The Family Studies Research Centre is the first of its kind. It brings together 50 academics from a range of disciplines, including psychology, social science, law, genetics and child health.
"The centre's interdisciplinary approach means that our research findings will have implications for a wide range of people and agencies," says the centre's coordinator, Margaret Robinson. "Not only will we conduct research into family issues, we will also act as a catalyst for the type of multidisciplinary research that is needed to develop a better understanding of today's children and families."
Because the centre has evolved from informal research groups, some of its projects have already yielded results. One project examined the support services being offered to families adopting older children out of care. After surveying 115 adoption agencies and 226 familes, staff from Cardiff University's schools of law and social sciences concluded that "the availability of good-quality adoption services is something of a lottery".
They also found that "many children are inadequately prepared for adoption, and that adopters do not always receive sufficient information on a child's background". The study recommends legislation that would make adoption agencies provide better post-adoption support.
Families of infant school-age children will benefit from a project at the centre being funded by Northern Ireland's Department of Education and Employment. The centre is joining forces with academics from Oxford University and the University of London Institute of Education to evaluate the effectiveness of pre-school provision.
The study is following the school careers of 4,000 three to seven-year-olds in England and Northern Ireland. Their progress will be compared to establish if their different pre-school experiences affect their primary-school careers. The study will attempt to discover which aspects of experience influence development and to reveal the types of pre-school provision best suited to promoting cognitive, social and emotional development.
Ensuring that children suffer as little as possible from the effects of parental divorce is the aim of a three-year Economic and Social Research Council-funded project under way at the centre.
Divorce law stresses the importance of safeguarding children's interests throughout, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates: "All children have the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them and to have their views given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity."
From 104 children in South Wales and Southwest England surveyed, researchers heard that many difficulties remain. As 12-year-old Darren put it: "When we had to say who we wanted to live with, that was the hardest part. Because at the time I didn't want to hurt my dad's feelings or my mum's feelings. I never ended up saying who I wanted to live with."
The hope is that when this project ends next year, children and divorcing families will have more information available to help them deal with the situation.
Another project at the centre looked into abuse. One baby in 848 born in Wales is severely physically abused. Research indicates that babies are abused seven times more frequently than older children, with the result that some 116 babies per 100,000 are victims. That compares with fewer than one child per 100,000 aged five to 14. The study concludes that "if death and handicap are to be prevented, more concern is needed in protecting the child in the first year of life than in working with parents".
A related study of shaken baby syndrome revealed that 33 cases were diagnosed by neurosurgeons in Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea in 1993-95. The alleged perpetrators included fathers, mothers' live-in partners and, in three cases, the mothers themselves.
This study suggests that more training may be needed by some professionals working with familiies in times of stress. Providing such training will be another of the centre's functions. And, most important of all, it will be working directly with families in need, helping them to come to terms with changing situations in their lives.