Developing coherent community support networks


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1994


This article discusses one of the nine priority issues identified by the National Council of the International Year of the Family: To address the needs of families facing personal crises, including grief and loss, troubled relationships, alcohol and drug abuse and natural disasters. It is a companion article to an article by Lawrie Moloney on the responses to personal crises by therapists and professional counsellors which appears in this issue of Family Matters. Eldridge's article looks at the broader context and focuses upon the impact on families of structural inequalities and social change. It is not so concerned with the crises but the development of coherent community support networks, particularly for families. The author argues that: 'Informal supports within families and local communities, networks of local community services and government programs all contribute to the well being of families. When families are experiencing crises these supports can assist in many ways. Unfortunately, they do not always work in the best interests of some families. We need to address fragmented social policies and encourage the development of cohesive policies at a national, state and local level. These should then provide the framework for the planning and delivery of well focused, accessible and affordable programs to local communities'.

It is amazing how time and experience diminish ideological certainty. For me to have written in the past a positive article about the role of therapists in assisting families facing personal crises, would have been an unforgivable breach of ideological purity. After all, as one of the oldest youth workers in captivity, I should be the sworn enemy of therapists. As mods were to rockers, skinheads to police, punks to yuppies, bogans to surf rats, so are youth workers to therapists. Surely, I would have thought, the strong individual focus of clinical psychology and psychiatry is just a tool of conservatives for blaming individuals for the damages wrought by structural inequalities. What people needed was not therapy, but equitable access to information and resources!

Well, as previously suggested, ideological certainty is tempered by experience. Twenty years of working with young people and families whose personal relationships have been devastated by internal conflict, and/or external pressures, has impressed upon me the need for more comprehensive and coherent responses to family crises. People do need access to information and resources, they also need personal support, formal and informal networks and appropriate therapy where required.

This article discusses one of the nine priority issues identified by the National Council of the International Year of the Family: 'To address the needs of families facing personal crises, including grief and loss, troubled relationships, alcohol and drug abuse and natural disasters.'

In a companion article in this edition of Family Matters, Lawrie Moloney, from La Trobe University, deals with the responses to these crises by therapists and professional counsellors. My article looks at the broader context and focuses upon the impact on families of structural inequalities and social change. It is not so concerned with the crises but the development of coherent community support networks, particularly for families.

Contextual Chaos

As Australia moves closer to the 21st Century we are experiencing levels of technological, social, cultural and political change unparalleled this century. This change is every bit as far reaching as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, and in some ways we have tried to deal with the dilemmas of this second, technologically based, revolution with the systems and ideologies created for the first.

For many families, and individuals, the speed of change has created confusion and disenchantment: confusion about issues such as parent-child relationships, gender roles, cultural changes, economic restructuring and labour market reforms; disenchantment primarily focused on the apparent inadequacy of the social and political solutions proposed to respond to our changed and changing environment.

The result is significant individual and collective stress, particularly for economically and socially disadvantaged families. As well as having to cope with their internal concerns, disadvantaged families have to cope with the chaos of broader social contexts. The dismantling of locally-based support services over recent years, unemployment inequitably impacting upon some families, restricted access to affordable housing and recent reductions in the extent and capacity of health care and welfare systems exacerbates crises for these families.

Economic Versus Social Solutions

One of the major factors influencing the deterioration of our community support networks is our current obsession with economic considerations. The pervasive influence of economic rationalism has so affected our social policy and programs that it may take years to correct the imbalance. Economic, rather than human, concerns are at the centre of the planning and implementation of our education, health, welfare, employment and housing policies. Whilst this may not be publicly stated (or even fully intended) by government it is certainly the primary focus in the interpretation of policy and delivery of programs through our social institutions.

I am not suggesting that we do not have to be accountable in our economic administration, however it is naive to suggest that the 'market' can satisfy all needs of policy. John Gray, a British political philosopher, has recently published a book criticising economic rationalism. In it he attacks what he calls the delusion at the core of the New Right. The market will not satisfy all our needs. It will not satisfy our need for public good - like a hospitable and safe environment, cultural and artistic activities accessible to all, sound health or welfare policies. Gray suggests that in certain circumstances an over enthusiasm for market solutions may be simply destructive.

