Youth homelessness is a problem of families, those coping with domestic violence, alcoholism or anger and unhappiness. And the answers lie within the family.
BE IT EVER so awful, there’s no place like home. Ask the homeless teenagers surveyed by the psychologist Andrew Fuller. More than 60 per cent had tried to return home at least once, most were still in touch with their families and their biggest problem, they said, was that they missed their mother and father.
Mr Fuller, who works with the Austin Hospital’s department of child, adolescent and family psychiatry, last year surveyed 50 homeless young people. He found many were still emotionally connected to their families and that this was good for them. Those who admitted loving their parents were far less likely to have tried to kill themselves.
“Kids value families even when the families are clearly negative,” Mr Fuller says. “Even those kids who may have slammed the door behind them, vowing never to return, some time down the track want some connection with their family.”
The ties that bind, then, can be very strong. So what is it that breaks them, that causes someone too young to look after themselves to be left facing the world alone? Some homeless kids have fled families that are no longer safe, or perhaps have never been so; households in which there is domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, neglect or child abuse, whether it be physical, sexual or emotional.
But others are victims of less dramatic family dynamics; homes that are simply angry and unhappy. They leave home after years of family rows that could not be resolved and/or exploded into violence. A disproportionate number of homeless kids come from step-families and single-parent families. But others have left simply because they and their parents could not find a way through the minefield that is “normal” teenage development.
The stormy process of becoming an adult has lengthened and intensified over the past 20 years. Puberty now begins earlier, but other factors also come into play. In the 1960s, a 15-year-old fighting with parents could walk out of the house and into a job and a new life. But not anymore. With high unemployment, the need for more schooling and the trend to later marriage, today’s young people live in the family home for much longer than previous generations. When this enforced intimacy is combined with unresolved fights over issues like freedom and responsibility, or with a poorer family’s struggle to stay afloat financially, the result can be explosive.
Laurel Downey is the coordinator of MATTERS (Mediation and Therapy to Enhance Relationships), a program of the Sutherland Community Resource Centre. She sees many families when their child becomes homeless for the first time and is living in a youth refuge or community residential care.
“Many are families that are basically OK but are having developmental difficulties; normal adolescent stuff that’s got out of hand,” Ms Downey says. “Maybe the kids want more freedom than they are allowed, but the parents want to be responsible and refuse them.
So the kids rebel, the parents tighten up more and the kids run away.”
Often the parents are not responding as they normally would because the issue has touched on a painful experience from their own adolescence: “It may be child sexual abuse, the death of a parent that’s a really big one or it may be that mum had an
abortion at 15 and is paranoid about the daughter getting pregnant. Or else they worry about the way the world is; they fear that the world is a dangerous place.
“Sometimes it’s that the parents need to do some work on the marriage. Adolescent problems can be a good way of avoiding marriage problems; everyone focuses on the kid being horrible instead. And then there’s the past few years of recessions there have been a lot of families in which unexpected redundancy or business failure has put the family in poverty. Poverty makes it hard to be a good parent, partly because of the way it makes people see themselves. If you find yourself on the pension and are unable to cope with that, it’s very hard to put across a positive image to the children.”
In the past decade, the number of families dependent on government benefits has risen dramatically. In 1983, 19 per cent of children under 16 had parents on social security benefits. By 1992, the figure was 36 per cent.
Family structure seems to be significant, too. In a Department of Social Security survey of 1670 homeless young people, it was found that only 31 per cent had been living with both natural parents before they left home. Forty-two per cent had been living with one parent only, and 17 per cent with one natural and one step-parent (including de factos). Others had been in a variety of arrangements such as an extended family or foster care.
Mr Fuller says: “Quite often they are from families that in the past have resolved major problems by having one of the parents leave.
You see kids who use this as a way of coping, so that whenever anything difficult comes up they do a runner. They never stick around long enough to solve anything.”
But Karen Flanagan, coordinator of the child sexual abuse treatment program with the Children’s Protection Society, points out that some mothers are alone for the sake of their children. Many of the runaway kids she counsels are from single-parent families, she says, “but a lot of those mothers are single because they left an abusive perpetrator”.
