I have recently learned of a case in the Children’s Court of New South Wales, where a father caring for his children on his own became reliant on the older of those children to carry out household tasks and care for younger siblings. Not only were the older children responsible for meal preparation and household cleaning, it also fell to them to ensure the younger children got to school and to take care of their father’s needs. As the father was largely housebound due to poor health, the children would carry out the weekly shopping with a neighbour. Although, in part to ensure his own needs were being met, the father exercised some control over the children, in reality they were largely unrestricted in coming and going from the household and in the company they kept. While this might be thought to be an extreme example, it merely brings together some factors that are commonly found in cases before the Children’s Court.
In relation to neglect, these children were deprived of the basic right to live in a nurturing household, and to have their essential needs met by their parent or parents. However, this case also involved child abuse. The children here were effectively exploited by their father, as their failure to carry out his wishes typically led to threats or sanctions.
Taking a broader perspective, all of the children in this case were required to be engaged in parent-like activities such as the supervision of other children, the provision of necessities for themselves and the family, and providing comfort and practical assistance to siblings and the father…well beyond what might be expected in a ‘normal’ family situation. When this kind of situation continues for an extended period the children involved may become “parentified”, which can have significant impact on how they then relate to other people throughout their lives. Lopez De Victoria (2008), referring to Chase (1999), describes parentification as occurring when “the parent gives up what they are supposed to do as a parent and transfers that responsibility to one or more of their children.”
This often leads to disorganised attachments where the unconventional relationship between parent and child becomes a source of distress and anxiety for the child.
Such damage to familial attachments can require significant periods of counselling and therapy to undo, and in many cases the consequences are still evident when the children themselves are adults with their own children.
While it is tempting to view cases like the one described above as less serious than physical abuse cases, the consequences of this kind of abuse are often at least as serious as the consequences of physical abuse in terms of the long-term impact on the child and the family. From a legal perspective, neglect, exploitation and parentification are all factors that can lead to a declaration by the court that a child is in need of care and protection under section 71 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (NSW).
Note: Some details of the described case have been changed here to preserve confidentiality.
Samuel Lopez De Victoria “Harming Your Child By Making Him Your Parent” (Psych Central, Massachusetts, United States, 15 August 2008) . Nancy D Chase “An Overview of Theory, Research and Societal Issues” in Nancy D Chase (Ed) Burdened Children (Guilford, New York, United States, 1999) at 3-33.