Copyright Luisa Nocella, 1996. One copy of this paper can be made for the purpose of personal, non-commercial use, subject to proper attribution to the author.

Restorative Family Services:

A New Approach to Family Assistance or Mutton Dressed up as Lamb?

The argument presented in this paper concerns the nature and provision of family support services in Australia. Within the limits of this paper it is not possible to undertake a discussion of the ideological and theoretical underpinnings of the family. While this is certainly relevant to any analysis of family services, the intention of this research is to provide an overview of Australian family services in an historical context and to raise some questions regarding their current provision.

The primary emphasis of this paper is on the development during the late 1980s and early 1990s of services intended to maintain, strengthen and increase the functionality of the existing family unit, regardless of its form. These are referred to as restorative family services. The main thesis of this paper contends that although such services are increasing in popularity due to their emphasis on supporting rather than undermining the family, a close examination of current restorative family services indicates that with regard to the types of families targeted, the eligibility criteria for such services and the context of service provision, restorative family support services are not markedly different from the highly selective, remedial and treatment focused services of the past decades. Furthermore, the paper asserts that while restorative family services are delivered as a subset of statutory protective services, their intention to strengthen and develop families to the point of self-sufficiency is likely to go unfulfilled. Finally, it is proposed that restorative family services be developed at a community level which are clearly separate from protective child welfare services, made available to all families requiring extra assistance and which do not include any covert forms of state surveillance or intrusion. It is only through such an unconditional approach to family support that families of all types can truly be strengthened in their ability to develop autonomy and self sufficiency.

Family support services are not a clearly defined phenomenon. Included with them is a wide range of material, practical and social programs and services to meet the diverse needs of families. For the purpose of this discussion, however, family support services are defined for reasons of consistency and simplicity, to be those services directly targeting and intervening within the family unit rather than those directed at any particular member or specific issue. Also excluded from this discussion is the vast array of government (usually Commonwealth) subsidies, benefits and taxation concessions provided to different family types. A detailed examination of Australian family policy is beyond the scope of this research and would require a rigorous analysis at both the federal and state levels in order to fully discern the complexity and discrepancies in policy responses to Australian families.(1) However, the support service developments discussed in this paper strongly reflect social policy responses to Australian families, and therefore provide a beginning understanding of the ways in which families have been supported over the past century.

A Brief History of Family Support Services in Australia

Traditional family support services in Australia, as in other Western industrialised countries, were historically intended to assist those families who, for various reasons, were unable to meet their economic and social obligations with regard to traditional family functions. While family support services prior to the 1940s were directed almost solely at families in crisis, the nature of such services can be categorised on the basis of the following characteristics: those services aimed at providing minimal support to families most in need of assistance in carrying out their expected functions (usually in the form of emergency financial assistance and home help services), and those services directed at serious problems (such as delinquency and juvenile crime and the needs of groups of individuals such as abandoned children, single mothers, the aged and invalid etc.), (Shroud, 1973; ACOSS, 1974a, 1974b; Grimshaw, 1983).

When looking at families in an historical context, the unique aspects of the Australian experience must not be overlooked. By this I mean the colonial history of Australia which saw the early Australian family as a small nuclear unit cut off from the assistance of extended family networks and dense kinship ties. As in other industrialised countries, it was expected that any crisis with which it was faced would be borne by the family unit through the 'pooling together' of all members' efforts and the sacrificing of individual interests for the greater good of the whole (Alexander, 1983: Grimshaw, 1983). Given the absence of extended family members and resources as well as the resultant lack of intergenerational structures and processes from which to draw, the early colonial family while faced with new challenges and previously unknown hardships, was heavily dependent on its own meagre resources. With regard to the type of support services available to such early Australian families, Alexander (1983) states that a loose network of non-government agencies developed at the turn of the century, to meet the minimum basic needs of struggling families. The 'minimum' was certainly the feature of these agencies. As Grimshaw (1983:36) states, 'although most towns established rudimentary public support systems, charity networks were mean spirited, ineffectual and intended only for the assistance of the destitute'.

