4704.0 - The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2008  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 29/04/2008   
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Contents >> Mothers and Children >> INDIGENOUS FAMILIES AND COMMUNITIES


Indigenous household and family structures

Data from the 2006 Census show that the majority of both Indigenous and other Australian households are single family households (76% and 70% respectively), however a larger proportion of Indigenous households are multi-family households (5% compared with 1%) and a smaller proportion are lone person households (14% compared with 25%). Indigenous households are more likely to be larger, with an average of 3.4 people compared with 2.6 for other Australian households.

In 2006, Indigenous single family households were three times more likely than other single family households to be one-parent families with dependent children or students (30% compared with 10%), but less likely to be families without dependents (33% compared with 54%). Indigenous and non-Indigenous single family households were equally likely to be couples with dependent children (around 37%).

The classifications used to describe Indigenous households and family structures in the ABS five-yearly Census do not fully capture the complexity of many Indigenous families and their living arrangements (Morphy 2006). The characteristics of Indigenous households differ from the majority of Australian households - they tend to be larger, non-nuclear and more fluid in composition. Indigenous families have overlapping and extensive kinship networks, with both adults and children commonly moving between different households (Smith 2001; Morphy 2006). These extensive and fluid family structures are more common in remote communities, but are also found in more settled areas of Australia (Smith 2000).

Socioeconomic status

The relatively poor socioeconomic status of Indigenous people and families has been well documented. Chapter 2, for example, outlines the lower employment rates, income levels and education attainment of Indigenous Australians when compared with non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous people in remote areas have limited access to services and mainstream labour markets. This has important implications for Indigenous children born and raised in these environments, and impacts on their health and other life outcomes.

Daly and Smith (2005) identified a key set of statistical variables that they regarded as indicators of exclusion from mainstream social and economic opportunities. They analysed the 2001 Census and other data on these indicators of risk for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and concluded that Indigenous children were among the most socially disadvantaged in Australia. Compared with other Australian children, children living in Indigenous households were:

  • less likely to be living with a parent (88% of Indigenous children compared with 98% of non-Indigenous children);
  • had lower weekly household incomes (median weekly incomes of households with Indigenous children were 67% of the median weekly incomes of households with other children (i.e. no Indigenous children));
  • more reliant on income support (33% of Indigenous families with dependants were receiving Parenting Payment compared with 16% of non-Indigenous families);
  • more likely to have parents who left school early (57% of children in Indigenous households were living with parents who had not completed Year 10 compared with 25% of children in other households); and
  • less likely to have a parent in paid employment (47% of Indigenous families had no parent working compared with 20% of other families).

On a number of the indicators examined, Indigenous children living in very remote areas were more disadvantaged than those in less remote areas. Many Indigenous children experienced multiple risk factors and there was evidence that the damage caused by these compounded with each additional risk factor (Daly & Smith 2005).

Family and community functioning

Family functioning has been shown to have strong associations with the social, economic and psychological environment of the family and wider community (Silburn et al 2006). It is important because good family functioning is associated with positive child outcomes, while poor family functioning leads to poor emotional and behavioural outcomes for children. The impact of poor family functioning on child outcomes can be ameliorated by the level of community functioning. Recent data on Indigenous family and community functioning should be viewed in the context of the social disadvantage experienced by many Indigenous families and the life stresses they experience.

The 2001-02 Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS) examined life stresses, family functioning and community characteristics across geographical areas. WAACHS asked primary carers if any of 14 major life stressors had occurred in the family in the previous 12 months (see box 6.1). Families with Aboriginal children reported very high levels of life stresses, with 22% of children living in families in which 7-14 life stress events had occurred in the last 12 months. The survey found that similar levels of stress were reported across all levels of geographic isolation. Carers of Aboriginal children experienced an average of 3.9 life stress events, over three times the average experienced by carers of non-Aboriginal children (1.2 life stressors) (Silburn et al 2006).

The survey found that most Aboriginal families were functioning well, based on measures of family functioning developed for the survey (see box 6.1). Those in the lowest quarter of the measure of functioning were classified as having poor family functioning. Carers living in areas of extreme isolation were more likely to be living in families classified as having poor family functioning. Two of the major factors associated with poor family functioning in areas of extreme isolation were family financial strain and the quality of children's diets.


The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS) was a large scale investigation into the health of 5,289 Western Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0-17 years. It was undertaken in 2001 and 2002 by the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in conjunction with the Kulunga Research Network. The survey was the first to gather comprehensive health, educational and developmental information on a population based sample of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, their families and communities.

Level of Relative Isolation (LORI)
LORI is a new classification of remoteness indicating the relative distance of localities from population centres of various sizes. The LORI is based on an extension of the ARIA (Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia) called ARIA++ which has an 18 point remoteness scale and gives a more detailed description of more remote areas by including more service centres in calculating remoteness scores. Based on the ARIA++ scores, five categories of isolation have been defined. These categories are referred to as LORIs and range from None (the Perth metropolitan area) to Low (e.g. Albany), Moderate (e.g. Broome), High (e.g. Kalumburu) and Extreme (e.g. Yiyili).

Life stresses
Primary carers were asked if any of 14 major life stress events had occurred in their family in the preceding 12 months. These events included: a close family member had a medical problem and was in hospital; a close family member was in prison; your child/children was involved in or upset by family arguments; a parent/caregiver lost his or her job; a close family member had an alcohol or drug problem; an important family member passed away; and/or parents or carers had left because of a family split up.

Family functioning
Family functioning was measured in the WAACHS using a nine-item scale based on key family recovery and family protective factors identified in international research and modified for Aboriginal families. The family protective factors include accord, communication, hardiness and acceptance. Based on these indicators, the authors concluded that the majority of families with Aboriginal children scored highly on the family functioning scale. But in order to produce a single measure of family functioning, responses were summed to produce an overall score and then split into quartiles, each representing one-quarter of the population. These quartiles were labelled Poor, Fair, Good and Very Good. Source: Silburn et al 2006

The WAACHS also explored the characteristics of communities with Aboriginal children and found that there were significant differences across the spectrum of geographical isolation (Silburn et al 2006). The maintenance of Aboriginal languages and traditional cultures were much more common in areas of extreme isolation. Neighbourhood and community problems, such as being bothered by drug and alcohol abuse, break-ins and car stealing were most common in areas of moderate isolation.

A range of studies have found that the incidence of violence in Indigenous families and communities is significantly higher than in the Australian community as a whole, and this has particularly adverse impacts on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (AIHW: Al-Yaman et. al. 2006; Gordon et. al. 2002). In 2002, some 41% of Indigenous people in remote areas and 14% of those in non-remote areas reported that family violence was a neighbourhood problem. In 2003-04 Indigenous females were hospitalised for family violence-related assaults at 35 times the rate of non-Indigenous females, while 7,950 Indigenous females and 350 Indigenous males sought assistance through the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) to escape domestic violence (AIHW: Al-Yaman et al 2006). In 2005-06 there were 11,600 Indigenous children who attended a SAAP service with their parent or guardian. Among Indigenous children aged four years or less, one in every 11 attended a SAAP service in 2005-06 (see Chapter 4). Chapter 11 provides data on the relatively high rates of Indigenous children in the child protection system.

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