This is certainly the case if we use as an example changes to our state education systems. We are developing a utilitarian approach to education. Rather than education for life and vocation, we are experiencing a narrowing down of educational programs to focus on 'market productive' or 'vocationally functional, subjects. There is increased emphasis on science, mathematics and commerce, with less priority given to arts and humanities courses. This is not only a search for subject balance, it is a move against what are increasingly perceived to be 'soft' or 'irrelevant' areas. On top of this, support positions such as student welfare coordinators are being sacrificed because of 'budgetary considerations' and teachers are teaching more classes with higher numbers of students. Budgetary issues are particularly impacting upon schools located in economically disadvantaged areas as a 'user pays' mentality gains momentum.

Instead of attempting to evaluate the educational outcomes for students of these changes we are subjected to endless discussions on class sizes and dollars spent per student compared to other states. Student needs, especially those of students struggling to cope, are passed over as we negotiate school amalgamations and closures. Local and family needs are overlooked as we ponder over the minutia of economic detail.

Another important area where economic obsessions cloud social and political judgment is our unemployment crisis. We have been locked into debates around economic restructuring and labour market reform. The only solutions to high unemployment proposed so far have been restructuring and subsequent economic recovery. This thinking is being seriously questioned. No real evidence points to the long-term unemployed significantly benefiting from the recovery. This is particularly true for those who lack formal education and training. More radical proposals need to be explored which ignore the ideological blinkers that have prevented useful social outcomes being achieved over recent years.

There is a growing disillusionment in the community with economic policies that neglect social concerns. Professor Leonie Sandercock, of Macquarie University, has called for planning that provides for both economic growth and community stability, rather than, as some economists argue, a choice between the two. While economic restructuring might offer stimulating challenges to governments and the business community, it has been a crippling experience for displaced workers, their families and communities. It results in diminished control over our lives and is contributing to social chaos and increasing resentment.

Social Infrastructure of Local Communities

The broad economic debates, and the prevalence of the ideology of economic rationalism, is of more than passing interest to local communities. It has contributed to a shifting of the interest of State and Commonwealth governments away from local affairs and away from the concerns of local residents and their families.

Prior to the publication early in 1994 of 'Developing Australia', commonly referred to as the Kelty Report on Regional Development, little interest had been shown about local and regional issues. Unfortunately, even this report focused on regional Australia's contribution to the nation's economy, and showed scant attention to human services and support networks.

Changes have occurred at a local level which affect the ways that families operate. This together with broad agenda changes has meant considerable shifts in the internal composition and external supports required by Australian families.

According to the 1991 Census, nearly 90 per cent of 15- 19- year-olds were living with their parents. Increased school retention rates, more students in tertiary and higher education, the later age of marriage and high rates of youth unemployment have contributed to more young people remaining in the parental home for longer periods (Hartley and Wolcott, forthcoming). Between 1979 and 1992, the percentage of 20-24-year-olds living with parents increased from 46 per cent to 55 per cent for males, and 25 per cent to 40 per cent for females.

The rise in young people staying on with the family unfortunately coincides with a decline in local community networks for youth and children. A reduction in sport and recreation programs run by schools, fewer social groups operated locally by churches, and a 'downsizing' of the number of youth and children's programs auspiced by voluntary agencies means that families are having to be personally responsible for organising more social activities, or having to cope with the boredom and inactivity of their children. Unemployment further complicates life for some families because many unemployed young people are unable to fain access to appropriate training and employment programs and family support becomes pivotal.

The reduction of activity-based options at the local level is exacerbated by a reduction in other community supports. Child care centres, housing and welfare programs, community health centres and other health services are facing funding cuts, and are often forced to consider charging more for their services. This is especially true in rural areas and impacts most significantly upon disadvantaged families.

Without adequate social infrastructure at a local level the demands placed on families can be unrealistic. Local support networks provide options for families which are alert to real issues and can draw on informal as well as formal supports. Our lack of attention to supporting local communities has far reaching effects. Only by providing appropriate networks of family support at the local level can we ensure that families have the options and opportunities necessary for survival and growth.

