Multi-problem families

Criminology Research Council grant ; (1/73)

In 1970 the late John Harrison, Secretary to the Tasmanian Law Society, was perturbed by the number of times members of the same families requested legal aid, and suggested inquiries should be made.

A high level committee with wide and senior representation from Parliament, the law, government departments and voluntary agencies met and with a grant from the Mental Health Services Commission, Dr E. Cunningham Dax undertook the organisation of the research. A research assistant, Mrs Lyn Davies, was appointed: the membership and support of the committee guaranteed the utmost assistance and co-operation from all the relevant bodies. It was appreciated that Tasmania had all the necessary epidemiological advantages for such a study.

The research was begun by asking a number of key departments to give the list of names of the 30 most frequently encountered families which had often been in difficulties. From these, 12 names were selected as being common to most of these agencies (this was later expanded to 15) and who were all in the south of the State, none of whom were Aboriginal and none born before 1900.

It immediately became obvious these were identical with the multi-problem families described from many countries, though never in great detail in Australia. Most of the researches which had been carried out elsewhere had been of a descriptive nature and the quantitative as opposed to the qualitative findings were sparse.

The Tasmanian Attorney-General, The Hon. Max Bingham, applied to the newly formed Australian Institute of Criminology for a grant to aid this work, though at the time the members of the Criminology Research Council had not yet been appointed. This eventually resulted in the first grant given by the Council being for this research project.

The grant enabled Mrs Rona Hagger, a senior social worker, to be appointed and to make detailed inquiries and recordings of all the families.

No attempt was made to carry out any remedial social work on any of the families, as the research was purely a detailed investigation of certain aspects of the problem. It was hoped this would give a background on which of the various agencies concerned could work with assurance and knowledge. On the whole it was easier to discuss the families with the more successful members, and indeed their means of attaining their own accomplishments added some valuable findings to the research.

Amongst the general findings such as desertion, alcoholism, housing problems, high mobility, large families, squalor, poverty through mismanagement, incest, violence, poor schooling, truancy, delinquency and many more such features, two measurable factors were selected as of special importance. These were the criminal offences and the traffic convictions, and were ascertained in detail for each of the family members.

The first publication was in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 1973; this showed the method of construction of the extensive family trees. Certain qualitative findings were recorded for each of the many individuals investigated, though as the researches were developed later, these were amplified so eventually a person could be identified on the charts as exhibiting delinquency, prison, violence, broken home, alcoholism, incest, de facto relationships, desertion, divorce, illegitimacy, mental illness, intellectual handicap, death.

Such charts, extending in some families to even a hundred or so members, were constructed for each of the families. It was of considerable interest to watch the progress of these factors from one generation to the next. It was also of importance to see the common inter-relationships between the families.

In consequence, a series of 12 papers and a booklet on multi-problem families were published showing their related criminal offences, their psychiatric illnesses and intellectual handicap, their traffic convictions, their medical histories and their recidivism. Some were general articles illustrating the importance of the study of these families in the fields of inadequacy, motor vehicle use and epidemiology.

Concurrently, with the participation of Mrs Lorinne Boyce, a research social worker, another major research project had been developed over some years in the same Mental Health Research Unit, to show the relationship between intellectual handicap and driving offences.

After a series of articles were published in various journals, the work was summarised in a Research Publication by the Australian Road Research Board under the title 'The Illiterate on the Road'.

One of its major conclusions was that it was not the intellectually handicapped who were the danger on the road, but instead the 'socially handicapped' or 'culturally retarded'. This research from another angle came to the same conclusion, which was that those who, from an educational viewpoint, are the most prone to road offences are the same group as were identified as those coming from the multi-problem families.

It has been shown that the multi-problem family members comprise from 5 to 10 per cent of the community, but use from 50 to 80 per cent of the social services, depending on how either are defined, and therefore their cost to the community is enormous.

The identification of these families is of the greatest possible importance from the point of view of the education authorities, the social and welfare services, the police, the correctional services, physical and mental health, the employment departments and the road safety authorities, as in all these instances they may form a large proportion of their work.

Why, one may ask, is this matter so neglected? Early on the researchers found considerable objections raised under the guise of labelling, discrimination, human rights, social class, social prejudice, often from social workers themselves. It seemed they were more prepared to deal with the consequences rather than to face the basic causes. Yet history has shown the failure to solve the problems of the socially handicapped when using piecemeal 'band j aid' methods applied by a multitude of uncoordinated agencies.

The subject is unlikely to be popular, or to command much support, until its vast financial and social implications are understood. Blind political ignorance must be overcome, interdepartmental rivalry removed and the jealously guarded territories of the overlapping social workers reorganised. One of the major social problems has been identified - the extent of its disabling effects has been demonstrated; the difficulty arises as to how to ensure that action is taken on the findings.