The Gold Coast Safe Cities Project – a response from MRA concerning the ill effects of divorce and separation on children and adults – May 1997 

In May 1997, the Premier of Queensland, the Hon. R.A. Borbidge commissioned a study into ways to make our communities safer and this is MRA’s contribution to the study.

Effects of Divorce and Separation on Children:

During the seventies and eighties, popular opinion and research of the day tried desperately to prove that children did not suffer any ill-effects from separation and divorce. Some later researchers, even though acknowledging separation does affect children, were keen to show the damage children suffer takes place during the conflict before separation and that divorce provides some relief.

These assumptions are rapidly being overturned as people realise divorce and separation does have an adverse effect on children, especially now the search is on for answers of how to deal with the ever increasing problems of youth suicide and crime.

In recent years, several surveys based on substantial research have demonstrated there is a relationship between youth crime, homelessness, drug addiction and family breakdown that results in separation and divorce.

Barry Maley for the Centre for Independent Studies has discussed Australian, British and American research in his recent booklet “Wedlock and Wellbeing”.

  • Australian research is not as far advanced as the other two nations, but shows a disturbingly similar pattern to the strong relationship between fatherless families and juvenile problems.
  • Quoting statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (1994), the Burdekin Report 1989 and a study by Paul Amato, Maley makes the powerful point that there is a significant correlation between frequency of criminal offending and disrupted family circumstances, especially sole parenthood.

For example the following points are made:

  • Statistics collated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (1994) indicate that the rate of sexual abuse of children in defacto couple families is more than three times the rate in natural or adoptive families.
  • The Burdekin Report (1989) on homeless children suggests somewhere between 75 per cent and 100 per cent of the homeless children surveyed were from step families or lone parent households.
  • Paul Amato (1987) interviewed 402 children living in Victoria. Half were eight to nine years old, the balance were between fifteen and sixteen years old. Both groups reported they get significantly less help from step fathers than from biological fathers in intact families and the children in step families had lower level of reading ability, self control and self esteem.

Turning to British and American research Maley also details the following:

British social scientist, Patricia Morgan (1995) after considering several British and American studies found ….

  • Delinquent behaviour is 10 per cent to 15 per cent more prevalent for children without both their natural parents
  • In a study of young offenders, it was found that 52 of 74 offenders were living with neither parent or with a sole parent and of the remaining 22, several were living with step-parents, defacto parents or grandparents
  • A Cambridge study of Delinquent Development showed that delinquents were more likely to be born ex-nuptually, and that the risk of delinquency doubled where homes were broken by divorce
  • The British National Child Development Study found that 8 per cent of boys living with both their natural parents had been to court at some time, compared with 16 per cent of those living with sole parent mothers and 19 per cent living with step-fathers. Higher rates of child homicide and abuse are correlated with high rates of births to teenagers, with divorce and with ex-nuptial parenting
  • British court records show that child abuse is 20 times more likely when the parents are not married. Also, the risk of child abuse for children whose mothers were cohabiting was five and a half times greater than for children with stepfathers.

American researchers, according to Barry Maley concur with the English findings. Noteworthy of mention are …

  • McClanahan and Sandefur quoting from five American surveys concluded … “we reject the claim that children raised by only one parent do just as well as children raised by both parents. We have been studying this question for ten years and in our opinion the evidence is quite clear. Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow in a household with both their biological parents”.
  • Social historian with the University of Chicago, Barbara Whitehead notes (1993) American statistics show that … “Nationally, more than 70 per cent of all juveniles in state reform institutions came from fatherless homes…”

It is apparent that fatherlessness is one of the major contributing factors leading to delinquency, depression and low self-esteem.

Effects of Divorce and Separation on Adults:

The effects of separation and divorce impact not only on the children, but can lead to a set of circumstances that encourages or places adults, both male and female into a risk category that will affect their well being.

Placing a family into a situation where minimal assets are divided leaving both parties with insufficient to provide adequate housing and income support leaves many at risk of poverty. Not just the mother who is more likely to have the care of the children and becomes reliant on welfare housing and government pension support, but also the father who endeavours to pay the high level of child support required under government legislation and administered by the Child support Agency, leaving little for his own care and support. Let alone the financial ability of supporting his children during access visits. It is not unusual to see fathers trying to exist on as little as $30 – $40 per week after paying their tax, rent and a couple of essential bills.

