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Family Matters No. 33 - December 1992

A safe place for children

Views from the outer suburbs
Helen Brownlee and Peter McDonald

Abstract

The Australian Institute of Family Studies' Living Standards Study addresses levels of safety for both children and adults. This article reports results of interviews with 427 families with children in the local government area of Berwick, an outer suburban area situated 30-40 kilometres to the south-east of the city centre of Melbourne. Parents' concerns about child safety covered a number of safety issues depending on the age of the child. They included fear of abduction, fear of violence by older children or by gangs of children of the same age, fear of safety on the roads, and fear of safety on public transport. Implications of findings for building better cities are discussed, as is the issue of dealing with perpetrators of attacks on children.

 

Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides for the protection of the child 'from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents, legal guardians or any other person who has the care of the child' (UNICEF 1990).

The Convention says very little, however, about protection of the child from abuses of this sort when the child is not in the care of parents or guardians. Children, as appropriate for their age, should be able to play in their yards, move about in their local neighbourhood and go to and from school, shops or places of entertainment without fear of abduction, harassment or assault. Neighbourhoods, parks, public transport and shopping centres should be places that are safe for children.

In protecting the child in the private sphere, the Convention seems largely to neglect their protection in the public sphere. Yet the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study is indicating enormous concern on the part of parents and the children themselves about child safety outside the home.

SAFETY AS A COMPONENT OF LIVING STANDARDS

The Australian Living Standards Study adopts the Scandinavian 'level of living' approach of measuring living standards according to a number of different components or spheres of life (Brownlee 1991: 55). One of these spheres is security of life or property. For example, the Swedish Level of Living Surveys collect information from respondents about whether they have been victims of violent attacks, suffered any form of theft or had any property damaged in the past 12 months. This information, however, as with most other information, was in 1991 collected only from people aged 18 years and older (Swedish Institute for Social Research 1992).

The Scandinavian level of living studies have been criticised for the exclusion of information concerning children, not only because living conditions in childhood form the basis for living conditions in the adult lifetime, but also because the way in which a society treats its children is an important indicator of its cultural and moral standards (Holter 1984:74). Some information relating to child safety has been collected from parents in the Norwegian surveys on a one- off basis. Information has been collected on the proportions of parents with children without access to a safe playing ground, parents who feel very unsafe when their children play outside, and parents whose children have an unsafe journey to school (Central Bureau of Statistics 1982:133).

Other researchers have considered safety to be part of the overall concept of living standards. In his first poverty survey, Townsend (1979) used the lack of child safety as an indicator of poverty, one of the 60 indicators used to measure deprivation in way of life being 'no safe place for a child to play' (p.1174). In their study of 'Poor Britain', Mack and Lansley (1985) specifically focused on aspects of life which could be improved by increasing people's cash incomes, but stated that other aspects of life such as the physical environment, under which they included 'safety on the streets', were important features of living standards (p.156).

CHILD SAFETY IN THE AIFS AUSTRALIAN LIVING STANDARDS STUDY

The Institute's Australian Living Standards Study addresses levels of safety for both children and adults. In relation to children's safety, the study asked whether children had a safe place to play, safety going to and from school without an adult, safety for teenagers travelling to places of entertainment, and whether any member of the household, including children, had been the victim of a crime in the past three years.

The results reported here relate to the local government area of Berwick, an outer suburban area of Melbourne situated 30-40 kilometres to the south-east of the city centre.

Besides the specific questions described above, child safety emerged as an issue when parents were asked about the advantages and disadvantages of living in Berwick for children of a particular age, and also when they were asked why they chose to live in the area.

Parents' concerns about child safety covered a number of safety issues depending on the age of the child. They included fear of abduction, fear of sexual assaults, fear of violence by older children or by gangs of children of the same age, fear of safety on the roads, and fear of safety on public transport.

A safe place for children to play

From a list of 27 possible reasons, 27 per cent of families said that 'a safe place for children to play' was one of the three things that were most important to them when they were looking for a home to buy or rent. This reason ranked second among all reasons and was exceeded only by being 'close to schools', which itself may have contained a safety element.

Thus, safety for children ranks very highly in the considerations of parents in choosing a place to live: 'safety and security played a big part in our decision'; 'it was important to find a place relatively violence free'; 'when the house was purchased we had the children in mind, one bedroom each, close to schools, safe court to play in'.

