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When governments define 'family'...

By Elspeth McInnes - posted Monday, 13 December 2004

There have been three government reports in the past seven years documenting the consequences of governments attempting to make families conform to particular structures and practices. Together they document the misery of generations of Australian families torn apart “for their own good”.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission published Bringing them Home in 1997, documenting the many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families and suffered awful losses and abuse. The report acknowledges the pain and loss that the policies of child removal caused for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The consequences of Indigenous child removal policies reverberate intergenerationally across grief-stricken communities of despair, ruled by alcohol and violence. Thousands of family lives were destroyed then and many continue to grapple with the legacy now.

In 2000, the New South Wales Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues documented the practices of forced relinquishment in its report Releasing the Past: Adoption Practices 1950 -1998. Once again, the report’s authors apologise for the awful legacy of grief and trauma for separated mothers and children arising from forced adoption. Bullying, drugs, lies and blackmail were among the strategies used by parents, social workers, nurses and doctors to make unmarried mothers give up their babies for adoption. Both mothers and children subjected to these practices have higher rates of physical and mental illness and suicide. Relinquishing mothers speak of lifetimes of trauma and grieving for their lost child, while their children speak of feelings of abandonment and rejection and experiences of abuse in their adoptive families.


In 2004, the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee published Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. Like the other reports, it begins with statements of acknowledgement and apology for the severe harms and abuses experienced by many children placed in out of home care or institutions. Children were placed in care for a range of reasons including being orphaned, being born to a single mother, domestic violence, divorce, poverty or some other reason where the parent was unable to care for the child. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse was the standard fare for children in institutions. Neglect, nutrition deprivation, lack of health care and lack of education marred the lives of most of these children struggling to survive without their parents’ care, protection or affection.

Together these reports tell us something of the difficulties that emerge when governments define the boundaries of “proper” families and provide support only to those defined as worthy. In the past, as these three reports painfully document, Indigenous families, single mother families and poor families have all faced the brunt of government policies defining proper families as white, Christian and married, with an employed husband.

The consequences of Indigenous child removal, forced adoptions and institutional care have affected many thousands of Australians across generations. The legacy includes physical and mental health problems, substance abuse problems, poor relationship and parenting skills, inability to learn, to gain or sustain employment - yet it was always “for their own good”.

Indigenous families and single parent households still face higher risks of having children removed to foster care after being deemed unfit or unable to care for their children. The new federal government plan to remove income support from Indigenous families who fail new “mutual obligation” rules may herald a new era of removals of children from families which have had their income support removed by the government.

Governments make very poor parents, as the above reports attest. Family bonds are indeed more than blood. They are woven from daily practices of care, affection, protection and support and it is these key elements of safety, security, stability and love, which over the years sustain children’s wellbeing and healthy development into capable adults. There is clear evidence in these three reports that failing to support vulnerable families to care for their children exacts intergenerational costs of death, disability and anguish grounded in separation, poverty, violence and abuse.

Poor families have contributed to the Australian budget surplus and tax cuts for middle to high income earners through reduced access to essential services including public housing, domestic violence shelters, dental care, bulk-billed health care, mental health care, medications, public education, child care and aged care. Yet these are the very services which vulnerable families need to properly care for their children. Current government policy settings deliver increased incomes and quality health and education to middle and higher income families whilst systematically cutting universal services and expanding mechanisms to reduce payments to families reliant on income support. Mothers and children fleeing domestic violence are the new face of homelessness at a time when housing affordability is at an all time low, and the investment property market is riding high.


If we are to learn anything from the past it is clear that reducing support to vulnerable families results in increased harms to children and increases the risk that the child will lose their family. In contrast, programs and services which meet basic needs and support parents and carers to meet their children’s needs, build capacity over time at an individual, family and community level. The best orientation for government policies is to support family well-being, whatever its structure, culture or employment status, whilst ensuring access to basic needs, including safety from violence and abuse, housing, health care, education and employment. The histories of government failures in family support are written in the blood of children. It is time we started making sure ALL families are able to meet their basic needs.

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About the Author

Dr Elspeth McInnes is a Lecturer at the University of South Australia, Convenor of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children and a member of the ACOSS Executive. Dr McInnes' most recent research has focused on mothers' transition into lone parent family structures, exploring the impact of violence on mothers and children during separation and their subsequent adaptation and access to community resources and to both market and non-market income.

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