(Published inÂ The Dundee Courier on May 23rd 2012)
What is the most significant issue facing Dundee today? In the recent survey conducted for Dundee City Council drugs, anti-social behavior and jobs were listed as the number one priority. However it was interesting that the most significant, expensive and disruptive problem was not mentioned â€“ that of family breakdown. Consider the following facts:
1. The financial cost to society of broken family relationships is estimated to be Â£44 billion a year. Almost 50% of 15 year olds do not live with both parents.
2. 734 children were taken in to care in Dundee last year. Up 35% from 2007. Rates of children in care are directly related to the rates of substance abuse in Dundee (the child fatalities in Scotland have all been linked to drug and alcohol abuse of carers).
3. The children received into care are only the tip of the iceberg – many more are in very difficult situations and tenuously supported by family community systems (kinship carers and usually an exhausted grandmother who tries her best).
4. Educational outcomes for children in care are utterly shocking – as are social outcomes including rates of teen pregnancy (and the cycle starts all over again for another generation…)
5. Mental Health needs are shockingly high for children in care. Children of lone parents are more than twice as likely to suffer mental health problems than children of married couples. Children of co-habiting couples are 75% more likely to have mental health problems than their peers with married parents.
6. The Centre for Social Justice reports that 70% of young offenders come from single parent families. 27% of the prison population had been taking into care as a child, compared to 2% of the general population.
So what can and should be done? Despite attempts to the contrary no one has found a workable alternative to what has been the basis of human society for thousands of years â€“ the family. A child needs to be taught social skills, relationships, sense of right and wrong, relational skills and above all be provided with a context of love and nurture in which they are able to develop into a mature adult. The State is not a good parent. The best place for that to happen is where there are two parents who are committed to one another in a stable relationship. This is not to decry those who find themselves in the situation of being single parents and who have the most difficult of tasks to do. Nor is it to blame social workers or teachers for failing to bring up children. There is a case to be argued that social workers are the unsung heroes and usually heroines of our culture â€“ they are left to clean up our mess and they get the blame for causing it!
When the government suggests parenting classes it is a typical well-meaning shortsighted exercise. The problem is not that children end up as juvenile delinquents because their dads lack basic parenting skills. It is rather that their dads are often absent. The government needs to break free from its ideological constraints and support the family through the tax system and be prepared to spend a lot more money bailing out families, rather than bailing out bankers. Early health care intervention for example is expensive but with excellent long-term results.
Many churches in Dundee are doing what they can to help support families. My own congregation for example has a full time family-counseling ministry. But we are only scratching the service. Perhaps the new Dundee City Council will be truly radical and make this their number one priority?
Solas Centre for Public Christianity
St Peters Free Church