Studies have found that up to 40 per cent of young homeless women have a history of abuse. Some flee because of this, but others tolerate sexual abuse and leave home only when the abuser also becomes physically violent. Suzanne Fermanis is the director of Southern Family Life counselling services, which helps more than 1000 families a year. She says that the relative affluence of the suburbs that the service covers, which include Brighton, Sandringham and Mordialloc, belies “alarming statistics” on the prevalence of domestic violence and child sexual and physical abuse.
Violence is a problem in 34 per cent of the centre’s cases, and in another 20 per cent counsellors believe there is some risk to the children. A family therapist with the service, Miriam Clarke, says that child sexual abuse “is committed by family members far more often than by strangers”. Children who have experienced this can be extremely promiscuous in their teenage years, or totally rejecting of sex, anorexic or obese, or prone to self-mutilation, substance abuse or psychosis.
Ms Clarke says: “But it’s important to remember that the effects of emotional abuse are so similar to the effects of sexual abuse that sometimes it’s quite hard to discern what’s gone on. A parent is emotionally abusive if they are constantly putting down the child, constantly telling them they’re no good, they’re stupid, they’re ugly, that they wish they had been drowned at birth.
“Another form of emotional abuse is inconsistency. Sometimes the parent will be happy to admire a child’s painting, another time they’ll scream at them to get out. And it’s not just a case of mother being busy. It’s intended to hurt. There are some families in which the boundaries are never clear; one day you can do something, the next you can’t.”
Ms Fermanis says: “The children can’t trust their perceptions of what’s real. Later in life that can cause them to lose touch with reality.”
Step-families can have special problems. In 1992, only 8 per cent of couples with dependent children contained step-children, but one Melbourne study found that 40 per cent of the young homeless surveyed came from step-families. If a child is still angry or grieving over the absence of one parent, it can make it particularly difficult for them to take to a step-parent. The more they dislike the step-parent, the more time they will spend out of the house and away from the family, according to Dr Ruth Webber, head of the department of sociology, social work and administration at the Australian Catholic University.
Dr Webber has been researching step-families for 10 years. She has found that problems often develop when step-parents see themselves as substitute parents, unaware that their spouses might want them to be just a partner and the children view them as little more than a boarder in the house “As mum or dad’s friend, not theirs,” Dr Webber says. “When you see unhappy step-families, you find that they have totally different views from each other and have never really sat down and discussed their expectations.”
In a happy step-family, the parents are pleased with the level of authority and discipline and the children feel loved, valued and trusted by both parent figures. If a step-parent tries to discipline before an affectionate relationship has been established, the child feels driven away, Dr Webber says.
“In one family the step-father was such a strong disciplinarian that the 15-year-old girl just hid in her bedroom immediately after dinner,” she says. “He wasn’t abusive, just up-tight and controlling, but she just hated him. She would bring boys home from the station after school before her mum and dad got home; she was trying to find love and affection outside the family. That girl was at high risk of homelessness.”
In many step-families with intense conflict, parents feel they must choose between a child and a new partner. The older the child, the more likely it is that the parent will choose the partner and show the teenager the door.
Some young people have gone from victim to offender and are thrown out of home because of their violence. Laurel Downey says the Sutherland centre works with many 13 to 17-year-olds who bash walls, break windows and threaten their siblings and parents with weapons ranging from knives to crossbows. Often their fathers had a history of violence, perhaps many years ago, and the children repeat the pattern when they are big enough to become physically threatening themselves.
“Often single mothers face violent children,” Ms Downie says.
“Research indicates that kids from single-parent families do just as well as others if their economic standard is similar, and that poverty, not single parenthood, causes about 80 per cent of their problems. But a lot of single mothers are single because of the husband’s violence and, although they had the strength to leave him, they find it harder to throw out a violent son or daughter.”
Sometimes it is necessary to save the child from the family; other times to save the family from the child. But the ideal would be to help all parties work together to sort out problems before the door is slammed.
Mr Fuller says his survey indicates the “incredible importance” of the family and the need for services to support it. “These kids tried and tried and tried to return home, and their parents tried to re- accommodate them, but they had no help to change the underlying problems that had caused the homelessness.
“Obviously, reuniting people and having the kids live at home shouldn’t always be the goal; you wouldn’t want to put a sexually abused girl back with the perpetrator. But family-therapy services should be available to people before there needs to be protective intervention. Sometimes as few as six sessions can be enough to change a family’s patterns.”
First published in The Age.