AIFS research directions 2012-15

Australian families in a rapidly changing world

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AIFS research directions 2012-15: Australian families in a rapidly changing world

Australian Institute of Family Studies

Published by Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2012, 16 pp.

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The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), as the Australian Government's key family research agency, has the overarching aim to advance understanding of the factors affecting family wellbeing in Australia.

The Institute's research is designed to inform government policies and practices directed towards supporting families in all their forms - wherever they live and whatever the characteristics of their communities.

The Institute recognises that Australian families, and the world around them, are always in transition. In this document, we set out what we understand to be some key "just-over-the-horizon" and longer term issues where there are opportunities for undertaking research and reviews of research findings over the next three years. This will enhance the understanding of factors affecting Australian families and inform future developments in policy and practice. The document is to be read in conjunction with the Institute's goals in supporting its research and communication activities, as outlined in the separate document, AIFS Strategic Directions 2012-15.

The Institute has identified four key directions for its research over the coming three years:

  • family change, functioning and wellbeing;
  • social and economic participation for families;
  • child and family safety; and
  • services to support families.

Each of these key issues will be discussed in more detail in this document.

In identifying directions for 2012-15, it is envisaged that the areas of research focus identified in this document will have value for the following:

  • responding to the needs of governments and community sector organisations through its capacity to conduct timely, balanced and accurate analysis of existing data sets, and responding to requests for submissions, advice, and analysis of issues and data;
  • prioritising projects using the Institute's annual parliamentary appropriation funding;
  • selecting opportunities to tender or submit proposals for externally funded projects;
  • deploying resources for increasingly important partnership activities;
  • exchanging views with fellow researchers about existing and emerging issues for Australian families that warrant further research endeavour; and
  • communicating family-related issues that are the priority for Australia in the coming three years.

The Institute places strong emphasis on disseminating its own findings and those of other researchers to assist professionals working with children, families and communities, and to inform policy-makers, the media, researchers and the general community. Dissemination takes many forms, and includes "traditional" publications and presentations as well as the digital vehicles that enable the exchange of information and viewpoints.

The Institute adopts a range of methodologies to achieve its research goals, including quantitative and qualitative data collection and analyses, using both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies; program evaluations; analyses of demographic trends; and research literature reviews and syntheses.

With our focus being on family issues, AIFS works in collaboration with other agencies, researchers, and service providers who have expertise in a range of disciplines (such as psychology, sociology, social work, economics, law and criminology) or specific service delivery areas that intersect with family wellbeing (such as education and early childhood development, health, mental health, addictions and substance misuse, technology, migrants and cultural diversity, training/skills and work, employment, housing and homelessness, the built environment, Indigenous issues, climate change, and disability).

Key social trends influencing AIFS research directions

Australian families are in transition. Since the Second World War, Australia has developed increasingly close ties with Asia that have directly fuelled national prosperity, the diversity of our population and the cultural richness of our society, and are likely to continue. Understanding the key family-related issues facing Australia in the early 21st century enables us to identify areas where greater research focus is needed in order to develop appropriate policies and services to address new and continuing challenges for families. The following represent some of the contextual trends that have contributed to the AIFS research directions for 2012-15.

Demographic trends

Family life constantly evolves, with trends in the population playing a major role in the ways in which families function across time and geographic locations. Australia is now experiencing population growth, driven by both lifespan increases (leading to an ageing of the population) and by migration. Population growth increases pressure on finite resources and infrastructure; perhaps most immediately, on housing. The population is not only ageing, but is increasingly concentrated in major urban areas, with a noticeable growth in outer metropolitan suburbs, which brings to the fore issues associated with locational advantage and disadvantage. Population growth - with net overseas migration playing a much larger role this millennium than in the 20th century - is also expanding and deepening Australia's cultural diversity.

At the family level, we are now seeing smaller family units (including a larger proportion of people living alone), and a greater variety of family forms and compositions. Like other Western countries, partnership formation, stability and birth rates have changed dramatically in Australia, as have economic and social factors, which both result from and fuel such changes. Some of these trends have added to the increased diversity in family forms. Functioning within diverse family forms is clearly an area of relevance to the Institute's directions, as is the monitoring of trends in family transitions.

