Mother-blaming is an outdated, simplistic view
The arguments John Hirst put forward on this page last Wednesday - in his article "Welfare underpins the regular abuse of children" - to solve the complex problems of child abuse and neglect through welfare reform, are both simplistic and unhelpful. They also reinforce what we would have hoped were outdated views of ''mother blaming''.
It is true that the majority of single-parent families are headed by women and many of these families are living in poverty. Research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that, in June 2011, of the 950,000 single-parent families in Australia 780,000, or 83 per cent, were single-mother families. Add to that figures cited by Professor Peter Whiteford in The Age that two-thirds, or 75 per cent, of jobless single-parent families are in poverty and you can see how large the issue is.
However, for Hirst to suggest that the number of these families has increased because of the availability of the single-parenting benefit ignores reality.
The vast majority of these families start out as a heterosexual couple. Sadly, through separation or divorce, the mothers find themselves with the lion's share of the responsibility of caring and providing for their children.
Rather than Hirst's general and stereotypical labelling of single mothers as "given to junk food, daytime TV and no-good boyfriends", men must also be held responsible for their behaviour to their partners, ex-partners and children.
Through more than a century of experience at Berry Street, we know that being on a sole parent's pension isn't the key determinant of whether children are abused or neglected. Children are harmed in homes where violence is the norm, and this violence is most often perpetrated by men. It also occurs where parents' misuse of alcohol and/or drugs or their mental illness severely reduces their capacity to be the parent they want to be.
If we are serious about supporting single parents to raise healthy, successful children, assisting them to access education and employment is critical. We see on a daily basis the role education and employment in a single parent's life can play in positively changing the trajectory of their children's live, as well as their own.
But it is hard to see how reducing the income of single parents with children over eight by a maximum of $65 a week to $267, and forcing them into even greater financial stress won't hurt their children. Especially in areas with high unemployment, we question whether the heartache and distress this will cause can be justified.
Parenting is a tough job and even more so when you are younger, don't have family support or safe housing.
Hirst's proposal to force all single mothers under 21 and their children to live in hostels run by non-government organisations is neither practical nor necessary, and would take us back to practices that were tried in the past and failed. Berry Street ran such institutions in the past, and it is our view that that is where they should stay.
Far more effective responses would be to strengthen outreach visits by maternal and child health nurses, organise playgroups to bring together mothers and children and to make childcare and parenting centres accessible for those who need them.
These services need to be underpinned by affordable housing, meaningful pathways to education and employment, and income support, which doesn't trap people in poverty.
If we, as a society, are serious about wanting to address the devastating and generational impacts of child abuse and neglect then we must tackle poverty in a humane way.
It is Berry Street's experience that most sole parents do a good job in raising their children. They deserve our support, not criticism.
Sandie de Wolf is CEO of Berry Street, Victoria's largest independent child welfare organisation.