Secret cuts to relationship services hurting families
Encouraging couples to identify and resolve their disputes in a non-adversarial manner has been an aspiration for family policy makers for decades.
Despite inadequacies on display from time to time, it was the motivation behind the Family Law Act and the Child Support legislation.
A significant step forward was the establishment of 65 Family Relationship Centres across the nation by the Howard Government. As the researchers, Lawrie Maloney and Bruce Smyth, wrote in 2004, ‘Spread widely across the country, the Centres would be capable of responding to local needs and at the same time, guide families towards conflict resolution processes that are child focused, dignified and relatively inexpensive.’
They concluded: “Despite our imperfect knowledge of how to best manage post-separation disputes, we have learned enough to know that timely competent and respectful processes minimise the chances of disputes solidifying and becoming entrenched. Relationship Centres have the potential to offer this. In addition, the services “maze” could all but disappear if separating families knew that Relationship Centres were the recommended first port of call and were strongly encouraged to use them.
“The Government’s Discussion Paper, which places the Family Relationship Centres at the core of the proposed reforms, offers a window of opportunity that is unlikely to be repeated for some years to come.”
Since then the Centres have been established and operating successfully. A recent evaluation found that about half of the parents in non-separated families who had serious relationship problems used services to assist in resolving these problems.
There was less use of services to support relationships by couples who had not faced serious problems (about 10%). About two-thirds of parents who separated after the 2006 changes had contacted or used family relationship services during or after separation.
Separated parents who used services were more likely than separated parents who had not used services to have issues that impacted negatively on their relationships - especially family violence, mental health problems or drug and alcohol misuse issues. Family dispute resolution services frequently deal with high-conflict complex cases.
The researchers concluded that “overall, relationship services clients provided favourable assessments of the services they attended. The considerable increase in the use of relationship-oriented services, both pre- and post-separation, suggests a cultural shift in the way in which problems that affect family relationships are being dealt with.”
Accordingly, it is difficult to understand why the Rudd government stripped $43.9 million from their funding in the Budget. Not that you would have noticed, as the cut was not disclosed in the Budget Papers.
It came on top of a $4.5 million cut to marriage counselling services in the same Budget. In all, almost $50 million has been slashed from family relationships funding by a government that is always espousing its support for “working families.” In addition, the budget of the Institute for Family Studies has also been slashed.
Research has shown that as much as seven dollars is saved for every dollar spent on marriage counselling. An Australian Institute of Family Studies survey found that of those who were in an intact relationship, 81 per cent of women and 78 per cent of men remained together as a result of counselling.
Of those who were initially separated, 30 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men had reconciled. Three-quarters said their problem areas, personal life and relationships had improved.
A later study supported the findings, but reported that only an estimated 34 per cent of the need for counselling was being met; Hence the expansion of funding and services by the Howard government.
This deplorable decision reverses much of the good work that has been done over many years to support and strengthen marriage and to ensure that disputes can be resolved as amicably as possible, especially for the benefit of children.
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