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About family support

About family support

According to the 2011 Census, Australia has more than 5.5 million families. More than 2.6 million of these are families with children under the age of 18. Most of these families are intact (72 per cent), with step and blended families accounting for less than 8 per cent. Single parent families make up almost 20 per cent with single mothers accounting for 16.6 per cent of this figure (Family Facts and Figures, Australian Government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies).

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A study on the opinions of parents on the acquisition of parenting and relationship skills gives some insight into how complex and challenging the task of raising a family can be. The study found that the majority of parents did not agree with either of the following statements: “The skills needed to maintain a good relationship with their partner come naturally to most people” and “The skills needed to be a good parent come naturally to most people”. (‘Opinions of parents on the acquisition of parenting and relationship skills’, Family Relationships Quarterly, Newsletter no.10, 2008, Australian Government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies)

These opinions highlight the fact that many families face challenges and issues that require them to reach out beyond themselves to develop the skills, patience and energy needed to grow a healthy, robust family.  

To assist parents in the task of raising a family the government and a range of community organisations provide services that aim to nurture and strengthen Australian families, particularly vulnerable or disadvantaged families. These services include prevention and early intervention services, relationship services, specialist services (such as counselling) and community services (such as playgroups).

Out of home care

Out of home care, or foster care, is the provision of a safe, secure home for children or young people who are unable to live at home safely. The decision for a child to enter into an Out of home care arrangement is at the discretion of Community Services in New South Wales. Where possible, children are maintained in their own families with support, with all interventions being the least intrusive option. 

Children in a foster care situation are there because they have experienced harm or are at risk of abuse, neglect or danger in their home environment. Sometimes children cannot live at home because their families are unable to care for them because of a disability, a drug or alcohol dependency, domestic violence or a mental health issue.

Foster carers ensure that children and young people have their needs met and offer support, encouragement and help to reach their potential. Whatever the outcome, children and young people are encouraged to maintain contact with their families when it is safe to do so.

In 2007 the New South Wales Governor commissioned the Hon. James Wood, AO, QC to conduct an inquiry to determine what changes within the child protection system are required to cope with future levels of demand. This report was handed down in 2008 and made wide reaching recommendations. A key recommendation was that out-of-home care should transition to the non-government sector. As a result Wesley Mission has experienced significant growth.

Child wellbeing

The wellbeing and safety of children in Australia is of great importance. Governments, agencies and other organisations play a crucial role in ensuring that appropriate measures are in place to preserve and promote the safety and wellbeing of children and address issues when they arise.

The New South Wales Government recognises that working together is crucial for achieving positive outcomes for vulnerable children, young people and their families. In order to facilitate collaboration and create an integrated system across government and non-government agencies, the New South Wales Government has developed the Keep Them Safe initiative as a state wide action plan designed to reform child protection in NSW.

Keep Them Safe recognises that child wellbeing and child protection is a collective, shared responsibility. The initiative includes ways that enable all those involved—governments, non-government agencies, communities, families and parents—to work together to support vulnerable children, young people and their families.

Keep Them Safe is underpinned by eight key principles:

  1. Child protection is the collective responsibility of the whole-of-government and the community.
  2. Primary responsibility for rearing and supporting children should rest with families and communities, with government providing support where it is needed, either directly or through the funded non-government sector.
  3. The child protection system should be child focused, with the safety, welfare and wellbeing of the child or young person being of paramount concern, while recognising that supporting parents is usually in the best interests of the child or young person.
  4. Positive outcomes for children and families are achieved through development of a relationship with the family that recognises their strengths and their needs.
  5. Child safety, attachment, wellbeing and permanency should guide child protection practice.
  6. Support services should be available to ensure that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young persons are safe and connected to family, community and culture.
  7. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should participate in decision making concerning the care and protection of their children and young persons with as much self-determination as is possible, and steps should be taken to empower local communities to that end.
  8. Assessments and interventions should be evidence based, monitored and evaluated.

(Extract from Keep Them Safe and interagency collaboration, Child Wellbeing & Child Protection—New South Wales Interagency Guidelines) 

In addition, the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 provides the legislative framework for promoting child wellbeing and child protection. The Act recognises the value of a collaborative approach to child protection, understanding that this responsibility is shared.

As well as providing principles and legislation outlining government and non-government agencies responsibilities, the Act also allows for the development of coordinated strategies for the care and welfare of children and young people. This includes ways that families can be strengthened to look after their children and young people through the provision of assessments and support services. 

Recognising the need for early intervention

The following extract highlights how important it is for government and community organisations to focus on prevention and early intervention models of service.

“Growing evidence has emerged from a wide research base in health, developmental psychology, neuroscience, education and criminology of the importance of promoting positive family and community experiences for young children during the earliest years of childhood (for example, McCain and Mustard 1999).