All of these trends change the nature of the consumption of - and demand for - services, shape some of the challenges and rewards experienced by families, and influence housing, educational and employment opportunities, intergenerational support, and the tensions and enrichments associated with multiculturalism that have an impact on the diversity of families. All change brings opportunities as well as challenges. Research that informs understanding of these changes is essential for framing policy responses, including those related to designing supports that will assist individuals, families and communities to manage the challenges and embrace the opportunities that arise.

Economic trends

While financial living standards have improved at the national level, some families have benefited to a far greater extent from Australia's economic progress than others, with residential location, cultural background, family form and childhood experiences being key factors associated with family financial circumstances.

Contemporary Australia shows impressive economic resilience, but global uncertainty and structural changes in sectors such as manufacturing, retailing and financial services have implications for individuals, families and communities, and the services and supports they need. The decline in manufacturing has, for example, been underway for some decades, though the pace of change has accelerated of late. The strong Australian dollar, which reflects the overall strength of the economy, has brought its own challenges to those involved in manufacturing and tourism. Demand for Australia's mineral resources has been a boon in some areas and a bane in others. Economic changes have reverberating effects on families and communities, with the size of these being dependent on the extent to which the livelihoods of those living in the community depend on the industries that are most affected. Again, up-to-date research evidence is required to assist with appropriate policy responses and the provision of supports to specific areas, their industries, and their families.

Technological trends

Developments in information and communication technology have had profound effects on where and how we work and socialise; opening up opportunities for gaining instant and up-to-date information on what seems an unlimited range of topics, and for keeping in touch with friends and family. While young people have tended to embrace such technologies for social networking, concerns have arisen about the associated dangers of having easy access to the Internet. Debates have emerged about the extent to which parents should monitor the "virtual world" of their teenage children - a world that they may share in very explicit ways with their peers, but not with their parents. And, as society becomes increasingly reliant on technological developments, those unable to use them for managing their everyday lives will be increasingly at a disadvantage as the digital divide widens. Such issues are clearly relevant to family functioning and wellbeing, and child safety, as well as changing aspects of intergenerational flows of support.

Environmental trends

Family wellbeing is connected to the external environment: both literally, in terms of geography and climate, and metaphorically, in terms of the type of community where a family resides. On both fronts, there are considerable changes facing families. Physical environmental challenges, including climate change and natural disasters, have had a significant effect on many families, and policy-makers are increasingly recognising that interventions to support vulnerable families need to have a geographical focus in order to target services appropriately.

Australia has a highly urbanised population, and one of the pressures that population growth creates involves housing accessibility, affordability, adequacy and security. Growth suburbs are often on the fringe of outer metropolitan areas, where there are few existing services and limited infrastructure to support families. It is important to understand the dimensions of this issue, including factors associated with insecure accommodation, the risk of homelessness, and the wellbeing of family members. Understanding the issues and policy implications of the increase in the proportion of people living alone is also a focus for the Institute.

Trends in family-related policy

These overarching demographic and economic trends often interact and affect families in complex ways, raising various challenges for family-related policies. As a consequence, the family-related policy arena has many domains that are changing in response to these broader trends. The following outlines key trends in social policy, family law, housing policy and work-family policy that are particularly salient for families.