In choosing their houses, Berwick families were generally successful in finding places that were safe for children. Eighty-one per cent of families where there was a pre-school or primary school aged child said that their house had a safe place for children to play outside. This implies, however, that one in five families did not have a safe place for their children to play, and 11 per cent of families with a pre-school or primary school child said they were very dissatisfied with the safety level when their children played outside. The results were not significantly different for renters and home- owners.

Safety going to and from school

Parents of children in primary school and in secondary school were asked how safe it was for their children to get to and from school without an adult.

Eighty per cent of parents of primary school children under ten years said either that it was 'not very safe' (50 per cent) or 'moderately safe' (30 per cent) for the child to get to and from school without an adult. Parents of primary school children ten years and older were somewhat less likely to say that there were safety problems, with 64 per cent of parents saying that it was 'not very safe' or 'moderately safe'. Parents of girls aged ten or older were more likely to report safety problems (70 per cent) than parents of boys of this age (61 per cent).

Parents who said that it was 'moderately safe' or 'not very safe for their children to go to and from school without an adult were asked what the safety problems were. As indicated in Table 1, almost all parents of children under the age ten said that 'fear of kidnap, of being picked up in the street' was a safety problem. 'Fear of attack by someone in the street' was perceived as a safety problem by three quarters of the parents, although this was more an issue for girls (81 per cent) than for boys (73 per cent).

Safety going to primary schools
  Children <10
(198 cases)
Children 10+
(70 cases)
Has to cross busy roads 65 59
Violence on public transport 11 7
Fear of attack by someone in
the street
77 70
Fear of kidnap, being picked
up in the street
88 80
Other problems e.g. no footpaths 17 19

'Fear of attack' and 'fear of kidnap' were also major safety issues for primary school children aged ten and older, but these fears were more important for girls than for boys of this age; 82 per cent of mothers said 'fear of attack' was a problem for girls compared with 55 per cent for boys, and 84 per cent said 'fear of kidnap' was a problem for girls compared with 75 per cent for boys. 'Having to cross busy roads' was a safety concern of more than half the parents of children in both age groups.

This very great concern about the safety of children going to and from school has contributed to the situation where the majority of primary school children in the Berwick area (58 per cent) are taken to school by car.

A high proportion (58 per cent) of parents of secondary school children aged 12-14 years said either that it was 'not very safe' (12 per cent) or 'moderately safe' (46 per cent) for the child to go to school without an adult. However, this proportion dropped to 41 per cent for older children at secondary school, with parents of girls expressing more concern about safety (49 per cent compared with boys' parents, 32 per cent).

Among those expressing concern about the safety of the child's journey to school, 'fear of attack' (64 per cent) and 'fear of kidnap' (64 per cent) were again the major concerns for parents of secondary school children. Almost half of the parents (48 per cent) also expressed concerns about children having to cross busy roads. 'Violence on public transport' emerged as an issue for secondary school children aged 15 and older as reported by 41 per cent of parents who had safety concerns, although the number of children is possibly too small to draw any definite conclusions.

Teenagers travelling to entertainment

Teenagers at secondary school and teenagers who had left school were asked whether 'safety on public transport' or 'safety coming home at night' caused problems when they went out without their parents to places of entertainment. The same questions were put to parents of these teenagers.

Around two-thirds of boys and girls aged 12-14 years and of girls aged 15-19 years said that safety on public transport was a problem when going out, or would be a problem, except that they were always either picked up by their parents or came home in a taxi. Boys aged 15-19 years were far less likely than their female counterparts to view safety on public transport as a problem, with three-quarters of them saying that there were no such problems.

All teenagers tended to be more concerned about safety coming home at night, with more than three-quarters of boys and girls aged 12-14 years and of girls aged 15-19 years regarding this as a problem or a potential problem.

Percentages identifying safety problems for teenagers
  Child's
opinion
Parent's
opinion
Safety problem on
public transport
% %
Boys 12-14 years 62 71
Boys 15-17 years 27 69
Girls 12-14 years 68 75
Girls 15-17 years 60 81
     
Safety problem
at night
   
Boys 12-14 years 82 80
Boys 15-17 years 50 82
Girls 12-14 years 76 79
Girls 15-17 years 90 81

Once again, boys aged 15-19 years were less likely to regard safety coming home at night as problematic, with half of them saying that there were no such problems.

Parents of teenage children of all ages were concerned both about their safety on public transport and their safety at night. Parents of teenage boys aged 15-17 years had many more concerns about the safety of their children than the boys themselves, with 69 per cent of their parents expressing concerns about safety on public transport and 82 per cent about safety at night.

