Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Planned Respite Care: Hope for Families under Pressure

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Planned Respite Care: Hope for Families under Pressure

Article excerpt

   In the mid 1990s Sydney newspapers carried the story of the death of a six
   year old boy in a large coastal town. The boy lived with his mother, her
   partner and other brothers and sisters. Neither his mother nor her partner
   had a job and had recently moved from another town. Welfare agencies had
   been notified several times about bruises on, and general neglect of, the
   family's children. One day the boy's mother visited the local Community
   Service Centre. She told the staff that she needed a break from her kids as
   they were very demanding and she wanted to go out with her partner. She was
   afraid she might harm her kids if she didn't have a break. Her request was
   turned down. The Centre's resources were stretched and they couldn't offer
   respite care. Two weeks later the mother and her partner bludgeoned the boy
   to death.

1. History and purpose of respite care

Respite, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, is `to relieve temporarily, especially from anything distressing or trying; to give an interval of relief from.' In a family support context it means providing relief from the relentless demands of parenting, especially for those who experience the additional stress of poverty, isolation or coping alone.

It is generally acknowledged that child-rearing can be a difficult task. Most families encounter stresses in domestic life which, at times, are beyond their capacity to cope. In such cases many can call on an extended network of available family and friends able to take on some of the tasks of parenting for a time. Others lack such assistance, either because they do not have readily accessible family or friends or because they lack confidence in those people's capacity to offer adequate care to their children.

For such families, respite care can take many forms. For children `at risk' respite often consists of 24-hour care for one or two days a month in an alternative family setting within the community. Respite care services can also help families who need crisis care, as when, for example, the main caregiver is unexpectedly hospitalised.

1.1. Background to respite care

Respite has long been a critically important service for families of children with a disability, to provide breaks from full-time care in order to keep the child within the family unit.

In the 1950s and 1960s respite was offered mainly in such institutional settings as hospitals and large specialised care centres. Later, parent groups began lobbying for more flexible arrangements and respite that was similar to the child's own home. A number of community respite centres began in England in the early 1970s. Soon after in Sydney a group called Action for Handicapped Citizens initiated a community-based respite care service called Interchange.

As respite in the disabilities field developed, welfare practitioners began to recognise that social and economic stress could also impede family functioning. Research was beginning to explore the links between family stress, social supports and the risk of child maltreatment (Garbarino 1976). There was good reason to believe that respite from the demands of parenting in difficult circumstances might be as significant a service for families at risk of breakdown and abuse as it was for those of children with a disability (Szwarc 1993). Child welfare agencies responded to this thinking. For example, in 1976 Barnardos began its first NSW respite care program, named Temporary Family Care.

The aim of the Barnados program was to aid disadvantaged families in the rapid resolution of family crises. It soon became apparent that planned episodes of care could assist parents to cope better with their difficulties. Families experienced fewer breakdowns and were less likely to go from crisis to crisis when they had access to regular planned care. Since that time Temporary Family Care has been established in other areas and a number of other child and family welfare agencies have developed their own respite services, usually as part of a wider system of family support. …

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