Social policy

Australian social policy also continually evolves and reflects a history of innovation and progressive reform in response to the challenges of changes at the population, community, and family levels - both within and beyond our shores. Contemporary challenges include:

  • closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage;
  • developing a sustainable set of supports for those who experience disability and its effects, especially through the development of Australia's first national disability insurance scheme;
  • continuing the commitment to welfare reform focused on enhancing opportunities for participation of those whose lives are touched by disadvantage;
  • addressing the effects on families of poor mental health, alcohol and substance misuse, family violence, problem gambling, financial stress, homelessness, social exclusion, and child abuse and neglect; and
  • providing early intervention to help address risk factors for families before they reach crisis point.
Family law

Family law issues have changed dramatically since the Institute commenced operation in 1980. The Institute's work has charted significant shifts in three main areas: post-separation parenting and financial arrangements, the system response to relationship breakdown, and trends in relationship formation across the life course. Family law will continue to evolve alongside changes in family characteristics, attitudes and values. For example, the most recent amendments to the Family Law Act - the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Matters) Act 2012 (Cth), which takes effect from June 2012 - are aimed at providing better protection for children and families at risk of violence and abuse. Research into these issues and into the effectiveness of amendments in the legislation has an important role to play in shaping this evolution.

Work-family policy

The continuing move of women into paid work has generated a great deal of change in families, workplaces and community supports for families. This is an area in which advances in information and communication technology have had many flow-on effects, such as facilitating work-at-home arrangements, but at the same time blurring the boundaries between work and family. Public and private sector policies on paid parental leave have shifted the landscape for work-family decisions. As well, Australia has experienced changes in attitudes towards the roles of men and women and many families are feeling the pressures of time as they seek to address the demands of family, work, and community responsibilities.

Diagram showing the five broad social trends influencing AIFS family research - demographic, economic, technological, environmental, and policy - and the four AIFS directions - Family change, functioning and wellbeing; social and economic participation for families; child and family safety; and services to support families.

Summary

Trends in these five broad areas - demography, economics, technology, environment, and family-related policy - are all intimately related. Population growth, for example, is both driven by and drives economic change. Consequently, various family-related policy areas are located at critical intersections between demographic, economic and environmental change. Family breakdown, for example, has implications for the economic wellbeing of family members, housing and safety. Taking a further example, work-family policy endeavours to support families to work and financially support themselves, while also dealing with the varied demands of caring for family members (young and old). It is against this backdrop that the future directions for the Institute's research will now be outlined.

Four directions for AIFS research 2012-15

AIFS has identified four areas of specific focus for the coming three years. These four "directions" encapsulate the key topics that we see as being integrally related to family wellbeing and where Australia is in need of new research and/or improved dissemination of key messages from research to policy-makers and practitioners in the coming three years. Each of these four areas has some overlap with the other.

Direction 1
Family change, functioning and wellbeing

Families are diverse in the forms they take and in the ways in which they live their lives. They are also constantly evolving. Families not only respond to social change but also contribute to it, given that they are the building blocks of society.

Two important issues to be considered in regard to family formation, development and diversity are the tension between stability and change, and the identification of transition points for families. Children benefit from stability in their lives - but stability does not mean the absence of change. In fact, for all of us, change is the constant. In any developmental journey, however, there are key transition points, at which time children or families are more vulnerable to external factors influencing their trajectory.

Diversity of family formation, structure and functioning

There is increasing recognition of the diversity of ways in which families form, have children and live their lives. Children may experience a variety of "family types" - including two-parent families, single-parent households, or extended family households. Two-parent families can comprise step-families or blended families (where at least one child is born to or adopted by a couple, and another is a step-child of one member of the couple). Extended family households may include two-parent or single-parent families living with at least one other relative, such as a grandparent. Then there are multi-family households, in which the families that are living together are usually, but not necessarily, related to each other. Multi-generational household arrangements are common among some groups, such as Indigenous Australians.

Although each child is born into one type of family structure, diversity can occur over their lives as a family's circumstances change. For many families, a key life event is parental separation, which sparks various possible parenting arrangements, ranging from a child never seeing one parent to spending near equal time with each parent. The arrangements may change as the child matures and as the parents follow new pathways. In some families, parental violence, abuse, mental health problems and substance misuse may result in children living in the sole care of their grandparents, while others may be in out-of-home care, living apart from their family of origin.

Given this diversity, and in order to support the range of different family types and the variety of circumstances into which children are born and raised, policy-makers and service providers need rigorous data about what makes for positive family functioning across these diverse modes of family formation, structure and functioning. It is also important to understand, and for public policy to be responsive to, societal views about family structures and dynamics, the values people hold, and their personal aspirations relating to family life.

