Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Creating `Child-Friendly' Communities: A Strategy to Reclaim Children from Risk

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Creating `Child-Friendly' Communities: A Strategy to Reclaim Children from Risk

Article excerpt

The prevalence of child and adolescent problems

In Australia today there is considerable concern about the difficulties experienced by some children and young people and the frequent consequences of these problems, such as poor mental health, substance abuse, juvenile offending, school drop-out rates, youth unemployment, teen pregnancy and youth suicide. Various wellbeing indices indicate the scope of the problem.

At present, approximately 1.4 million Australian children and young people under the age of 25 have identifiable mental health problems, the average prevalence across all ages being 23% (Zubrick, Silburn, Burton & Blair 2000: 571-72). Death rates from youth suicide, which has an obvious correlation with mental health, are relatively high by international standards (AIHW 1999a). In 1996 the youth suicide rate for males was 25.5 per 100,000 (three times higher than the rate in 1960) and 4.3 per 100,000 for females (AIHW 1999: 86; CDH&AC 1998: 23-25).

Children and adolescents engage in high levels of experimentation with licit and illicit substances, the use of licit drugs being far more widespread. A small but problematic subset of current users move on to dependency and/or abuse. Combined data from the national drugs survey (Australian National University 1999) and the Australian secondary students' use of illicit and over-the-counter licit substances survey (Anti-Cancer Council of Australia 1998) suggest that approximately three-quarters of children and young people across all age groups had tried alcohol and approximately 40% had tried tobacco. Between 30-50% of people in all age groups had tried an illicit drug, marijuana being far the most commonly used. Use of other illicit drugs appears to be low. The available information on juvenile delinquency shows a general increase in crimes against the person for juvenile offenders for the period 1991-96 (Mukherjee, Carach & Higgins 1997).

Youth homelessness is a serious social problem. The Burdekin Report estimated that in the late 1980s there were at least 20,000-25,000 homeless children and young people across the country (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1989: 69). More recently, MacKenzie and Chamberlain (1995: 48) calculated there were between 25,000-30,000 school students homeless in a year. Between July 1996 and June 1997 the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program National Data Collection Agency (SAAP NDCA)(1) reported that around 62,500 children received assistance from agencies funded through the program, and that 22% of a total 90,000 clients using SAAP support were under the age of 20 (AIHW 2000: 7).

Youth unemployment is high, at approximately 25% for males and 31% for females between the ages of 15 and 19. Less than half of all young people in this age group attend a school or tertiary institution full-time; and the proportion of individuals remaining at school to year 12 has levelled at around 71-72% since peaking at 77% in 1992 (ABS 1999: 113).

Between 1971 and 1994 the total number of births to teenage mothers halved. Yet in the same period the number of unmarried teenage mothers increased by 13.5%. The proportion of all births to teenage mothers is also climbing, currently standing at 5% (VicHealth 1999: 2).

Poverty rates among children living away from their parents between the ages of 15 and 18 are also increasing. In 1982, according to the half-median poverty line,(2) 27% of some 53,000 of these children were considered to be living in poverty. By 199596, although approximately the same number of children were not living with their parents, the proportion of these children in poverty, according to the same poverty scale, was about 36% (Harding & Szukalska 1999: 17).

Less overtly, the particular vulnerability of children and adolescents is evident in pervasive attitudes of cynicism, alienation and disillusion. A recent survey of youth attitudes found that more than half of a representative sample of 800 Australians between the ages of 15 and 24 thought the twenty-first century was more likely to be a time of crisis and trouble than one of peace and prosperity. …

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