Speech by Senator the Hon Kay Patterson

Speech to the Australian Women’s Coalition Forum on Grandparenting

Location: University House, Australian National University, Canberra



Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you Sue for your introduction.

I’m very pleased to be here this morning to speak about the important issue of grand parenting.

In a sense, I’m wearing two hats today.

First, because, as you know, I’m the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women.

In that role, I’ve already met some of you from the Women’s Coalition, and it’s good to see familiar faces around the room.

As many of you will know, the Australian Women’s Coalition (AWC) is funded by the Australian Government through the Office of the Status of Women (OSW).

In the 2001-02 Budget, the government provided funding of $5.6 million over four years to the Women’s Development programme, one of the initiatives of OSW.

One and a half million dollars has been provided to this programme for 2004-05.

In 2003-04, funding was provided for nine projects and five capacity building activities.

Under the Women’s Development Programme, additional capacity building support is provided to women’s organisations through the production of resource material and the funding of training and mentoring activities.

The Government is also encouraging wide participation from women’s groups across all sectors of the community through its continued support of the national women’s non-government secretariats.

As the Minister for Family and Community Services, I’m responsible for social policies and programmes that touch on the lives of almost every Australian family and individuals.

And among them, of course, are grandparents.

Essentially, the objectives that underpin my portfolio are to strengthen Australian families and communities and to improve outcomes for children.

Budget initiatives for families

In the recent Budget the Howard Government announced the More Help for Families package.

This is a record $19.2 billion in extra assistance for families.

In addition the number of child-care places is being increased by 44,000.

The Budget also included $365 million over the next four years to boost our Stronger Families and Communities Strategy.

This focuses on projects developed from the ground up in local communities, especially projects that relate to the early years of children’s lives.

The importance of grandparents – the evidence

It’s taken a long time, but academics, governments, and policy-makers are gradually learning more about grandparents, and the extremely important role many of them play, both in their families and in their communities.

In the last decade or so, the research base on grandparenting has been building.

In the early 1980s, older groups in society such as grandparents, were identified as a rich resource for the community and for individual families.

Freed up from their own child rearing at an early agemostly because of smaller family sizesmany are ready and able to help with bringing up the next generation.

More recently, research has confirmed what I think we already knew from experiencethat, in many families, grandparents are a crucial source of help, advice and support for parents and grandchildren.

Australian Bureau of Statistics’ figures for June 2002 show that just over 19 per cent of children aged up to 11 years in informal care were looked after by grandparents.

Over half of children aged up to 11 years who are cared for by their grandparents are of preschool age.

The influence of Indigenous grandparents

For Indigenous families in particular, the influence of grandparents is immeasurable.

It is quite common among Indigenous people for children to move between the parents’ household and the households of grandparents and other relatives.

In cases like this, household spending is shared across linked households and the extended family.

Statistically, Indigenous mothers have more children and at an earlier age than non-Indigenous women.

These young mothers turn to older women for support.

This supportfrom grandmothers and auntieshas traditionally been through mentoring, and passing on parenting skills and knowledge about traditional culture.

I understand that, among other issues today you’re covering Indigenous parenting specifically, and another difficult areacustodial grandparents.

Grandparents raising grandchildren

We also know from the 2001 Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey – Australia’s first nationally representative household survey which gives an insight over time into people’s housing arrangements, and FaCS research, that around 35,000 children aged under 15 are being raised by relatives or kin other than their parents.

This is more than twice as many as those living with unrelated foster carers.

27,700 of those children are living with grandparents.

Within Indigenous communities, the proportion of children being cared for by grandmothers and other kin is even higher.

Sadly, the main reasons that grandparents take on full time care for their grandchildren are substance abuse, imprisonment, mental illness, family breakdown, disability, and death or absence of one or both parents.

At the same time, our research shows that grandparent care generally lasts longer than foster care, with stronger attachment between the children and grandparents than happens with foster carers.

But it is concerning to note that grandparents’ households are markedly poorer than average households, including foster care households.

Many grandparents raise children without support and, at this stage, little is known about the life outcomes for children raised by grandparents.