Regardless of partnership breakdown, there are numerous transitions across the life course that families and their individual members experience, with potential points of disruption and formation of relationships. In order to better support families as they face challenges associated with these life-course transitions, it is important to identify and address risks, and build capacity across the lifespan of family members - from early childhood through to old age.

In this regard, two key groups who will each be a focus for the Institute over the coming three years are adolescents/young adults and seniors. Both of these life stages are important parts of a "typical" developmental trajectory for individuals and their families. Like early to mid-childhood - a key focus of the Institute in recent years - they represent "stages" of development that are themselves characterised by a great deal of change. It is timely, then, for the Institute to place increased emphasis on providing solid evidence to support the development or refinement of policies and service provision directed to adolescents, seniors and their families.

The changing age profile of the Australian population is well known, with the Baby Boom generation now reaching retirement age, lower fertility rates, and longer life expectancy. In order to be responsive, policy-makers need better data on key demographic changes and the effects on families of key intergenerational issues (such as inheritance, care and accommodation decisions, resource-sharing issues, young people staying in their family home longer, and "culture gaps" in access to and comfort with rapidly changing technology). Research is also needed on the ways in which an ageing Australia may present opportunities for families (for example, in assisting with child care, economic support and housing security), as well as how they address the care needs of elderly family members, and how caring affects family functioning and the wellbeing of individual family members.

Family law

Building on the evaluation of the significant 2006 changes to the Family Law Act, the Institute will continue to look at issues relating to separating families, including factors contributing to relationship breakdown, family court processes, and outcomes for children and families.

A priority future focus is the development of policies regarding obligations arising from cohabiting relationships outside of legal marriage; in particular, among de facto and same-sex couples. These relationship formation trends have created the impetus for legislative change at a range of levels. De facto relationships represent an increasingly common pathway to marriage and a more frequent setting for childbearing, resulting in, most recently, changes to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (and referral of powers by seven of Australia's eight states and territories) to align legislation and processes for resolving financial disputes resulting from the breakdown of non-married couple relationships with those applying to married couples. The introduction of legal mechanisms for the recognition of same-sex relationships, including defining financial entitlements in relation to superannuation, insurance and government payments, and bringing post-separation financial disputes between same-sex couples under the umbrella of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), are clear indications of the changing nature of the ways in which families are recognised and defined in a range of legal instruments. Research examining different types of relationships from a range of perspectives (social, emotional, financial and legal) will further develop understanding of the implications of these changes.

Housing policy

The centrality of the areas of policy focused on locational differences and housing availability and affordability should be acknowledged. Housing affordability and experiences of homelessness can have a significant effect on a range of decisions families make (in areas such as relationships, education, or employment,), as well as the general health and wellbeing of parents and children. The housing aspirations and needs of families are also affected by different family structures, cultural beliefs and practices. Throughout the transitions of the life course and family structures, the need for suitable, affordable and secure housing continues to present a challenge. In particular, more evidence needs to be developed around the housing needs of both working and jobless families, young people, and seniors, particularly among the vulnerable.

Research opportunities and priorities
  • Tracking the diversity of social, economic, cultural and family circumstances into which children are born and raised to discern their effects on family functioning, wellbeing and life opportunities and outcomes, particularly for Indigenous families, culturally and linguistically diverse families, refugee families, those caring for a family member with a disability and families experiencing insecure employment, joblessness and/or long-term unemployment.
  • Identifying characteristics and support services that lead to successful re-settlement for recently arrived migrant families, exploring the challenges this group face to successfully starting a new life in Australia, and examining the outcomes for parents and their children.
  • Delineating the factors that contribute to successfully negotiating key life stages - including middle childhood, adolescence, adulthood and the later years - to ascertain positive and negative influences on such transitions in the life course and associated effects on families.
  • Understanding the influences of the different types of care provided to children by parents of different ages, siblings, couple parents, separated parents and grandparents, to identify their links to family functioning and wellbeing and the risk and protective factors for child, adolescent and family wellbeing.
  • Identifying the factors that help to prevent relationship breakdown to provide a better evidence base for understanding the challenges that families may confront.
  • Improving knowledge about post-separation decision-making processes and time allocations for children/young people of separated parents, including the role of family dispute resolution, mediation, and other less adversarial court processes.

