now than they were 30 years ago - there has been a 50% increase in real incomes for a start - but he points to a "bunch of families at the bottom end that have really been left behind. The biggest social issue is children growing up in families where nobody works and we need to be looking at how to change the life pathways for those children".

Peter is more positive about gender equity in family relationships and sees men taking on more of the child care roles than they have done in the past. "I think it is starting but it is a longer-term social change," he said. "Women themselves are important in that change and they have to demand it." On this issue, Peter remembers the Institute practising what they preached, introducing permanent part-time work with superannuation, which greatly helped women who had returned to the workforce after having children.

Peter feels the Institute has a special place in his working life, crediting it with broadening his narrow academic focus and teaching him to deal with government ministers and public servants and the media to deliver significant policy reforms. Some of the issues he dealt with at the Institute still hold force. He stops midway during the interview to check the result of the same-sex marriage survey. "It's YES!" he announces as if heralding the start of another new chapter on Australian marriages.

David Stanton, Director, 1999-2003

An accident of fate

David Stanton, Director, 1999-2003

David Stanton never set out to become the Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. The Minister for Family and Community Services, Jocelyn Newman, asked David to go to Melbourne to "help out" for a month or two until a permanent director could be found.

David, a former senior public servant, was eventually appointed to the job and stayed for the next four years, cementing his reputation as one of the country's foremost experts on family policies.

It was an irony not lost on him that while he was leading families' research, he'd left his own family behind in Canberra - his wife, a senior public servant, and a son at university.

"It was a bit incongruous while at AIFS to be working on how to enhance 'work and family' policies. It was a bit ironic perhaps but with strong support from my family we were able to manage it".

Having been in charge of family programs in the then Department of Social Security, working on policy development advice to ministers and running various aspects of departmental operations (including research and evaluation issues), he was delighted by the new opportunity.

Though there were early days of ignominy ... having to recall the Institute's annual report because it was printed upside down and earning certain notoriety for singing an Elvis song at his first staff Christmas party. He'd been told that everyone sang. No-one else did.

New direction

Under his leadership, the Institute's focus shifted to national policy and it became heavily involved in signature longitudinal studies - the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) study.

While winning substantial research contracts helped give financial stability to the organisation, David also encouraged his researchers to initiate other equally fascinating research topics - such as what makes a successful marriage.

Marriage material

"Robyn Parker did this qualitative study, it was very clever and interesting, looking at what are the factors that determine long and successful marriages.

"It was about compromise and understanding and willingness to change over time, of course, and it was fascinating to hear from people who'd been married for 50 and 60 years. Couples emphasised love, trust, mutual respect and good communication. The study was something a bit different."

The Institute also received special funding from then Women's Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone and the Office of the Status of Women to look at what influenced women in deciding how many children they want.

"We asked people retrospectively, how many children they had, how many they wanted, why they'd not had more. That work was developed by Ruth Weston and was well received as an important contribution."

It was around the time that former Treasurer Peter Costello was exhorting Australians to have one child for you, one for your partner and "one for the country". Fertility was a hot topic.

"I'm always very conscious that you stand on the shoulders of others, a lot of this work had a long history - divorce and work and family - going right back to the Foundation Director of AIFS, Don Edgar."

Fix family support

David says that while great achievements have been made in family wellbeing in the past 30 years, there are many challenges requiring urgent attention.

"We're going to continue to need to focus on the reforms to child support - which have been very significant going right back to the 1975 Family Law Act but which still need more attention before they become fully effective.

"There's a lot of rhetoric in welfare to work, but if families are going to be successful in moving beyond precarious employment there will be a need for a lot of support in the transition to work, especially for sole parents where there have been cuts in benefits and conditions.

"I'm very concerned there might be an emerging issue of poverty for sole parents and their kids, a situation like we had in the early 1970s when we had the [Henderson] poverty inquiry. Indigenous families are in chronic conditions of poverty and that's something again to challenge us into the future.

"We also face issues like ageing and the changing nature of the labour market, including more part-time work and contract work. We need to develop a better understanding of the contribution older people make in voluntary roles and caring for grandchildren and the implications of longer periods before becoming eligible for the age pension.

"We also need more support for young people leaving home: there are issues around the housing market, how they transition to independence. With changes to Newstart allowance they are having to depend on parents into an older age."

Overhaul the tax system

The fault lines are extensive enough to warrant another comprehensive review of the social protection system, according to David.

"The current system is very complex. The time is right for a broad-based, comprehensive review to ensure it is fit for purpose. We have not had such a review since the poverty inquiry in the 1970s.

"I think people understand that if we are going to have a society where there's a need for a whole new way of working, you can't leave out the social protection dimension."