Safety problems in the area

When parents of children of all ages were asked to name the advantages and disadvantages of living in the area for families with children of that particular age, child safety was an important theme overall.

Some mothers of pre-school children considered that the area was 'relatively safe' while others expressed safety concerns such as the child 'could not play in her own front yard because of child molesting'.

Safety became a greater issue for primary school children as children became more independent from their parents. Safety was a concern in terms of: kidnap or assault by adults - 'streets unsafe to walk to friend's house or play out the front', 'danger of playing in the park from strangers'; danger from traffic - 'the Princes Highway needs an overpass so children can play with their friends on the other side without risking their lives'; danger from older children - 'great amount of gangs', 'it is not safe to allow children out at night'.

With children at secondary school level being old enough to travel around without adult supervision, child safety was an important issue. Parents talked about the advantages of living in their area as 'relative safety/freedom', 'safe area', 'safe streets', 'area not rough, no gangs roaming the streets'. Other parents talked about disadvantages in terms of safety problems: 'problem with safety on public transport'; 'a lot of young drivers in the area who drive too fast'; 'the area is a little rough and I am afraid to allow my daughter to do things on her own'; 'general roaming of streets by gangs makes my son disinterested in some activities'; 'they have to be in before dark'.

Secondary school children were also asked about the advantages and disadvantages of living in the area. Some children talked about the disadvantages in terms of concerns about their own personal safety: 'not being able to go out because of the people in the area'; 'the gangs in the area'; 'dangerous at night'; 'no places to hang around without worrying about older teenagers'.

Twenty-five per cent of all parents living in two major suburbs in the municipality reported 'gang fights' as being 'a major problem' or 'somewhat of a problem' in their neighbourhood.

When people were asked about what improvements they would like to see in their neighbourhood a number of people mentioned child safety concerns: 'more safe areas and equipment for children to play close to home'; 'I would like to see less traffic in our street, thus making it safe for children'.

Families were also asked about problems with transport and what improvements they would like to see in public transport. Here again, safety emerged as an issue: 'teenagers aren't safe on public transport and have to be picked up in the middle of the night from remote railway stations'; 'children can't go out at night'; 'I won't let them travel on public transport at night and we don't have a car'; 'due to lack of safety on public transport, the children especially are unable to use it as often as they would like to'; 'safety a priority'; 'need safety improvements'; 'need safe travel on trains'.

Families also expressed concerns about school buses: 'stop the overloading of school buses'; 'public transport is extremely poor for school kids going to school, in fact it is downright dangerous through overcrowding'; 'the school buses are extremely crowded, on return from school especially'.

Safety was also an issue when families were asked what improvements they would like in the roads in the area, particularly in roads around schools: 'we need bike paths for children, separate from the roadway'; 'we need better footpaths and bike paths close to and near home to walk with the children'; 'we need bike paths on the routes children usually take to school'; 'the school crossing should have a lollipop lady'; 'I would like a bridge or traffic lights across the main road that my children have to cross to school'; 'I want a pedestrian crossing and traffic lights in [Kidds Road, Doveton] because there are a lot of cars and little children crossing to play in the park'; 'we need pedestrian crossings for children coming and going to school'.

Crime

Although parents expressed strong concerns about safety, very few crimes were reported against young people under 18 years of age. Four of the six people who had experienced a serious assault had been young males between the ages of 17 and 19 years. One young male was assaulted at Dandenong Railway station, another in Dandenong Shopping Centre. One primary school aged child had been sexually assaulted.

SAFETY IN BETTER CITIES

It is obvious from this discussion that parents and their children in this outer suburban area attach a very high degree of importance to the safety of children and young people. Safety ranks highly in their reasons for choosing somewhere to live and, therefore, must have a strong bearing on the type of development that is occurring in outer suburban areas. The secure backyard is not just a place to keep the dog and grow a few vegetables. It is a secure place for young children to play.

However, home is often seen as a fortress; parents and most children have a very low level of confidence in a guarantee of safety away from the immediate home environment. Children must be driven to and from primary school because of the fear of assault or abduction. Young people cannot travel on public transport without fear of harassment or assault by gangs, and this heavily restricts their capacity to participate in leisure and recreational activities. Young women feel this fear to a greater extent than young men. Driving behaviour is seen as endangering the lives of young children.

Generally it is not the natural environment that gives rise to safety problems. Rather, insecurity arises primarily from pathological human behaviour such as reckless driving, violence and sexual perversion.