These topics will be explored by conducting original research, audits and reviews, and cross-sectional surveys, as well as drawing on data from the Census and large-scale, representative Australian longitudinal studies, such as Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, and the Stronger Families in Australia (SFIA) study. An early priority for the 2012-15 triennium is to use Census data - including the most recent Census (August 2011) - and other survey data to examine the ways in which families are changing.

Direction 2
Social and economic participation for families

Another important priority for research in this triennium concerns the economic and social wellbeing of families, their access to resources, and how to best support and sustain families, particularly during times of economic uncertainty or change. Many government policies are focused on enhancing participation in the social networks and economic structures of Australian society, investing in "human capital", and creating and sustaining a productive population. These factors are all related to the wellbeing, positive functioning and resilience of families. Research is needed to understand the changing ways in which social and economic participation affects families, and in turn, how families affect the productivity of individuals and communities.

This area views the key issues and relevant research questions not only through the lens of individuals within families, but also through the lens of families within their communities.

Family income security and wellbeing

Having an adequate income and a sense of security about future income is well recognised as being a critical aspect of wellbeing for families. Key issues relating to the economic security of families are the availability and adequacy of employment, the systems to support families on low incomes and those experiencing unemployment or insecure employment, and the ways in which these factors influence family wellbeing. The role that families play in supporting themselves and their kin during hard times is an important issue. Research is needed on the intergenerational transmission of economic wellbeing. Also, there are several key life events and characteristics of individuals and families, and the areas in which they live, that either constrain or enhance their engagement with civic life and capacity to participate economically, through paid work, volunteering and providing care.

In order to better understand the ways in which employment and other income supports sustain families and affect their wellbeing, further research is needed on families in work, jobless families and welfare supports, as well as retirement and financial security for ageing Australians. In particular, evaluations are needed of programs and interventions that are designed to enhance the social and economic participation and wellbeing of families in Australia. Moreover, research is needed to understand how factors such as care responsibilities, disabilities, career/educational aspirations and attachment for young people (particularly young parents), and the opportunities and challenges of an ageing Australia influence engagement with the paid workforce, volunteering, and other aspects of community participation. Financial stress and cost of living pressures are important issues in Australia today. Most Australians have higher wages and better living conditions than they did 10 years ago. However, there is a widening gap between some families in Australia, due in part to wages growth. This means those families on low incomes or fixed incomes are more acutely affected by changes in cost of living. Research is needed about how best to help disadvantaged families - particularly those with young children - to build capacity to better cope with cost of living increases and, where possible, enter the workforce to benefit from wages growth.

This second area of focus for the Institute also relates directly to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will have many implications for families caring for a person with a disability.

Sustaining and sustainable communities

One of the keys to the active social and economic participation of individuals and families is the nature of the communities and the community supports available to them. To have a positive effect on families and their engagement in work, care, education and civic life, communities need to be sustaining of families, and sustainable in and of themselves. It is important to understand the ways in which urban design - the "built environment" - influences family wellbeing and the ways in which family members participate.

Australian communities are in transition as our cities face serious limits. New suburbs often lack the services, infrastructure and opportunities of inner city or more established suburbs - a major problem for young and old. There is an opportunity to look at family-related aspects of social infrastructure, and build on existing research activity around the extent to which cities are "child-friendly", "disability-friendly" and "aged-friendly". The Institute will also build on its work on the effects of climate change on families (including drought, financial effects, and the increased occurrence of sudden climate-related natural disasters), and the evidence for framing more effective responses.