The minimalist nature of early Australian family support services can also be seen in the passing of the Harvester Judgement and the consequent introduction of the basic wage in 1907 in that the basic wage was intended to keep a man, his wife and three children in 'frugal comfort'. However, the significance of the establishment of a 'fair and reasonable wage' must not go unrecognised in that the family unit was determined to be the most appropriate measure on which to base such a wage (Jamrozik 1994). While this demonstrates the way in which Australian families at the turn of the century were supported through labour market provision rather than through any significant degree of direct government intervention, the introduction of the basic wage also marked an important development in the social recognition of the family and in the responsibility of the wider society to consider the financial requirements of families.

The narrow range of services provided to families by the state and non-government sector in the first half of this century included income security, institutional care for particular groups, ie, the disabled, single mothers, orphans etc., or through health, education and housing services. Not only were such services highly targeted and uncoordinated, they were also criticised as being ameliorative and remedial, and severely lacking in any sort of preventative focus (ACOSS, 1974a, 1974b).

In addition to the narrow focus of family support services in Australia prior to the 1940s, these services like other welfare services were largely selective, in that not only were they reserved for the most severely disadvantaged, but also in that the charity and voluntary organisations as well as the small number of government bodies in existence provided assistance to families using the highly subjective criterion of deservedness (ACOSS, 1974a, 1974b; Alexander, 1983).

Family support services during the first part of this century were primarily directed at an economically deprived clientele and problems addressed were closely related to economic need. The 1940s saw increased federal government involvement in the provision of more generous and less selective income security and other forms of financial assistance. In response to this government involvement in the financial needs of families, family welfare agencies began to redefine their purpose and functions to incorporate family problems of a more interpersonal nature. This resulted in an increase of family services focusing on emotional problems, interpersonal relationships and family adjustment, parent-child problems and material problems. By the 1950s these personal family services were numerous and well established (Kadushin, 1974; Alexander, 1983).

This increase in the direct provision of support services to families was a marked change from the previous narrowly defined and practically oriented assistance offered to families. Nevertheless, such services retained a highly remedial and pathological focus and tended to 'treat' individual family members rather than address the family unit as a whole (ACOSS, 1974a,1974b).

Through the development of personal family support services and the increasing professionalisation of family problems there became growing interest in the rights of children, which culminated in expanded responsibility for the protection of children from abuse or neglect. From the 1960s onwards, the involvement of child welfare services in the establishment of foster care, substitute and institutional care agencies was significant, and by the 1970s alternative and substitute care services were booming (Kadushin, 1974; Ochiltree, 1990; Schuerman, Rzepnicki and Littell, 1994).

The Decline of the Traditional Family

Throughout history, the stability of the traditional family unit has been reliant on the maintenance of a balance between individualism and social responsibility, between individual liberation and strong communal ties (Berger, 1995). However, from the 1960s onwards, increasing maternal employment, rising divorce rates and increasing longevity caused Leftists and radical feminists to wage war on the family, declaring that both the repressive family unit and its ethos were no longer viable or desirable (Ash, 1973; Blankenhorn, Bayme and Elshtain, 1990). An integral aspect of the growing dissatisfaction with the traditional family and the increased pressure for the public recognition and endorsement of alternative family types was strongly motivated and reinforced by feminist lobbies who by the 1970s had succeeded in drawing public attention to the extent of violence against women and child occurring in families (Pinkney, 1995). Consequently, governments of almost every Western nation came under public pressure to establish, maintain and finance supplementary and alternative structures to the family and to provide for an increase in the number and range of intervention mechanisms in the previous confines of family life (Berger, 1995). As has been mentioned, the increasing support for and development of child protection and alternative care services was an important characteristic of family support services during this period.