Responding to Family Crisis

All families, and individuals, need to draw upon community resources at various times throughout their lives. This is even more the case in times of crisis and distress. Partnerships between family, friends and neighbours, community and government services are the basics of our community support. Informal supports are the critical foundation; however, should circumstances deteriorate, the involvement of professional services may be desirable. If this is so, then care needs to be taken to ensure that both their location and contextual relevance is appropriate.

Whatever the crisis confronting the family, one thing is certain - initial supports should be locally based. The best preventative measures are those located within informal networks that can be used to assist in resolving the crisis and preventing a recurrence. At this point education and self-help options are most appropriately introduced. Sharing common dilemmas (for example, in parenting) can diffuse crises and inform future actions. Should professional interventions be required, local introduction to practitioners is more likely to be welcomed by clients than a cold referral to an 'outside' agency. Enormous energy and resources should be focused on this localised support to prevent any breakdown of networks which would lead to families shifting location and losing neighbourhood support.

Working in the homelessness field has strengthened my belief that any break with local networks is the critical point in accelerating and extending a personal or family crisis.

The other issue of importance for professional interventions is that of contextual relevance. Too often in a counselling relationship, issues broader than the functioning of individuals, or the family, are not adequately considered. Some counsellors work within a vacuum and seem to operate as though families also live in some sort of suspended animation, devoid of sub-cultural, cultural or local context. Whilst, obviously, this is not a universal truth it is essential that professional counsellors play a more significant part in the development and maintenance of coherent local community support networks.

Coherent Family Support Networks

In 1992 The Salvation Army released a report Hard Times - Families in Crisis, which identified that Australian families were 'doing it hard' and that many families who had never previously sought help from welfare agencies now lacked the resources to cope on a daily basis. This was one of many studies at that time, and subsequently, which voiced this concern. Poverty, unemployment, family breakdown, family violence and growing homelessness are major social issues confronting our community. Our response, as a community, to these problems has largely been shallow and inadequate.

Families in Australia which experience crises mostly seek support from their informal networks. When this is found to be inadequate, a process which can take some time, they are likely to approach a welfare agency. In other cases their first formal support agency is the Family Court where the often services of the court are involved at a point of time beyond any possibility of resolving the crisis.

Where families approach the welfare system for support they face the very real possibility of limited and inadequate responses to their crises. Often the initial contact is with an emergency relief agency whose narrow focus limits appropriate intervention or referral. The breakdown of the family is one of the major reasons for people seeking assistance with material aid, personal support or accommodation. They are likely to receive a food parcel. They are not likely to receive counselling, or referral, which would enable them to deal with troubled relationships, grief and loss, or marital breakdown.

The reasons for these inadequate responses are varied. Some suburbs do not have the range of services necessary to meet local needs. Where they do have the services, the intake procedures may be too restrictive, or the demand for services may be too high. This is certainly the case when seeking support for victims of sexual , physical or emotional abuse. Families or individuals needing counselling for abuse will often find housing, but not counselling. Where counselling is available it is invariably time limited or costly. Rarely are responses adequate. The same is true,in most states, in relation to drug and alcohol abuse counselling. Too narrow a range of program options, particularly for women with children, restricts the possibility of an appropriate outcome.

We need to commit community resources and attention to developing more coherent family support networks. These would incorporate local, or regional, crisis care services whose role would be to ensure that the most appropriate referrals are made to longer term support or accommodation programs. Assessments currently made by referral services are poorly informed and lead to families moving through a range of inappropriate programs. Families in each local area should also have access to:

- Local education and self help groups - Formal family counselling services - Specialist counselling programs, including grief counselling and suicide support - Efficient child protection services - Accommodation and care services for children and adolescents unable to live with their families - Good and affordable child care - A range of housing programs for families who are homeless - Refuges for women escaping domestic violence - Counselling and supported housing for the victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse - A range of respite programs for families - Services for family members with special needs - Long-term options which address the needs of both parents and children - Appropriate supports for the aged - Effective networks for human service workers to develop and maintain coherent local service structures

This list is not comprehensive but indicative of the network of supports necessary at the local and regional level to support families. Coordination is essential to avoid duplication or inappropriate referral. Few local areas would have the full range of necessary services; however, we must work towards building strong local frameworks to prevent family breakdown and deteriorating social environments.