It is hardly surprising that some will inevitably succumb to the stress and lack of hope that seems to surround their lives after separation, thereby finding themselves unable to cope both financially and psychologically, which may result in their resignation or forced termination from their employment.

Poverty, unemployment, the continual struggle to support their children, whether as the primary care parent or the contact parent can lead to severe depression resulting in suicide, frustration and the feeling of helplessness forcing some to take action in anger to resolve the financial and emotional crisis’s, possibly resulting in violence with each other or involving other innocent bystanders. Not to mention turning to drugs and alcohol seeking to forget their circumstances.

Once again, Barry Maley details the following evidence to support the claim that marriage is not only good for children but for adults as well, leading to the premise that “In general, married men and women are healthier, happier and live longer, feel more fulfilled and take better care of themselves”.

Glen Stanton (1995) quotes the following conclusions from a review of 130 published empirical studies by Professor Robert H. Coombs, Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the University of California

  • … married people live longer and generally are more emotionally and physically healthy than the unmarried;
  • Studies consistently find more alcoholism and problem drinking among the unmarried than the married;
  • Empirical support dating back to the 19th century shows that the highest suicide rates occur among the divorced, the widowed and the never married and the lowest among the married;
  • The married consistently show lower mortality rates than the single, widowed or divorced persons;
  • … married people spend fewer days in bed due to acute illness than single … and…. divorced women have double the rate of injuries as married women;
  • … the separated and the divorced of both sexes experience particularly high mental health risks;
  • … no part of the unmarried population – separated, divorced, widowed or never married – describes itself as being so happy and contented with life as the married.

Crime is escalating at alarming rates, single or separated people appear to be more at risk of becoming a victim of crime (surveys have acknowledged the safest place for a woman is in a married, stable relationship) and suicide, particularly male suicide is increasing.

Overseas published statistics reported in The Ottawa Sun and an article by American journalist, Betty Hart in the American Women’s Quarterly, from figures taken from the U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey state “marriage is a safe haven for women – a married woman is 5 times less likely to be attacked that a single, separated or divorced woman and 10 times less likely to be raped (Statistically widows are safest of all).”

Other alarming statistical evidence shows crime committed by women and girls is escalating at an unprecedented rate.

Straus and Gelles in their 1985 papers concluded that whilst men’s violence was decreasing, women’s violence was increasing. This can be seen not only in the home, but in the rising level of criminal activity committed by females.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports show that in a decade between 1983 and 1992, women over 18 arrested for violent crimes rose 73 per cent, while those under 18 rose by 83 per cent. Arrests for forcible rape by women over 18 rose by 46 per cent, under 18 by 91 per cent. For offences against “family and children” the increase in arrests for women over 18 rose by over 235 per cent.

Don’t dismiss these figures as a phenomena peculiar to America or other overseas nations with the thought that is doesn’t happen in Australia.

Increasing violence and crimes committed by women in Australia, especially younger women resulted in NSW Magistrate, Steve Scarlett declaring “girls are going berserk”.

Even the Women’s Safety Survey 1996 acknowledges that 27 per cent of assaults on women are committed by other women. A figure that has received little acknowledgement or publicity.

The rising divorce culture has undoubtedly played a significant part in the escalation of dys-functional people whose current circumstances cause them to become an “at risk person”, either as a victim of crime or as an offender.

Unfortunately, some government policies, whilst being well-intentioned, have contributed to the rising divorce rate. Not enough support has been concentrated on keeping families together.

The push for feminist jurisprudence has reflected on our legislation for some years now. Ostensibly in search of equality for women it has become extremely clear that men are now suffering a reverse discrimination as a result of too radical a pursuit. Using the name of the just goal of seeking equality, a minority of extreme feminists are seeking their own self serving style of superiority. Equality should mean equality for all people – men, women and children. No group should be seeking supremacy over another.

The Federal Government has declared its support for the family and appears to be moving towards changing the unsustainable concept that women only are victims and only men are perpetrators.

Historically, the facts were on the table long before Australia adopted the modernist view point of “No fault divorce”.

Back as early as 1918, the Russians tried easy no-fault divorce until the populace became so alarmed at the growing rate of homeless, aggressive youths roaming the streets that in 1944 divorce was made more difficult to achieve and more expensive, and the divorce rate dropped from 34% in 1934 to just 10% in 1965. In 1965, the Russians again moved to make divorce easier and their divorce rate once again escalated to 72 per cent in 1994.