The issue of locational disadvantage is becoming an increasingly prominent policy focus across a range of departments and portfolios at every level of government - often with a whole-of-government or inter-organisational flavour. Governments are aware of the geographic concentration of disadvantage and are implementing place-based interventions/supports for vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous families, migrants, refugees, and other culturally and linguistically diverse families. Further research is needed to evaluate the effects of location-based policy interventions in order to identify the factors that underpin their success, and enable them to be brought to scale and achieve sustainability.

Work-family policies

An important area for further research is to explore how working parents manage child care, household tasks, personal care/leisure and paid employment. In the context of global economic uncertainty and the continued rise of dual-parent employment, research is needed to understand how parents manage the care of their children and the role of technologies that facilitate home-based work but also blur the boundaries between work and family life. For many couples in which both partners are in paid employment, having children is a key transition point in their lives in terms of participation in the paid workforce. There is greater reliance on formal or informal child care and, increasingly, a shift away from the model of the sole male breadwinner towards parents sharing the care and work responsibilities. Particular working arrangements also present unique challenges to families, potentially causing disruption to parenting roles due to dislocation (such as for fly-in/fly-out and drive-in/drive-out workers in industries such as mining or remote services) or other significant changes in job roles and locations (e.g., defence personnel commencing or returning from active deployment). Research is also needed to quantify the economic value of having effective work-family policies in place.

Understanding the care needs of family members with a disability, across the lifespan, is a priority area for family-focused research as Australia moves towards significant policy reform, including the progressive introduction of a national disability insurance scheme.

Research opportunities and priorities
  • Examining how location and built environment characteristics (urbanisation; housing density, availability, affordability and security; travel distances to work; access to public transport and other infrastructure) affect family wellbeing, economic participation, community cohesiveness, resilience and social capital.
  • Exploring workforce participation decisions for families, incentives/disincentives to work, and factors that facilitate or impede parents' employment participation (such as transport costs, travel time, working hours, workforce casualisation, employment security, mobility, location flexibility and family responsibilities, including care for children or family members with a disability).
  • Examining the implications for resources and wellbeing of changing family characteristics, including how employment and care aspirations and responsibilities affect each other (such as care of children, the elderly, and family members with disabilities or other special needs), the effect of family functioning on the productivity of the nation, the social and economic value of caring, and the effects of increased life expectancy (such as income transfers within families, intergenerational asset transfer, inheritance, and decision-making).
  • Tracking trends in and family influences on the age of children leaving home, family expectations of financial contributions of adolescents/young adults, and young people's transition to further education, training and work.

Direction 3
Child and family safety

Continuing to develop the evidence base for preventing and responding to abuse, neglect and violence against children and adults remains a priority. Translating the research findings into practical knowledge for counsellors and other family support practitioners is also a particular focus for AIFS through its two information exchanges: Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) and the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA).

This focus area supports research to enhance evidence-based actions by governments, under two key national initiatives from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG):

  • the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (COAG, 2009); and
  • the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (COAG, 2011).

In relation to protecting children, this includes aligning AIFS research and dissemination priorities to the research questions identified by COAG (2011), in the National Research Agenda for Protecting Children, and by service providers and communities.

In relation to preventing violence against women and their children, the key policy activity is COAG's agreement to establish a National Centre of Excellence relating to the reduction of violence against women and children. AIFS will work cooperatively with all Australian governments as arrangements are made to develop the centre, bringing together expertise in relation to the prevention of domestic/family violence and adult sexual assault, and coordinating research efforts, the evaluation of prevention strategies, and the dissemination of information relevant to the needs of service providers and policy-makers.

Abuse and violence

Governments across the country recognise the problem of child abuse and family violence, and the importance of early intervention and prevention, as well as responding to the needs of victims. This includes a focus on the drivers of domestic and family violence, child maltreatment, bullying, elder abuse, and sexual assault and violence. Domestic and family violence is recognised as a major social issue in Australia. Power and control in intimate relationships can be exerted in a range of ways, including physical, emotional, social, financial and sexual violence. It is important to examine violence and maltreatment in all its forms, and in specific contexts, such as within intact and separating families, and across the generations, where the victims may be a child, parent, grandparent or other vulnerable relative. The role of isolation and vulnerability is also important, given the ageing population and the increasing proportion of people becoming at risk of some form of isolation, either within their own homes or within aged care services.