In building better cities, there is a danger that solutions are sought only through better physical and architectural features. The Institute's research suggests that these features are ineffective if we do not feel secure from other people. Safety and security clearly need more attention if we are to provide opportunities for children and young people to develop fully their capacities. The impression is sometimes gained that medium density planning pays little attention to the need for secure play areas for young children. The secure backyard has a place for families with young children, and this option needs to be maintained as part of or in addition to medium density developments.

On the other hand, approaches to traffic calming, separation of roads and pedestrians and bicycle paths, often well-featured in medium density planning, would have a very obvious impact on improving the safety of the journeys that children make around their neighbourhoods. These features are desirable in both low and medium density planning.

Planning for better cities often seems to take existing public transport systems for granted. Insecurity for young people on public transport relates primarily to trains and railway stations. Stations are poorly lit and isolated places. The safety level of Dandenong Station, the central transport node of the region, came in for a deal of criticism from parents and young people in this study. Outside peak periods, smaller systems such as light rail could be used to bring passengers into busy and well-lit transport interchanges, rather than leaving them on existing railway stations. Light rail could also be used to bring passengers closer to their homes if it is included in the development plans of new areas.

DEALING WITH THE PERPETRATORS

Improving systems can provide greater security for children and young people in going about their normal activities away from home. However, they do not address the other side of the problem: reduction or elimination of the pathological behaviour which gives rise to safety problems in the first place. Many recent tragic occurrences show that no amount of safety and security measures can fully protect children from a determined perpetrator of violence or sexual perversion. While there may in fact be a greater incidence of assault on children within their own homes, for the majority where this is not a concern, the fear of assault outside is ever present and this fear is clearly restricting the activities of almost all children:

Childhood today is one of terror, of rules and regulations, of trusting no one. It used to be that if a kid was lost or scared, he or she could turn to a grown-up. Now, every adult must be viewed as someone who could harm as readily as help ... The casualty we can't calculate is the death of childhood itself. There is no penalty prescribed for the plunder of the carefree youth of our kids. Even the ones who escape the molesters and killers have been robbed of the right to discover the big wide world on their innocent terms. (Susan Kurosawa, The Australian Magazine, 26 September 1992.)

Reversing this situation means dealing with the perpetrators of attacks on children. Many in the area saw the solution in more police and a new police station was one of the highest priorities for families in one area of Berwick. However, we need to go further than this. We need to identify clearly the circumstances which lead people to act in this way and to develop programs of therapy, social support and correction which will change behaviour.

Research evidence shows that there are greater levels of violence and sexual assault in societies that 'legitimate' the violent approach. As Alder (1992) puts it, 'the extent to which we condone or allow violence in our society will affect the rate of violent crime' (p.274). Just as we have been providing strong messages that irresponsible driving is unacceptable with obvious success in the reduction of road fatalities, we need to be providing very strong messages indeed that attacks on children and the use of violence are also totally unacceptable.

Research has also shown that violence is used primarily by males as an expression of power over others. When this violence is perpetrated in the public sphere, the males involved tend to be younger, marginalised people (Alder 1992:270). In this context, we can take the 'fortress' approach of more police, stiffer penalties and locking our children away for their own protection, or we can put real effort into providing people with a sense of worth gained through productive activity rather than through expressions of violence. Unemployment is one of the major reasons for alienation and marginalisation in our society. When parents are unemployed, young people are more likely to question their own future in the mainstream of society. It seems extraordinary then that we seem to be accepting that after the recession, structural unemployment will be 7 or 8 per cent and that levels of inequality and marginalisation in our society will be higher than they are now.

REFERENCES

  • Alder, C. (1992), 'Violence, gender and social change', International Social Science Journal, May, pp.267-276.
  • Brownlee, H. (1991), Measuring Living Standards, AIFS Australian Living Standards Study Paper No.1, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Central Bureau of Statistics (1982), Survey of Level of Living, 1980, Central Bureau of Statistics, Oslo.
  • Holter, H. (1984), 'Scandinavian research on living conditions: some critical remarks', in Kjolsrod, L., Ringen, A., Skrede, K., and Vaa, M. (eds), Applied Research and Structural Change in Modern Society, Norwegian Institute of Applied Social Research, Oslo.
  • Mack, J. and Lansley, S. (1985), Poor Britain, Allen and Unwin, London.
  • Swedish Institute for Social Research (1992), The 1991 Swedish Level of Living Survey: Questionnaire, Stolkholm University, Stolkholm.
  • Townsend, P. (1979), Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living, Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  • UNICEF (1990), First Call For Children, UNICEF, New York.