Interestingly all countries that follow a “no fault” policy have high rates of divorce compared to marriages. Canada 43%, Great Britain 66%, USA 65% .Compare this to countries such as Germany that does not have this policy. Their rate was 10% in 1995.

In the meantime we have a problem of dysfunctional, separated families and their children that have to be dealt with on an urgent basis, if we are to make our communities safer.

We now have more that two generations of young people who have been raised in single parent families or not with both natural parents. Many of these young people have not experienced the beneficial role modelling provided by both their parents. Many have no idea how to relate to the opposite sex and how a normal relationship between men and women needs care, respect and a great deal of hard work to nurture into a fulfilling relationship. Girls have been raised with the idea that men are not really needed and that girls are capable of doing anything and boys raised with the idea they are useless, prone to violence and now apparently poor academic performers. Undoubtedly girls are capable of doing most things, but in the attempts to lift their status and self esteem one should not be denigrating boys or at the expense of boys.

We wonder just what did society expect of our youngsters? Did they believe the indoctrination of obligatory hardline feminist dictums would turn out balanced human beings? Surely they suspected it was wrong or were people just silenced by political correctness?

An anecdotal illustration may serve to emphasise the point we are making. A young boy, eight years old whose school class comprises more girls than boys came home to his mother one day complaining that his teacher was not fair. On being questioned he explained that whenever the girls did something good the teacher praised them, but whenever the boys did something good – nothing was said. They were ignored. A type of reverse criticism in not offering praise when praise should be offered.

Much as we would like to see a reduction in the divorce rate it will be many years before that will happen, if at all. According to the findings of Dr. Martin Richards of the Cambridge University Institute of Family Studies, if divorce is inevitable good continuing access with both parents can alleviate some of the problems experienced by children of the marriage.

After 28 years studying 17,000 children born in one week of 1958, where the subjects were rechecked at the ages of 7, 16 and 23 he concluded that children of divorced parents suffered many problems associated with low self esteem as the previously mentioned studies found, but as a solution he stated good access to both parents was essential.

Unfortunately the standard accepted by the Family Court and many of the counselling services is for fortnightly access and half the school holidays. MRA is of the opinion shared custody/contact should become the standard norm in an attempt to give children the opportunity to learn from both their mothers and fathers the valuable lessons each is able to impart. Thus allowing the children to experience a balanced role modelling of adult male and female behaviour and their relationship to each other.

Solutions for “Safer Cities”:

Immediate solutions to the growing crime rate to make our cities safer are difficult to ascribe without being seen as “Band-Aid” remedies that will have little lasting effect.

From MRA’s point of view we would like to see the following improvements:

  • acceptance of the programme of support for fathers with relationship difficulties currently undertaken by MRA – that provides access to legal, counselling and financial advice and the expansion of those services;
  • a continuing programme to raise the level of the status of men/fathers and recognition of the important contributory role they have in raising their children;
  • an increase in the number of male school teachers, especially in primary grades;
  • a reduction in the amount of literature that obviously denigrates men as a whole, particularly in relation to the domestic violence issue i.e.(the one in three women at risk figure used by the Office for the Status of Women has been shown to be false and should not be allowed to be used any longer);
  • redesign all brochures dealing with domestic violence to portray that both men and women can be victims and both can be perpetrators;
  • ensure the establishment of a telephone contact service for fathers when their wives and children are in a refuge. This was recommended by MRA in our submission to the Department of Families, Youth and Community Care in March 1996. This recommendation was endorsed by the Minister in August 1996, but has yet to come to fruition. (It is paramount that these men should be able to reassure themselves of their childrens’ and wife’s safety);
  • a programme of counselling and re-education for those young people with obvious dys-functional attitudes to raise their level of awareness that compassion and respect for other people and their property should be paramount and that by showing respect for others that will contribute greatly to raising the level of their own self esteem.

The family is the cornerstone of our civilisation and any steps that we can take to prevent family breakdown or if that is inevitable, maintain good access by both parents to their children must be a significant contribution to society’s well being.

Perhaps at this stage we should leave you with the comments and findings of Sampson & Laub (1993: 95,97) for your consideration when deliberating how to make our cities safer.

“A major finding of our analysis is that family process variables are strongly and directly related to delinquency… and that given the overall nature of our results, it is troubling that many sociological explanations of crime ignore the family.”