The COTA report

As a first step in finding out more, last year my department commissioned the Australian Council on the Ageing National Seniors, or COTA as it’s called, to gather information and identify ways of better supporting grandparents in their caring role.

The COTA report contained a mine of information about the experiences of grandparent carers, including touching stories about children living with their grandparents.

COTA also reported on grandparents who have to deal with custody disputes and guardianship battles in the courts.

Sadly, some of the children involved are ill, traumatised or have behavioural problems.

Naturally, the effect this has on grandparents is broader than just the financial impact.

In their often unexpected and unplanned parenting role, grandparents’ who work may have to leave their jobs or cut down on their hours.

And many grandparents become socially isolated because they miss out on outings and activities with others the same age.

At the same time, their knowledge of modern parenting styles may be limited, as is their ability to pay for children’s school and other activities.

This, in turn, can lead to social exclusion for the child.

The COTA report included a range of recommendations.

My department is now part of an Australian Government working group looking at options for responding to them.

The Howard Government has entered into dialogue with the state and territory governments to see what we can all do, together, to respond to these issues.

Recent grandparenting initiatives

We learnt from the COTA forums that grandparents are looking to both state and federal governments to provide much needed support.

There was a lot of concern about lack of information on what support they were entitled to.

Since the release of the report, we have taken a number of positive steps.

Centrelink now has a Service Strategy to increase customer, community and staff awareness of the issues faced by grandparents caring for grandchildren.

My department also provided $150 000 to the Mirabel Foundation to update its When the children arrive booklet.

Launched in April this year, the booklet is available from the Mirabel foundation or on my department’s web site.

Centrelink is also distributing it through its social workers across the country.

The book gives accurate and practical information about support and financial assistance to grandparent and other relative carers.

In addition more than $300,000 recently went to several grandparent-carer projects around Australia.

The projects include:

  • research on the children’s perspective;
  • information and education sessions for carers;
  • development of training resources; and
  • playgroups and opportunities for grandparents to share their experiences with others in a similar situation.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has also worked with state and territory Ministers responsible for child welfare to develop a draft National Plan for Foster Children, Young People and their Carers.

Ministers responsible for child welfare discussed the National Plan for Foster Children and Carers in July 2003, key national peaks have been consulted, and the final draft of the National Plan has been presented to Community Services Ministers for final endorsement.

It is expected that the Plan be agreed and released shortly by all jurisdictions.

Once agreed, implementation will occur over a two year period and should go a long way towards improving the circumstances of both foster carers and children in foster care.

The National Plan for Foster Carers and Children will also address the key role of kinship carers and will examine ways of supporting relatives and kinship carers, including grandparents.

Stronger Familes and Communties Strategy

I am sure you have all heard of the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy.

Under this strategy we are funding at least five projects specifically involving grandparents.

The projects include:

  • Grandparenting across cultures in North Melbourne – to employ a team of bilingual coordinators to help grandparents who are the primary carers of grandchildren to access information, find out about children’s services, and give them the chance to spend time with others in similar situations.
  • Resourceful Parenting in Port Augusta, South Australia – to deliver culturally appropriate parenting education to Indigenous families living in and around Port Augusta
  • Stronger Women Stronger Communities in Echuca, Victoria – for a project worker to work with young Aboriginal grandmothers and aunties to identify concerns and find solutions.
  • The Community ‘young families’ drop-in project in Albion Park, Sydney – for a playground at the local church, involving grandparents in supervising the children and talking with young parents.
  • Grandparents – the community alchemists of the 21st century’ in Moonee Ponds, Victoria – which is training grandparents to support local families with ‘at risk’ children.


While it’s early days, I believe the Government is taking a strong lead in recognising the value and role of grandparents, within families and within communities.

And I’m especially looking forward to hearing about your discussions on the issues at this forum.

I believe the more we can do to understand, help and support grandparents – especially those looking after their grandchildren – the better it will be for the people involved the grandparents and the children alike.

I hope you have a very productive and stimulating day.

Thank you.