Issues relating to child maltreatment include the prevention, detection and responses to physical abuse, sexual and emotional abuse, and neglect, and children's exposure to violence. Increasingly, researchers are recognising not only that children are often subjected to multiple forms of abuse and neglect, but that they experience a range of other threats to their safety and wellbeing, such as bullying and peer victimisation. Prevention efforts are being implemented in settings such as schools, community organisations, workplaces and the media. Some programs are designed to help men and boys develop and promote gender-equal, respectful relationships with girls and women.

Systems and services

There is a range of systems and service issues in which research is needed to understand the intersections between systems, the needs of victims, and what makes for effective service delivery in order to prevent violence, implement effective justice responses for perpetrators and respond to the needs of victims. Some of the key systems that intersect in relation to violence and abuse include: family law courts; Family Relationship Centres; counselling, mediation and dispute resolution services; civil justice processes (e.g., bankruptcy proceedings); housing and homelessness services; family support services; child protection departments; and juvenile court systems (in both justice and care/protection matters).

Research is needed to identify the factors that underpin effective service provision in response to safety concerns, and to address the known risk factors for violence, abuse and neglect. It is important to also have a solid evidence base for addressing the care needs of victims, including issues relating to counselling and other therapeutic supports, responding to the needs of children for whom there are safety concerns, and providing out-of-home care services for children unable to remain safely in the care of their parents.

Research opportunities and priorities
  • Identifying effective strategies to address risk factors for physical and sexual violence and child maltreatment (including sexism, racism, ageism, socio-economic inequality, parental mental illness, substance misuse, and other interpersonal, familial and social characteristics) at the population level, as well location-specific primary prevention activities.
  • Identifying culturally appropriate understandings of child wellbeing and safety issues for Indigenous children and young people.
  • Examining service system issues (such as intersections, gaps, exit processes, and areas of duplication).
  • Understanding stability for young people in care, and factors that facilitate or impede the ability of young people and their families to manage critical transition points (such as a young person leaving out-of-home care), and the costs and benefits of different out-of-home care options/models.

Direction 4
Services to support families

Government and community bodies continue to seek effective ways to deliver services to support families and enhance resilience. This final direction looks at the trajectories of families as they develop, focusing on research and evaluation evidence relating to services that support families during times of vulnerability, transition and change, as well as services that support and sustain the majority of families who are cohesive to function effectively and demonstrate resilience.

All research conducted by the Institute is designed to be policy-relevant, and is thereby directly or indirectly relevant to practice. AIFS has a growing focus on program evaluation and research that is designed to identify ways of enhancing service provision to families. This includes the range of services and supports directed towards families, including those making the transition to parenthood, those along the parenting pathway, and those facing problems, such as violence, mental health issues or addictions. The particular needs of Indigenous families and others in culturally and linguistically diverse communities can also be better understood, with knowledge of what works to overcome disadvantage and respect family social and cultural diversity, guided by research and practice wisdom.

Building resilient communities

All families, to a greater or lesser extent, require the support of their communities. Those with children who are disadvantaged or vulnerable, however, may need particular support to assist them to manage the transitions in their lives, ensure that their children are safe and well, and enable family members to experience positive relationships, be protected from harm and, in turn, contribute to building stronger, more resilient communities. The Australian Government has this as one of the key aims of the Family Support Program, and evaluation of such initiatives is a critical area of research for AIFS.

Delivery of effective integrated services

Governments are increasingly seeking ways to provide services in more integrated, coordinated and citizen-centred ways that better meet the needs of families. For example, individual families and children may be potential or actual clients of multiple services. The need for collaboration between different levels of government (i.e., local, state/territory and Commonwealth), as well as across departments and community agencies, is now widely recognised. Much is still to be learned, however, about the factors that lead to effective collaboration, and the role of procurement methods and service specification in fostering or hindering innovation and effective service integration and coordination.