In times of acute pressure on families, good policy initiatives can follow. Times have certainly been tough before: David points to the impact of the 1930s depression and the two world wars. Government and the Parliament actively looked to reform the welfare state during World War II with child endowment and payments to the unemployed being introduced.

"But the fire that's hottest for families is the one you're sitting on.

"Families now are facing a lot of pressure, some of it from good things, like the dramatic growth in women's labour force participation.

"But you can't achieve all of that without good parental leave arrangements and child care, for example. And while there are challenges, you can certainly ameliorate those."

David emphasised how much he had enjoyed his time at AIFS. He said he was privileged to work with outstanding and friendly staff (both research and administrative staff), a very supportive board, and ministers and their departments who appreciated and valued the contribution of the Institute.

Professor Alan Hayes, Director, 2004-15

At the coalface of research

Professor Alan Hayes, Director, 2004-15

In his current role, Alan Hayes has gone back to the coalface of pioneering social science research in the New South Wales Hunter region.

He's working with regional communities being buffeted by the global headwinds of major structural change, bracing for declining jobs and experiencing anxiety about their collective future.

His role at the University of Newcastle involves finding ways to support families facing complex challenges, an area where he's the first to say that "there's a lot more to do".

"In a world of global economic development and transitions, we need to think about those who are at risk of missing out or of being left behind by the forces of change," he said.

"Giving families the opportunities to move out of circumstances like that is a major challenge and that's part of the overall anxiety communities have because that change is so very unpredictable."

While evidence-informed policy points to initiatives that may be successful, there's still the problem of how to make the gains last for large numbers of people.

"Work in randomised controlled trials with selected cohorts is one thing but the real challenge lies in making initiatives work out in the real world.

"Research translation and implementation insights inform not only more successful approaches but they also help ensure that interventions are sustainable and scalable."

More family support needed

He believes that one of the big challenges families face is the need for better co-ordinated and integrated services and supports, especially for children entrenched in "complex" families.

"Some families have multiple, complex needs spanning health and social services terrain. We're making real progress in integrating aspects of health care but it's the wraparound of all the other social services that's still needed."

Another emerging issue for families is the need for an improved system of relationship support services that is "less adversarial" to minimise what he sees as some of the worst outcomes for children caught up in relationship breakdowns.

"We've been progressively moving things to keep the best interests of the kids at the heart of the family law system, to minimise some of the unintended consequences, which can have very negative, very long-term impacts on a child.

"We're doing much better but there's still a lot of damage in some families and we need to continue to improve the system.

"That might sound utopian and idealistic but it's increasingly an issue and one that the Institute can continue to provide the insights to enable progressive improvement."

Most impactful piece of research

For Alan, the research with the most impact during his directorship was the Institute's evaluation of the 2006 Australian Family Law Reforms, which he describes as a "landmark" piece of work.

The 2006 Howard Government reforms sought to bring about a shift in the way families managed separation, emphasising shared responsibility, care and cooperative parenting. Critics argued the reforms shifted the balance too far away from placing children's interests front and centre of parenting arrangements.

"The scope of our evaluation of those reforms; the intersecting parts; and the way it looked at the whole family law reform package, through a range of methods and longitudinal elements in a large-scale survey was, I think, unprecedented.

"In a relatively short time frame we were able to consider improvements to the system and set directions for a new approach, which would not have been possible without the completeness of that research."

Baby talk

Well before grappling with issues of family break-up, Alan was a primary school teacher who retrained as a psychologist to focus on child development issues.

He led ground-breaking work in developmental psychology focusing on communication between mothers and babies. Not much was known about how mothers and babies' communication developed and who was leading the exchanges.

"There was an idea that infants simply pop out in an evolved sense and already know how to communicate with their mothers. We developed a new method to look at the way it actually worked, was it through gaze or vocalisation, or both; was it the infant or the mother driving the interaction?

"The end point that we established, through a number of different means, was that it was the mother driving it all and not a dance in which each partner was equally involved.

"The mother largely created the way the infant learnt and we, in turn, learned how mothers did that."

Data dispels fiction

Alan believes there will always be a need to have an accurate picture of Australian families to counteract some of the views that can be anecdotal, dated, only partially informed or downright wrong!

Data can tell us who lives in families now, what the life course might look like for individual family members as well as how well families are faring at a particular point in time.

Alan describes the Australian Institute of Family Studies as a "resilient" organisation that has faced multiple reviews and changes in the machinery of government, and thrived under a raft of governments and ministerial portfolios.

"We were forever meeting a new crop of colleagues in Canberra and working to try to get them to understand the value of the work we did.

