Picking up the pieces: family disasters

“Picking up the pieces: Family functioning in the aftermath of natural disaster”

by Catherine Caruana, “Family Matters” No. 84, 2010.

Published by “Australian Institute of Family Studies” (2010)

When it suits ‘the politics ‘of the subject, then any ‘exposure’ to a trauma is said to be a “relatively common human experience” (i.e. say, around 50%). The implied expectation is that the human spirit will survive if not flourish in adversity and is part and parcel of the rich tapestry of normal life and which form the education on offer from the University of Life.
However, this laissez faire philosophy is never the attitude adopted by Social Scientists in matters related to inter-personal violence, or children witnessing violence, or of children feeling the pain of their parents’ divorce, or the after-shocks of custody disputes.
When it comes to ‘surviving’ natural disasters, e.g. floods, fire, landslides, and extreme droughts, we have one set of rules but another and unconnected set for divorce and child custody. Equally, we have one set of social scientists advising that divorce and child custody are ruinous for the prospects of children while others thinks such events are, in themselves, natural disasters and on a par with floods, forest fire, volcanoes, and extreme droughts.


This is not, as one might suppose, from the title and the source (i.e. the AIFS), a scholarly assessment of divorce and its impact on society. No, it is instead an analytical commentary by the AIFS of family destruction caused by naturally occurring weather  disasters.[1]

Australia has been buffeted over the past few years by extremes of weather from devastating floods in one area to extreme droughts in others.

Stories of horror and suffering, triggered by unprecedented destruction of property and loss of life were occasioned in Feb 2009 by the immense bushfires that swept across the province of Victoria.

Extensive flooding occurred across the entire eastern seaboard of Australia in the months that followed. In some areas, drought relief funding was temporarily re-allocated for flood relief. The report then goes on to say:

  • While far from unusual occurrences in Australia, the fires and floods afflicting the continent in early 2009 may be the harbinger of more frequent and ferocious weather events associated with climate change. Coupled with protracted drought across much of the country, these events have dealt a heavy financial, social and personal blow on rural and urban fringe communities.

And it is at this point one realises that nothing is actually being done about man-made but equally serious disasters, namely, divorce and father– child separation imposed by courts. This creates it own horror stories – and by the tens of thousands.

The system that gives life to divorce courts and child ‘orphaning’ is as capricious as the weather and just as impossible to blame or sue. Unlike natural disaster where the collective outpouring of grief gives rise to Relief Funds and generous donations roll in there is no such fund and no such generosity for any of the victims of divorce of this state-sponsored disaster.

What better words are there than these for a natural disaster for summing up the catastrophe which is divorce and collateral damage which includes custody battles ?

  • For the families directly affected, surviving the lived reality and aftermath of acute and chronic natural disaster can be bewildering and arduous. What follows is a review of the literature on the psychosocial impacts of both sudden-onset, catastrophic events (such as severe bushfires) and chronic, slow-onset ecological disasters (such as drought) on individual and family functioning, with a particular focus on the responses of children and adolescents.

Bewildering, arduous, psycho-social impacts, sudden-onset”, are all adjectives and adverbs common to fathers separated from their children. For ‘bushfires’ read court room tactics, and affidavit after affidavit; for ‘drought’ read absence from one’s child or children for extended periods of time – sometimes months.

Expectation of disaster

The “Australian Institute of Family Studies” (AIFS) paper then goes on to discuss and define “disaster trauma.” Apparently, around 50% – 65% of Australians, and a similar proportion in the United States, will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. In those terms exposure to trauma is a relatively common human experience. Given this figure one wonders how much more of a psychological impact divorce must be to Britons and continentals who have no such extremes of weather conditions and far fewer disasters ? One also has to note the correlation of 50% with the incidence and prevalence of divorce rates which are very comparable in some countries.

According to work done by Creamer, Burgess, & McFarlane ( 2001), surviving a natural disaster has been found to be the third most common type of traumatic experience. This, one suspects, put Europeans at a distinct disadvantage.

The AIFS paper defines natural disasters as:

  •   flood; famine; drought; bushfires; earthquakes; tornados; tsunamis; and mudslides

These events affect millions of people worldwide every year with Australian studies showing that around 20% of men and only 13% of women are exposed to natural disasters over their lifetime. [2]

Globally the estimated prevalence would be considerably higher than this owing to ‘developing countries’ – particularly those in the Asian region – reporting a disproportionate number of catastrophic incidents than other nations e.g. Germany or Norway. [3] Thus, poorly equipped and poorly endowed countries suffer worse effects and suffer more often.

Divorce seen as a ‘natural disaster’

Family Matters No. 84’ conveniently displays in what it terms “Box 1” what it sees as constituting a “disaster”

In the literature, “disaster” is commonly conceived as an adverse event or situation beyond the capacity of the local community to manage. Furthermore, to qualify as a disaster for the purposes of the research conducted by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), an event must involve at least one of the following criteria:

  • 10 or more people killed;
  • 100 or more people affected;
  • a declaration of a state of emergency; and/or
  • a call for international assistance (Rodriguez et al., 2008).

Divorce easily meets the first two criteria. Suicide from divorce and or insanely high Child Support demands have accounted for not tens but hundreds of lives. And each year not a 100 but tens of thousands are affected.

It would easily meet the third criterion if government s would wake up to reality and declare state of emergency as its society fragmented before its eyes. The fourth, a call for international assistance, is never going to happen as each country is absorbed with its own on-going social catastrophe.

Using the same source disaster ‘events’ can be classified in a number of ways:

  1. disasters that occur naturally or result from human negligence or intent (or a combination of both);
  2. events that are sudden and catastrophic or unfold over a period of time; and
  3. incidents that are specific to a distinct geographical location or that are more diffuse in reach.

