Acting Inter-generationally

Re-designing policy, service and social patterns to disrupt disadvantage

Parents pass on many things to their children: hair colour, preferences, health conditions, knowledge. They also pass on material assets and life opportunities.

The reality is that children receive a lot of foundational advantage or disadvantage just based on the family and postcode they’re born into. Some children will be surrounded by positive role models who look like them and have access to educational opportunities while others may be born into the first, second or third generation of financial struggle and reliance on government services. Where you start has big implications on the types of pathways that are made available to you, meaning some kids have it harder from the outset than others. What’s more, is that the types of opportunities you’re born into are most similar to those you’ll be able to make available for your own children.

Many social challenges such as poverty, trauma, abuse and neglect, obesity, mental health play out within and across generations, yet we often respond to and ‘treat’ them as short and individual, isolated challenges. There is an intergenerational nature to these family challenges, and so to a degree, family cycles are predictable, yet they’re often ‘treated’ at the point of crisis rather than at the first red flag.

When a child is at significant risk of neglect or abuse we remove them into a system of state care, an approach that may well reinforcing cycles of disadvantage. In one Australian state we learnt how 43% of children in out of home care had parents who were in out of home care. We saw that a significant proportion of parents who had children removed from their care would go on to have more children who would be removed. In criminal justice, rather than supporting healing and behaviour change, offenders are isolated from society with little support to re-integrate which perpetuates chronic engagement with justice for individuals and their families. We also know that the triggers for engagement with criminal justice and child protection systems are intimately related. These are brilliantly expensive systems that whilst it may well protect immediate harm to children and society, in the long term puts child, parents, future parents and taxpayers at a disadvantage.

What if we redesigned our social responses to take the long view and work intergenerationally?

What if, rather than allowing cycles of disadvantage to perpetuate, our social responses were designed to intentionally disrupt them?

As one example, instead of removing children, leaving parents with unrealistic expectations and little support, we could work with whole families to address the issues that lead to trauma and design systems that foster stability and thriving. This is what we’re doing with Family and Community Services NSW and Mackillop Family Services. Together, we’re prototyping a co-parenting Foster Care model that supports children and birth parents. In this approach, the Foster carer role is re-designed as a family support that builds capability and social capital of parents and prepares them to care for their kids over the long term.

Right now in Australia disadvantage and advantage are becoming increasingly concentrated in specific families and communities, and the cycle of reliance and disadvantage is becoming harder to break out of.  However, interrupting intergenerational disadvantage is surprisingly possible if the right kinds of supports and context come together.

Through our work we’ve seen families transform a pattern of family violence and unprepared pregnancies into a pattern of tertiary education and workforce participation.

We’ve seen young men with repeated involvement in the criminal justice system grow into influential political and community leaders.

We’ve seen women who’ve experienced three generations of stolen children forge into professional authorship.

Currently these people, and their children are the outliers, beneficiaries of isolated programs, peculiar circumstance or particularly brilliant workers. For breaking cycles to be a reality for more people, we need conditions and systems that make taking the long view a possibility. We need to reset the expectations so that working towards stability and thriving becomes the norm in policy, service provision and community based support.