"But we developed a lot of close relationships with colleagues that way and we got better outcomes by working together to advance the wellbeing of Australian children, families and communities. That's always been central to the Institute across its life."

Dr Daryl Higgins, Deputy Director, 2011-16

A tough agenda

Dr Daryl Higgins, Deputy Director, 2011-16

Even as a young psychology lecturer, Daryl Higgins was interested in child abuse. He wanted to understand the consequences for individuals but also what caused the different forms of abuse and neglect in families.

They are questions that continue to propel his academic career today. It's tough stuff and not for the faint-hearted but it's an area of applied families research he's always been passionate about.

"It's about trying to look at the causes of maltreatment and the relationships between the experiences that someone has had and the effects on their lives. It's complex and involves understanding a whole range of factors and how they relate to broader issues of family dysfunction," he said.

It's one of the enduring challenges that families continue to face. As do the people charged with delving into the dark recesses of often complex lives.

"Constantly on my mind is the issue of preventing child abuse and the particular challenge is the issue of how to truly embed a public health approach to this.

"We're good at tertiary responses like when there's a full-blown mental health issue, understanding what to do then. But the greatest impact occurs when you stop it happening in the first place so people don't hit that danger time."

Putting practitioners in place

Daryl points to a need to have professional practitioners in child care centres, schools, GP clinics and maternal and child health centres - not that he'd call them maternal health centres, a moniker that ignores the 50% of parents who are fathers.

"For example, GPs could provide support to mum or dad dealing with their kids, acknowledging that it's tricky to do this, or better still stepping in to model how to stop the tantrum getting out of control.

"GPs have been good at doling out injections, scripts and a dose of Ritalin or two, rather than equipping parents with capacity. Perhaps, through the new 'super clinic' model, practice nurses could take a lead role supporting parents, and it wouldn't be stigmatising.

"I'd love it if there was no need for any family services because these practitioners are already embedded in all of these places. We still need the professionals, in fact more of them, but not waiting until there's a problem."

Another emerging issue for families is the complexity of the problems they face while services remain largely siloed around, for example, drug and alcohol issues or family violence.

A mother with a drug addiction or a fear of violence can be sent off to all of these different services when "it would be better if the first worker did the running around to help them, instead of expecting clients in distress to actually manage the complexity of the service system".

Past adoption research

It was research into another type of trauma - the fallout from past adoption practices - that Daryl nominates as having had the most impact during his time at the Institute. It was work commissioned by the Australian Government as a way to find out about the experiences of people who'd gone through forced adoptions and establish how to help them.

"It began as a quite small project, a summary around the issues of people affected, we did a literature review and the next work was to do a national scoping study where we identified the full scope of the problem. Governments could see the importance of research in answering a social problem.

"The national apology was a focal point and we were able to take our research right through to being able to say the impacts of forced adoptions were significant and that we need improved services, what people's needs are, and the different models that could be employed in trauma-informed services."

Evidence-based programs are one of the great achievements that have been made in family wellbeing over the past 30 years but it's not always easy to see what works.

"If we're going to spend the public dollar, how do we identify which services work? It's difficult because not every service is a manualised program that you can easily assess, it's part of working out what are promising practices."

Kitchen confidential counsel

Daryl observed, "Knowing what's best practice and living it within your own family was not always easy either. It can be a bit hard at times, knowing what the research says you should do and putting that into practice as the parent of teenagers".

He feels it might have tempered his tendency to be a little bit "didactic" at times. Sometimes, the best expert advice came from much closer to home.

"I was fortunate to have a very supportive partner in Alan and he would call me to account and make me think, 'I'm not going to be the guy complaining because the dishes were piled up and I can't even start on dinner.' Alan had a rule, 'no nagging for the first hour after you get home' …not to say I managed it all of the time but I did try."

In 2013, the Institute published a much-cited paper on same-sex parenting just after the change to a more conservative government in Canberra. The paper suggested that kids in same-sex households did just as well as those in other family types. It wasn't necessarily a surprise to Daryl.

"There are always complexities and it's important to be sensitive to the needs of policy makers while still being fearless in saying what needs to be said."

Ruth Weston, Research Manager and Principal Research Fellow, 2001-09, Assistant Director, 2010-15

Longest-serving employee notches up over three decades of research

Ruth Weston, Research Manager and Principle Research Fellow, 2001-09. Assistant Director, 2010-15

Ironically, when Ruth Weston started working at AIFS more than 30 years ago, she accepted a low paying position to accommodate caring for her own young family. With a background in psychology, Ruth had worked at Melbourne University in the Psychology Department, the Agricultural Extension Research Unit and the State College of Victoria, Burwood (now Deakin University).

