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Family Matters article

May 2010

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The first set of articles in this edition of Family Matters considers aspects of place, including neighbourhood effects and the measurement of locational disadvantage - key issues in informing public policy - and discussion of place-based programs designed to ameliorate the impacts of disadvantage on children, families and communities.

Just as time etches its imprint on each life, place also leaves indelible impressions on individuals, their families and communities. Place can facilitate opportunity, or confine, limit and constrain. The complex interconnection of persons and places, and the processes that connect them, were highlighted by Bronfenbrenner and Crouter (1983) while elaborating their ecological model of development.

As Davey-Smith, Dorling, and Shaw (2001) in the UK and Vinson (2007) in Australia have argued, place can entrench disadvantage in ways that have enduring effects spanning generations. The social inclusion agenda in this and other countries particularly emphasises the importance of addressing entrenched, locational disadvantage (Hayes, Gray, & Edwards, 2008).

The first set of articles in this edition of Family Matters considers aspects of place, including neighbourhood effects and the measurement of locational disadvantage - key issues in informing public policy - and discussion of place-based programs designed to ameliorate the impacts of disadvantage on children, families and communities.

Edwards and Bromfield explore the factors in neighbourhoods that on the one hand protect children and families, and on the other place them at risk of a range of negative outcomes, especially related to child behavioural adjustment, mental heath and wellbeing. Focusing on hyperactivity, social adjustment (particularly with peers) and emotional symptoms, they compare and contrast those living in advantaged as opposed to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The article explores the explanatory value of factors such as sense of neighbourhood belonging and perception of safety in considering differences in social and emotional outcomes as a function of neighbourhood socio-economic standing.

Research on locational disadvantage increasingly informs public policy that is focused on reducing social exclusion. Policies and programs to address exclusion typically focus on addressing the impacts on children and families of living in neighbourhoods and communities facing entrenched disadvantage, and the limitation of opportunities that such circumstances too often carry. A key problem both for researchers, policy-makers and practitioners is the accurate identification of such areas of concentrated disadvantage. The article by Byron explores two linked problems. The first problem is the choice of the unit of analysis, or scale, to be used to identify disadvantaged locations. This a key concern, given the socio-economic diversity of many neighbourhoods around Australia. Areas of relative affluence may be in close proximity to areas of relative poverty, if not blended within the same location. Units of measurement such as postal areas (postcodes) may be too gross to identify disadvantaged locations. Byron's paper elegantly illustrates the complexities of deciding on the appropriate unit to identify disadvantaged locations. The second problem involves accounting for mobility, or migration of individuals in and out of a disadvantaged locale. The area may remain disadvantaged, but those living there may change quite frequently, with opportunities to move to more affluent suburbs arising, for example, as recently arrived migrants become settled and able to pursue better employment opportunities and, in turn, better housing options.

Ecological theory underpins the focus on place-based approaches to interventions to address disadvantage. The Pathways to Prevention project has been a groundbreaking Australian initiative. The report on which it was based (National Crime Prevention, 1999) had a major impact on thinking about the complex interwoven relationships between vulnerability and risk, and resilience and protection. The article by Freiberg, Homel and Branch in this edition describes the further development of the intervention project it stimulated in Inala, a suburb of Brisbane, Queensland. It specifically focuses on Circles of Care, a new approach to encouraging a closer synergy among families, schools and community agencies to facilitate positive developmental outcomes for children at risk. Grounded in developmental systems theory, the article addresses issues of very practical relevance to those delivering place-based interventions.

The paper that follows, by Muir et al., takes to a national level the consideration of place-based approaches to support families and facilitate the development of their children, summarising the findings from the evaluation of Communities for Children (CfC), an initiative under the Australian Government's Stronger Familles and Communities Strategy (SFCS). Again, the model evaluated has at its heart the coordination of the delivery of services provided by agencies that have contact with children who live in areas at considerably elevated risk of disadvantage. The key role in achieving a coordinated approach to service delivery in each of the 45 sites funded under the CfC initiative was assigned to a non-government (not-for-profit) organisation (the "facilitating partner"). The evaluation, based on a short-term longitudinal study - the Stronger Families in Australia (SFIA) study - analysed data from 10 of the 45 sites with CfC funding and a set of 5 contrast sites, comparable to the socio-economic status of the selected CfC communities. For the first time in Australia, the evaluation provided clear evidence of the early impacts of a large-scale, place-based approach to early intervention that is focused on families with young children. In addition to presenting the results of the impact analyses, Muir et al. explore the key elements contributing to the success of CfC - valuable information for those designing and delivering such interventions elsewhere.

The remaining articles in this edition focus on a range of topics related to the wellbeing of children and families. The first of these, by Olesen, Macdonald, Raphael, and Butterworth, uses data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) study to explore the prevalence of parental and family adversities that may increase the risk of mental health problems in children and young people. The authors signal future research directions particularly focused on identifying the characteristics that place families and their children at elevated risk of adversity.

The article by Graham and Fitzgerald examines the importance of involving children in decision-making processes following parental separation. They summarise the arguments and evidence for the importance of recognising and responding to the voices of children, and highlight some of the possible negative effects when they are overlooked. The authors suggest the need for a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of participation in key decisions on the one hand, and protection from possible harm on the other.

Two articles related to legal issues follow. The first, by Hilary Astor, examines the possible difficulties related to the concept of genuine effort in family dispute resolution (FDR), as spelled out in the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006. The second, by Ann Black, provides a balanced consideration of the arguments for and against the recognition of elements of Sharia law as it applies to family law matters. Black concludes that, at least for the present, the status quo should prevail.

The article by Summerfield, Young, Harman and Flatau explores the possible economic impacts on a range of typical families of social policy reforms in the areas of child support and Welfare to Work. Summerfield et al. consider the implications of their modelling for labour force participation of parents, and especially single mothers. The paper provides an interesting consideration of the balance of incentives and disincentives to participation. Given the protective effect of employment of parents on children's development, health and wellbeing, this is a valuable contribution to the policy debate.

The final article, by Catherine Caruana, provides a timely discussion of the responses of individuals, families and communities to catastrophic events. She focuses on the likely short- and long-term effects of the adversities that follow such events, and particularly considers the impacts on children and adolescents, as well as the potential for "spill-over" to those not directly affected by the crisis or catastrophe. The potential for families to be both a site of such transmission and the locus of recovery is an important insight.

I commend this edition of Family Matters to you. It provides a timely exploration of the interconnection of family and place, along with several other articles addressing issues of key contemporary concern.


  • Bronfenbrenner, U., & Crouter, A. C. (1983). The evolution of environmental models in developmental research. In P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.) & W. Kessen (Ed.), Handbook of child development: Vol. 1. History, theories, and methods (pp. 357-414). New York: Wiley.
  • Davey-Smith, G., Dorling, D., & Shaw, M. (2001). Poverty, inequality and health in Britain 1800-2000: A reader. Bristol: The Policy Press.
  • Hayes, A., Gray, M. C., & Edwards, B. (2008). Social inclusion: Origins, concepts and key themes. Canberra: Social Inclusion Unit, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
  • National Crime Prevention. (1999). Pathways to prevention: Developmental and early intervention approaches to crime in Australia: Full report. Canberra: National Crime Prevention, Attorney-General's Department.
  • Vinson, T. (2007). Dropping off the edge: The distribution of disadvantage in Australia. Richmond: Jesuit Social Services/Catholic Social Services.