The 1970s and 1980s were characterised by a backlash from conservative supporters of the traditional family who directed strong criticism at the increasing involvement of government bodies and welfare agencies in the private affairs of the family, stating that governments' support of individualism was taking precedence over family commitment and responsibility. Such assertions precipitated the belief still common today that traditional family structures and values were declining due to the erosion of commitment within and support for the family, with the effect of rising social ills such as delinquency, crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency (Ash, 1973; Berger, 1985; Blankenhorn, Bayme and Elshtain, 1990; Bartholomew, 1995; Berger, 1995; Pinkney, 1995).

This growing concern over the perceived decline of the traditional family and the reduction in moral fibre generally saw increasing demand in the 1970s and 1980s for services aimed at 'strengthening' the family. There was increased pressure on governments to provide services aimed at supplementing, reinforcing and preserving the family unit (Family Services Association of America, 1968; ACOSS, 1974a, 1974b; Eastman, 1989; Department for Family and Community Services, 1996). While previous public large-scale intervention in family life had been strongly criticised as undermining the autonomy and privacy of the family unit, the late 1970s and early 1980s were characterised by public outcry for an increase in family support services on the basis that such services would reverse the decline in family values and social ills brought about by the erosion of the tradition family (Blankenhorn, Bayme and Elshtain, 1990; Council for the International Year of the Family, 1994a; 1994b). So, unlike the services previously provided which 1 have suggested comprised of two kinds (services for families in severe crisis and intervention in what were deemed 'dysfunctional' families), the significant number of family support agencies which began to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s comprised of programs and services aimed at preserving the family unit, keeping families together and strengthening families (Department for Human Services and Health, 1995; Department for Family and Community Services, 1996; Anglican Family Services, undated).

This shift in service focus was also largely motivated by growing concern on the part of service providers and the community. in general over the failure of substitute care and alternative placement services to adequately provide for children who had been removed by the state from their biological home due to abuse or neglect on the part of another family member. While foster care, residential care and group homes were found in the 1980s and 1990s to encompass their own problems, the rising number of multiple placements, instances of further abuse and even deaths occurring while children were under state guardianship, resulted in increasing disillusionment concerning the effectiveness and appropriateness of removing children from their biological families (ACOSS, 1974a, 1974b; Kadushin, 1974). This, coupled with rising fear over the future of the traditional families, culminated in strong community demand for services aimed at restoring the family rather than undermining it.

In order to further discern the nature and expected benefits of this form of family support, it is necessary to examine in more detail the motivation, scope and objectives of such services. In doing this, the extent to which such services differ from previous family support services needs to be examined.

Restorative Family Support Services

I will refer to this new service type as 'restorative family support services', due to its strong emphasis on improving family functioning and ensuring the maintenance and continuity of the existing family unit, regardless of its form. Such services include family preservation services, which are generally reserved for use by families at risk of having children removed due to abuse or neglect (Schuerman, 1994). However, most restorative family support services address a wide range of issues including: parenting, parental relationships, group work and self help programs, practical assistance in home chores, budgeting and financial or material aide, as well as respite care, day care or out of school hours care assistance.

The most notable aspect of this service type is its renewed emphasis on supporting and strengthening families rather than the previous foci of family support services on either emergency relief for those most in need, professional state sanctioned intervention in 'dysfunctional' families, or on services aimed at protecting children and serving their best interests, even if this meant alternative care outside the biological family home. While foster care and other forms of alternative care are still heavily utilised within the child welfare field, restorative family support services promote themselves as preventative rather than remedial, in that, wherever possible, families are assisted either prior to, or as a means of avoiding, breakdown or the removal of children into state care. In this way, assistance is directed at the family as a whole through the provision of a range of services aimed at strengthening the family unit, rather than solely at ensuring the protection of individual members.