With young children to consider, Ruth then took up a very short-term, part-time job at the Institute to analyse a survey dataset. Although this paid less than $10 an hour, she said laughingly, "I enjoyed the work so much that I would have done it for no pay!" She had not expected the work to continue, adding "It turned out that I basically started my career all over again. Now women generally don't need to start their careers from scratch after having children. That's a huge change."

Helping separated families

In the early days at the Institute, Ruth Weston was involved in a major study examining the economic consequences of divorce, led by Peter McDonald. It was at a time when the vast majority of mothers and children were dependent on fathers for financial support, and when this ceased upon separation, single mothers who relied on welfare attracted a great deal of criticism.

"There was not a lot of understanding for single mothers whose reliance on welfare for themselves and for their children arose from their having entered a 'partnership' years earlier, whereby they gave up paid work to look after the home and children full-time, thereby promoting the father's career prospects," she said.

"With maintenance payments often low and unreliable or non-existent, single mothers were broke, which meant that the kids were broke too. The research raised important issues about financial support for children and ultimately helped contribute to the establishment of the Child Support Scheme."

The Institute's evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms was another seminal piece of research Ruth was involved in. In 2006, the government introduced a series of changes to the family law system, partly designed to encourage greater involvement of both parents in their children's lives after separation.

The Institute was engaged to undertake an evaluation of the changes and to find ways to improve the family law system. No other country had undertaken a study of such magnitude.

"The evaluation involved a large number of studies, including analysis of court files and administrative data, exploring the views and experiences of lawyers, court professionals and judicial officers, family relationship service providers and their clients, and separated parents, using both quantitative and qualitative approaches," she said.

The evaluation contributed to further amendments to the Family Law Act and was a springboard for other studies.

A strong body of research

According to Ruth, the Institute's greatest achievement is the culmination of all its research since its inception.

"It is the history of the research that tells the story of what has - and has not - changed over time," she said.

"Our research on separation has expanded to look at issues like continuing the involvement of both parents in children's lives, family violence and keeping children safe, and children's experiences of parental separation, including how they cope living in two households."

She is proud of the Institute's focus on changes in Australian families and life-course transitions; the close connection between paid work, family life and family wellbeing; parenting and child wellbeing; and service delivery to families. She points to the huge value of Growing Up in Australia: the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, in contributing to impactful research in the area of family studies.

Challenges for modern families

For Ruth, the perennial challenge for families is inequality. Although gender inequity is not as strong as it once was, many women still receive lower wages and do the bulk of the housework despite longer paid working hours. Also, many women and children are exposed to violence in the home. She is also concerned about the fact that children who have spent much of their childhood in disadvantaged circumstances have a much greater risk of experiencing poverty and social exclusion throughout their lives.

Then there is the time-stress in dual-earner families, and the need to meet the increasing demand for child care linked to increasing numbers of mothers and grandparents in paid work.

However, it is in describing the problems of Indigenous communities that you can hear the angst escalate in her voice. "Indigenous Australians and their families are particularly likely to face huge disadvantage on numerous fronts throughout their lives - lives that tend to be substantially shorter than for other Australians," she said.

"The 2017 Closing the Gap report shows we are on track to meeting only one of the targets at a national level - that is, halving the gap for Year 12 retention by 2020. On the other indicators, substantial inequality between Indigenous people and other Australians persists, though in some areas there is evidence of significant improvement."

Ruth sees a number of emerging issues that pose a threat to families. She refers to the "dark side" of the Internet; for example, where problems such as child exploitation, stalking, cyberbullying and identity theft proliferate.

Youth unemployment, homelessness and high housing costs, precarious employment and the growing number of people reaching an age "where they need a great deal of care" are other crucial issues.

Drugs and gambling are also worrying issues, as these can have enormous adverse effects on individuals if they become "hooked" as well as on their families and communities. She also cites elder abuse as a problem that is only now starting to get the attention it deserves, and drug-fuelled abuse of parents by their children, which has yet to receive such attention.

Despite their ups and downs, almost all families manage to raise the next generation to become active and well-adjusted members of society. They will continue to remain the backbone of society, while also drawing on societal resources. As the saying goes: "It takes a village to raise a child."

Ruth is now the Institute's longest-serving employee, and considers herself lucky to have spent her working life providing evidence-based research that has had a direct influence in shaping family policy.

"It has just been so exciting to be involved in research that can have an influence on policy. AIFS continues to identify what's happening in families, linking this with multi-dimensional social forces and decisions made within families. We have to keep monitoring these forces and stay abreast of what is happening to all forms of families. Evidence-based policy development and adjustment are vital."