Changing the Public Policy Debate

The development of comprehensive local networks of support will require changing priorities at the community and government level. The International Year of the Family presents a prime opportunity to recognise and properly value the vast contribution to economic, social and cultural life which families make. According to the discussion paper of the National Council of The International Year of the Family, The Heart of the Matter, this contribution of families is largely hidden, seriously under recognised and under valued.

To restore an even balance between economic and social policies, we need to place family policies at the centre of public policies. Not only programs generally regarded as 'family policies' like child care services, family support centres or family law, but central public policy areas such as economic policy, employment, education and training, regional development, tax and benefit policies, housing, health and the environment. These policies are central to life in Australia. They affect families and are critical in their impact on all Australians.

Without establishing a balance between family and other public policies, it will be impossible to consider the needs of families in managing social change. Failure to do so will have significant economic costs and will minimise our capacity to maintain a workforce able to deal with the changing international labour market.

Those involved in delivering social programs need to advocate for family-focused policies and for a rational model of national policy development inclusive of broad community issues, not just narrow economic concerns.

Managing Change

Given the rate of change in Australia, and internationally, it is essential that we develop a shared vision of what kind of community we desire. Change can be managed but not without collectively agreed goals.

At the moment the dominance of the economic agenda gives little attention to managing change or planning for the future. Market and ideologically driven priorities work against competent human resource management.

Changing the focus of public policy development to include family policy issues will assist in managing change, minimising its impact on families and individuals, assist in bringing local issues in to the broader policy debates and offer some hope for disadvantaged families. At present, families in crises only feature in public and political discussions when issues are sensationalised. Rational consideration and planning around the management of change will instil some sense of positivity into what are essentially remote and negative debates for many Australians.

Symptoms of Unmanaged Change

No community can experience change without cost. This cost is more significant when it is not accompanied by a set of responsible and equitable social policies.In our community, the symptoms of unmanaged social change include increasing family violence, family breakdown, issues of public safety, inequitable geographic and socio-economic distribution of long term unemployment, growing homelessness, a rise in mental illness, the emergence of a 'new poor' and generational poverty.

With recent resource re-allocation in our social programs we need to beware of significant changes which are unmanaged, masquerading as managed change. A prime example of this is recent changes, in some states, to child protection provisions. Long standing service models of statutory protection for children in danger have been changed to provide 'more effective and less intrusive' models of care. The reality is that fewer interventions are being made and children are at risk. In many cases no real options for caring for these children exist as programs have been closed or 'redeveloped'. I am not suggesting that child protection networks did not need to improve: however, current changes seem to be more about cost savings than adequate service provision.

It is time for the community to be adequately consulted about the re-development of our social programs and policies. Only partnerships between governments and the community can deliver programs and policies capable of meeting social needs in changing environments.

Effective partnerships implementing equitable social policy can assist in managing change within any society. We must explore the reality of social disadvantage in our community and work towards the creation of a community which includes, affirms and provides opportunities for all.


Informal supports within families and local communities, networks of local community services and government programs all contribute to the well being of families. When families are experiencing crises these supports can assist in many ways. Unfortunately, they do not always work in the best interests of some families.

We need to address fragmented social policies and encourage the development of cohesive policies at a national, state and local level. These should then provide the framework for the planning and delivery of well focused, accessible and affordable programs to local communities.

Families in crisis should have access to both personal, family and community developmental programs of a high quality. Where appropriate they should be delivered by professionally competent staff who work co-operatively with other workers and agencies.

International Year of the Family is a critical year for promoting and developing sound family oriented policies and programs. Change is difficult. For individuals, families and nations. As much as possible it must be managed so that there are fewer casualties and an equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. this requires both leadership and the ability to listen to all interest groups within our community.

Inequality breeds conflict and a community environment not conducive to the personal, social or economic growth necessary for us to prosper as a nation. We avoid creating chaos by facing the social realities of change and building a community with opportunities for all acceptance of mutual responsibilities - a community of families equipped and eager for face the 21st Century.