Again, divorce and father-child separation  fully meet the first two  conditions and arguably  meet the diffuse in reach and specific to a distinct geographical location, i.e. wherever there is no-fault divorce, stipulations.

Lack of research

The AIFS journal goes on to say that despite extensive psycho-social research into the human response to a wide range of acute disaster events conducted over the last 60 years, the human cost of drought has only recently become a focus of study. Equally, one could argue that in the same 60 years despite extensive psycho-social research into family break-ups, all governments have chosen to ignore the cost to the economy until recently.

Paralleling divorce the AIFS states that the literature on natural disasters

  • “ . . . . indicates that differentiating between ‘outcomes’ from particular types of events is less important than adopting an approach that focuses on the severity and the duration of the traumatic experience, the losses incurred and the resources available in the aftermath to support recovery.”

In other words, policy makers have not differentiated the well-being of children living in SMHs (single mother households), compared with those living in shared parenting arrangements. ‘Focusing on the severity and the duration of the traumatic experience’ maps immaculately onto the holy grail of reform policy makers to make divorce and break-ups as painless and seamless as possible.

The losses incurred by a father are ignored and the resources available in the aftermath to support recovery are allocated  heavily in favour of the divorcing wife,  thus making a personal disaster into a personal tragedy.

In Family functioning in the aftermath of natural disaster (AIFS),  Catherine Caruana writes of the crossover in learning  this brings  and for it  allowing for :

  •  the recognition that each event is unique, and that each affected community will respond in a unique way.

How familiar this sounds to those who have argue against the way custody is exercised in the family courts ? How can ‘each case’ be substantively different when the trauma is the same and the dilemmas are the same  and the need for a child to see both its parents is the same ?

Especially when family court divorce and custody matters are not dealt with in a unique way, each deserving of time to reflect, but are rubber-stamped out on a conveyor belt system of justice ?

The process of recovery from sudden and slow-onset environmental change, [natural disasters] viewed at an individual, household and community level will vary depending on the personal, cultural, social, economic and political factors at play.

How very true this is. The process of recovery from a sudden or a slow-onset of environmental change (divorce and child custody), viewed through the prism of an individual, or a household or a community will – at one and the same time – be the same, yet vary.  it depend very much  on the person, the cultural, and socio-economic and political factors influencing the climate.

Lingering damage

The aftermath of divorce is the creation of single-parent households and of millions of children growing up without the full-time input and guiding hand of a father. The damage this does to children has been known about since the 1930s, yet 70, and 80 years later all governments are disinterested in addressing it.

In Australia and in most Westernised countries many if not all single-parent households (SMH) rely heavily on both Social Security payments paid for by the general tax-payer and Child Support paid for by the father. There is at no time any amount of money the mothers pays herself or contributes to her own upkeep or that of the child. She is divorced but has effectively married immediately thereafter to the state. Countries, having made divorce easier, forgot to take in to consideration the huge cost burden that unproductive SMHs pose to the welfare benefits system.

The child support regime was established originally to off-load or if not certainly reduce the taxpayers’ contributions towards welfare benefits claimed by stay-at-home SMH.

The ‘spin’ put on this off-loading by the state of the liability it had induced was that fathers should pay for being divorced by their wives and should pay to see their own children after divorce. Conveniently, the inability of some fathers to fund two households, in whole or in part, became the hammer and the paint brush to tar all fathers as being unreliable and feckless.

The alternative ‘spin’ put on this off-loading by the state was to cushion the living standards of children after divorce and improve their chances of not falling – with their mother – into comparative poverty. But anyone living on Unemployment Benefits can attest that even with ‘top-ups’ and ‘disregards’, welfare benefits rarely fully compensate for an earned income.

Dense governments ?

Governments, in promoting easier divorce in the 1970s, must have known – or were even more dense than we give them credit for – that living standards would have to fall somewhere, either on the part of the ex-husband, or the ex-wife, or the children, or all three. Making second marriages a possibility were dashed in the late 1980s when CS was introduced. This made a pauper of any second wife and subsequent family who attached herself to a divorced man..

Sweeping reforms lasting from July 2006 to July 2008 were therefore well overdue in Australia – as they were in the UK. The most significant changes to Income Support eligibility for SMHs saw Welfare to Work (WTW) introduced for single-resident parents, plus the re-calculation basis of Child Support (CS).

Policy makers like to use ‘models’, but AIFS states that the combined financial effects of the above CS changes were not designed as part of either of the reform packages – although the two were linked in their aims.

The WTW changes focused on reducing the welfare bill “in light of projected rates of social welfare dependency and Australia’s ageing population.” This must mean that government had at last recognised that a welfare dependency culture had emerged.

The goals of Australia’s Child Support reforms of 2006 – 08 included sharing the “real” costs of children fairly between both parents within a new social framework of increased workforce participation of mothers. A wider policy agenda of encouraging ‘shared parental responsibility’ was also a component (Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support, 2005), as it was at more or less the same time in the UK.

Linked to the introduction of a new Child Support scheme were changes to Social Security payments, in particular to Family Tax Benefit (FTB) payments. The lack of wit and imagination within governments alluded to above is crystallised in this last comment from ‘Family Matters No. 84, 2010’ of the AIFS journal:

  • “Despite the potential significance of these combined changes to low-income single-parent households, the intersection of the reforms was not considered.”

[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Family Matters No. 84, 2010. http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/fm2010/fm84/fm84j.html

[2] Ref. McFarlane, 2005.

[3] Ref. Scheuren et al., 2008. See ‘Family Matters No. 84, 2010’, AIFS journal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s