In South Australia, the Department for Family and Community Services retains responsibility for statutory functions with regard to children. However, in accordance with the Funder-Purchaser-Provider model of service provision, this Department also provides the majority of funding for a number of restorative family support services. Such services include the Strengthening Families Program (administered by the Port Adelaide Central Mission), the Keeping Families Together Program (administered by Catholic Family Services) and the Family Connections Program(2) (administered by Anglican Community Services).

These three programs, while being specific to South Australia, are characteristic of restorative family support services in general, due to their overt emphasis on intervening in family life (usually within the context of the family home rather than the agency or other public office) with the explicit goal of strengthening the family household and preventing family breakdown (or at least reducing the likelihood of such dissolution) (Cannan, 1992; Schuerman et al., 1994). Programs of a similar nature exist throughout Australia and overseas, eg., Families First in Victoria and the Homebuilder and Maryland Programs in the United States (Department for Family and Community Services, undated). A brief overview of the purpose and functions of the three programs can be seen in Figure 1.

Overview of Service Characteristics

As Figure 1 illustrates, restorative family services are characterised by a strong emphasis on increasing the functionality of families, maintaining and enhancing the existing family unit through the provision of a holistic service addressing a wide range of practical and educational supports. Not only do such services emphasise keeping families together in the physical sense, but also the provision of aids and services intended to increase families' own ability to effectively deal with problems as they arise in the future.

The activities undertaken by the restorative family support services listed in Figure 1 indicate three primary types of service provision. The first of these is directed towards parenting and parenting responsibilities, ie, the provision of education and the fostering of skills related to child rearing, as well as assistance in securing respite through child care facilities. In addition to child focused services (which are provided almost exclusively to parents) Figure 1 also indicates the emphasis of restorative family services on the provision of personal supports- both professional and informal -to parents, ie, personal counselling and volunteer supporters intended to form meaningful relationships with clients. The third type of assistance is in the form of practical or material aid. Such assistance includes: home help services, ie, food preparation, washing etc.; budgeting assistance and financial advice; and the provision of material aid such as food parcels/vouchers, household items (ie, heaters blankets etc.), children's clothes and baby needs.

The emphasis of restorative family services on child focused, personal and material or practical assistance, demonstrates the way in which these services are effectively a culmination of the types of support services which have been provided to Australian families over the past 100 years, ie, material aid (dominant during the first part of the century), personal services (from the 1940s-1960s) and child centred services (throughout the 1960s-1980s).

Drawing on such models and theoretical perspectives as: the Strengths Perspective (developed by such writers as Maluccio, Sherman and White in the late 1970s and early 1980s), the Systems Ecological Perspective (developed by such writers as Pincus and Minahan, Germaine and Getterman and Perlman in the 1980s), Cognitive Behaviour Theory, Crisis Theory and Family Theory/Tberapy (Department for Family and Community Services, undated), restorative family support services recognise the potential benefits that family life entails for all members and encourage client families to foster such benefits by addressing crises as a unit as a means of avoiding future family breakdown and dissolution.

Figure 1

Stated Purpose/ Aims

Forms of Assistance/ Intervention


.The mobilisation of informal caring resources to support vulnerable families.
.To strengthen and support families in caring for children.
.Improved family functioning.
.Fewer children removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care.
.Fewer adolescent children becoming homeless
.At-home personal counselling and information provision regarding parenting skills and behaviour management.
.Assistance in obtaining child care and respite care services.
.Training and linking of (volunteer) Parent Supporter with families requiring ongoing informal assistance.
.Voluntary group programs focusing on parenting issues, (separate groups for children/adolescents).
.Material assistance, including child and baby needs.