Several factors influence the effective delivery of services to families, whether they are well-functioning or in need, including understanding the overlaps and gaps between responsibility and funding from different levels of government and delivery of services between agencies; coordination and integration of services; and pathways for families in need of services (such as justice systems) and their intersections with other service systems. Bringing together research evidence and evaluating programs aimed at supporting families are critical to having evidence-based policies and programs in this space. Key issues in effective service system delivery include the coordination and integration of services, the value and efficacy of e-delivery of services (especially for remote communities), culturally sensitive service delivery, strategies for engaging families, and effective prevention efforts and systems of therapeutic care.

Promoting positive families and addressing family problems

Many families benefit from information and support that assists them with learning and using better parenting strategies and relationship skills. Research is needed to improve our understanding of stressors and coping strategies and how to foster resilience and more effectively support parents, including delivery of effective parenting skills training.

Reviews of services - such as the family law, child protection and juvenile justice systems - reveal a common set of family problems that typically lead to engagement with these service systems, namely: family violence, mental health issues, and addictions (to alcohol, tobacco, drugs and gambling). Research is needed to improve understanding of the needs of families that are experiencing these problems.

Although it represents a significant financial and time investment, there is particular value in conducting both randomised control trials and longitudinal surveys to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness or otherwise of policies or interventions aimed at supporting and strengthening families, including therapeutic and early intervention services, services to support families caring for a family member with a disability, and programs aimed at addressing problem behaviours affecting the wellbeing of families.

Meeting the needs of Indigenous families

Given the clearly identified inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (COAG, 2008), it is important to recognise the issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and their particular experiences and needs. Within the current COAG Closing the Gap program, there is further opportunity for the Institute to mobilise its own capabilities and key partnerships to advance knowledge of what works to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

Tailoring services and supports to reflect cultural diversity

Australia has a long history of multiculturalism, reflected by the diversity of the country of birth, languages spoken, and religious beliefs of its families. This diversity is generally regarded as a highly positive attribute for Australian society. It is also acknowledged, however, that families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can face many challenges, as can the communities in which they live. For recent arrivals, some of these challenges may be linked to their experiences prior to their arrival in Australia, such as the trauma experienced by refugee families. Other areas of difficulty can include coping with isolation from family and friends overseas, accessing culturally appropriate education and service systems that meet the families' needs, and coping with possible social rejection. Research is needed to improve understanding of the circumstances that enable some recent migrants to deal with such problems effectively and become active, participating members of the community.

Research is also required to improve understanding of the extent to which community services can meet the needs of today's families, given their greater diversity in race, culture, language and religion; the challenges associated with continued population growth; and the highly urbanised patterns of settlement).

Research opportunities and priorities
  • Exploring the role of communities in supporting families, and identifying factors relating to the success, scale and sustainability of programs across locations.
  • Evaluating the delivery of place-based services to address entrenched disadvantage and meet the needs of "hard-to-reach", vulnerable families, as well as of those living in high-growth corridors and fringe suburbs.
  • Providing evidence to inform the design and delivery of family-inclusive adolescent services and youth-friendly family services that address the mental health of children and families.
  • Disseminating information to assist in closing the gap in the social and emotional development, cognition and learning of Indigenous children at risk of poor developmental outcomes, by identifying factors that facilitate the participation and engagement of Indigenous families.
  • Understanding the needs of migrant and refugee families to ensure culturally appropriate service provision.
  • Tracking the needs of families providing alternative care (that is, kinship or foster care) in the statutory child protection system, understanding the needs of children providing care for siblings or parents, and identifying protective factors that support Indigenous children remaining in the care of their parents.
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of policies, programs and pilots designed to address problem behaviours affecting families in areas such as: drug and alcohol misuse, problem gambling, money management, school attendance, participation in training/employment, and respectful relationships.

References

Past research plans

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