The importance of early childhood prevention and early intervention programs is based on the premise that the first few years of life of a child's development are crucial in setting the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health outcomes (McCain and Mustard 1999; Gauntlett, Hugman, Kenyon and Logan 2000).

Effective early intervention approaches are those that prevent or arrest problems early in a child's life or at early stages in the development of problem situations. As Oberklaid notes: “Social ills such as crime, unemployment and illiteracy could be countered by early intervention therapies designed to root out problems before they flourished” (cited in Szego and Nader 2002: 4).

Early intervention activities may be carried out at the individual, family and/or community levels and can be tailored to meet the needs of different cultural groups. Early intervention services that may have a positive impact on children and families include home visiting services for pregnant women and families with new babies, parenting skills training, family relationship education, family counselling and support services for families with very young children such as play groups, all which help stimulate brain development.”

(Extract from The benefits of early intervention, Ellen Fish, from the Australian Government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies, Stronger Families Learning Exchange)

Community family centres

Community family centres are a central hub where adults, young people and children in the community can go to access support, find information and resources or engage in social activities. Family centres are found in many towns and cities across Australia and are run by a range of organisations including churches, not-for-profits and local council or government bodies.

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Family centres exist to support healthy families and communities. They offer programs, resources and groups that help families work through times of transition or difficulty such as when having a baby, meeting the demands of parenting, coping with school bullying, being socially isolated, being unemployed or facing a relationship breakdown. They may also provide assistance or referral advice for people experiencing domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, drug or alcohol addiction, a gambling addiction or financial stress. Some family centres provide specialist counselling such as marriage or financial counselling.

Many family centres also run a range of activities designed to forge links in the local community and help people form friendships and support networks. Groups such as playgroups, parenting classes, English classes, youth clubs, afterschool programs, mother’s groups and seniors groups may provide an educational aspect and also help to bring together people at a similar life stage.

Before and after school care

Before and after school care is care provided for school children whose parents are working and need to find care for their children for a period of time either before or after school. It is a growing industry in Australia where an increasing number of families are juggling work and family commitments. Many before and after school care services have waiting lists of families requiring a place for their child.

Before and after school care may be conducted onsite at the school or at a facility nearby such as a local community or church hall. The service provides children with supervision and activities and may include snacks or meals. The service providers of before and after school care are committed to promoting the health and wellbeing of children and often offer creative and stimulating activities that support the physical, intellectual and emotional development of children.


Mentoring is a powerful way that people can grow and develop in the context of a supportive and encouraging relationship. It is a partnership between two people, a mentor and a mentee, based on mutual respect and trust.

A mentor is a person who can draw on their life experience to give advice, support and guidance to another person. They can help a younger person think through priorities, set goals and make plans for how they can achieve their goals and overcome the obstacles in their path.

Mentoring allows young people to explore new ideas or express themselves, become more self-aware and develop skills in the confidence of a supportive relationship. Mentors may ask questions or simply listen and provide guidance and encouragement to those they mentor. More than just providing ad hoc help or occasional answers, mentoring is an ongoing relationship of dialogue, learning and support.

The Wesley Report: Give kids a chance (2011), found that:

  • 53 percent of young people have no real clarity about what they want to do in life and no clear career plans for the next few years.
  • One in three young people have identified a need for more adult support and guidance.
  • Most young people have heard of mentoring but only 27 per cent have had a mentor themselves.
  • Almost 70 per cent of young people believe they would benefit from a mentoring relationship in the near future.
  • Four in five young people with experience of mentoring through Wesley Mission reported that their self-esteem had improved as a direct result of the mentoring relationship and that mentoring had a very positive impact on their life.

These findings reinforce the valuable role that mentoring plays in service provision for young people today.

Building resilience

Resilience is the term used by social scientists to describe the capacity to overcome adversity or trauma. While some children are resilient by nature with temperaments that enable them to bounce back after experiencing trauma or difficulties, others are not as resilient or experience such a degree of adversity in their life that it makes it difficult for them to overcome it.

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The economic cost to the community of childhood adversity is enormous. In Australia in 2001-02, the annual cost of abuse and neglect was estimated at $4.9 billion with three-quarters of this attributed to long-term human costs such as health problems and lost productivity and the costs associated with public intervention (Keatsdale 2003).

Resilience is built at individual, social and community levels. Promoting resilience in children is achieved by:

  • helping them to develop a positive attitude where they can feel optimistic about the future
  • building and nurturing coping skills to help children cope with life’s difficulties
  • encouraging supportive relationships within and outside the family unit including at school and with adult mentors or role models
  • providing resources, tools or professional help, such as therapy or counselling.