.Prevent and reduce out of home placement of children who have been or are suspected of having been abused, neglected, abandoned by their parents, in severe conflict with their parents and who are at risk of imminent placement due to family breakdown.
.Promote family self-sufficiency and reduce the need for protective services, crisis intervention and family support services by increasing parenting, life skills and coping abilities.
.Assist the return home of children and young people from placement.
.Placement prevention (and some family reunification) through the provision of at-home assistance in the form of personal support, counselling, skill-sharing, role modelling, with emphasis placed on parenting, budgeting, house hold chores and responsibilities.
.Six week intensive model in which workers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


.Seeks to preserve families through reunification.
.To assist the child and family to make the changes necessary for them to be able to live together and for the child to receive appropriate care from her/his parent(s).
.To improve overall family functioning; both in terms of relationships within the family unit and relationships between the family and the wider community.
.Reunification service.
.Counselling/family therapy.
.Educational information on child development, behaviour management and family functioning.
.In-home support for the child and family together with modelling of appropriate behaviours and management.
.Provision of practical home help services.
Assistance in the development of personal and community supports.

* Strengthening Families Program, Keeping Families Together, Family Connections.


Anglican Community Services (Undated) Eamily Connections Program: Information Sheet for Family and Community Services. Unpublished document.
Department for Family and Community Services (Undated) Keeping Families Together: Intensive Family Preservation Initiative. Unpublished document.
Nocella, L. (1996) Strengthening Families: External Evaluation Report, June 1995-July 1996. Unpublished document.

A New Approach to Family Assistance or Mutton Dressed up as Lamb?

The significant number of restorative family services being established throughout Australia and oversees, as well as the ongoing call by service providers and consumers alike for further services of this nature, lend weight to the assertion that such services are currently viewed as the family saving device of the '90s. While restorative family services are certainly different from the previous minimalist and individually-centred services of the 1960s and 1970s in terms of range of assistance and emphasis, ie, keeping families together rather than protecting the interests of individual members, how different are these services from the selective, remedial and treatment focused services of the past century?

The first thing to note in an analysis of restorative family services is that almost all of these are entirely or at least largely funded by statutory departments. While this is not a cause for concern in and of itself, the extent to which non-government services funded by state departments can avoid undertaking the role of statuary 'watchdogs' is highly questionable. To add to this, most restorative family services require referrals from statutory bodies (usually the funding body), and will only accept client families who have an ongoing social worker/case worker from the relevant department. The result is that only families experiencing crises severe enough to warrant the attention and involvement of statutory services are eligible for services intended to maintain, strengthen and enhance them. While the paradoxical nature of providing support services to recipients who would clearly have been best served through earlier intervention is not new (ACOSS, 1974a, 1974b), the continuation of such an approach in the context of strengthening and enhancing families who have broken down or are in grave danger of doing so is indicative of the lack of any beneficial change which has really occurred in supporting families through the provision of restorative family support services.

It is also important to consider the extent to which recipients of restorative family services, such as those mentioned, are voluntary clients. Given that most if not all clients require a referral from the relevant statutory agency with which they must already be involved, it would be hard to determine whether the clients of restorative family services are truly voluntary or whether they agree to such services as a means of avoiding further overt statutory intervention in their family situations. In this way, the emphasis within restorative family services on maintaining the existing family unit appears to be relevant and available only to those families at risk of family breakdown due to direct state intervention. Similarly, the emphasis of restorative families services on working with families in the context of their own homes may be viewed as intrusive and a further opportunity for statutory surveillance rather than as a means of working intensively with the family unit in surroundings comfortable to them, as is suggested by the providers of such services (Schuerman et al., 1994; Anglican Community Services, undated; Department for Family and Community Services, undated).

So, while restorative family services are promoted in the 90s as providing a new holistic approach to family support which is family friendly in its intention to enhance and strengthen families, close examination of the current provision of such services indicates that the minimalist approach to family assistance of the first half of this century is still evident, in that only those families most visibly in need of such assistance are eligible. To put it more clearly, families must (through the demonstration of such dysfunctional and anti-social behaviour that they warrant the intervention of the statutory authorities) breakdown to the extent that they require strengthening and maintaining, before such assistance will be provided.

Nor do restorative family support services vary greatly from the remedial and pathologically focused support services of the 1950s and 1960s, despite their professed difference of intention. As has been argued earlier in this paper, the referral practices and eligibility criteria of existing programs are largely in keeping with the family support services of 30 years ago, in which families perceived to be abnormal or dysfunctional were 'treated' by professional service providers.

It is not the intention of this thesis to discredit restorative family support services or to suggest that they are of no benefit to struggling families. Clearly, their emphasis on strengthening and enhancing the family, coupled with the vast array of practical and educational assistance provided, warrants encouragement and further development. However, the analysis provided suggests that the current provision of such services is both narrow and discriminatory in the extent to which services are targeted primarily at those families already receiving statutory welfare services.

How Should Families be Supported?

If restorative family services were to truly assist families, they would be required prior to statutory involvement, rather than brought in as a last resort, and must target all families to ensure that involvement with the service is of a truly voluntary nature. While direct family support services continue to operate as a subset of statutory authority, targeting only families in crisis, the stigmatising effects of such selective service provision are likely to undermine the restorative intention of these services by further alienating client families from the wider community and through continuing the implicit emphases of past services on the problems and abnormality of client families.

Not only does the strict targeting of restorative family support services negatively impact on client families, this form of historically consistent selectivity also denies support and strengthening services to those families who, while not placing children or other family members at risk, would directly benefit from services aimed at supporting and enhancing them. Any preliminary analysis of divorce rates and single parenthood in Australia indicates that families of all types and from all social strata break down. Yet, not all families who experience difficulties or breakdown are entitled to the benefits of restorative family services.

Restorative family support services must be clearly separate from statutory government departments if they are to truly strengthen and enhance families and assist them in the development of autonomy and self sufficiency. While it would be unreasonable to expect such services to fund themselves, there is no reason why partial or even total state funding of restorative family services must result in the direct overlap of these services with the statutory responsibilities of government departments. Surely, services directed at strengthening and supporting all families who seek such assistance would encompass sufficient benefits to warrant the financial assistance of governments. In addition, restorative services which did not carry the risk of unwelcome statutory involvement or social stigma would hold greater appeal for the wider community than the current conditional and potentially intrusive services.(3) Finally, the provision of restorative family support services to all families who choose to access them may in time result in a truly preventative outcome whereby the number of families requiring statutory involvement as a means of avoiding harm to individual members may be reduced.

A detailed discussion of the relevant considerations and difficulties inherent in providing truly preventative family support services is clearly beyond the scope of this paper (due to the multiplicity of factors involved and the need to develop a co-ordinated service incorporating involvement at the local, community, state and federal levels). Nevertheless, it is the contention of this paper that restorative family support services have the potential to go some way towards easing the pressures on today's families, and decreasing the likelihood of family breakdown, only once they are clearly separated from protective child welfare services, made available to all families requiring extra assistance and once they do not include any covert forms of state surveillance or intrusion in family life. Only then may such services truly promote themselves as strengthening, supportive and enhancing various family forms through the long overdue relinquishment of the minimalist, remedial and treatment emphases of family support services during the past century.


(1) For an overview of important federal family policy developments from the 1970s to 1994, see Pinkey, S. (1995) Fights Over 'Family' : Competing Discourses in the Two Decades Prior to the International Year of the Family', Just Policy, no.2, March 1995, 17-25.

(2) This program is more specific than the other examples used in its focus on reunifying families in which children had previously been placed in alternative care. However, once reunification has occurred, this program, like other restorative family support services, aims to maintain and strengthen the family units as a means of preventing future breakdown or statutory intervention.

(3) Mandatory reporting laws would also ensure that families utilising restorative services, in which children or other family members were believed to be at risk of harm, would be brought to the attention of the relevant department, as occurs in a wide range of other community and support services, ie child care facilities, schools and welfare services.


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______ (1974b) A Discussion Paper Towards a Statement on Preventative Family Welfare, ACOSS, Sydney.

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