Sydney Morning Herald
November 6, 2004
He is barely 18, but in February he will become a father. He is looking forward to the birth. I met the blond, softly spoken young man as he left a rehabilitation program this week - the fifth he has attended in an effort to kick his alcohol and pot addictions. Packing up the baby mobile and nappy holder he had crafted in woodwork classes, he said he felt confident of recovery. After all, he faced new responsibilities.
But I found myself thinking of this February baby, of its life chances. You could almost write the script now. It is telling that of all the issues to emerge in the first weeks of the re-elected Coalition Government, abortion has stood out. Morals crusaders Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and John Anderson are determined to make pregnant women and young girls have the babies they don't want, can't care for, but can't bear to give up for adoption.
At the same time, the Government has quietly abolished Larry Anthony's old ministry of children and youth affairs. It oversaw policies that gave support and help to disadvantaged children in particular. These programs in early childhood education, early intervention, child abuse prevention and community building are critical to the country's future.
Anthony was admired across the political spectrum for his dedication, but with his defeat in the election, the job of monitoring, developing and improving these programs has been downgraded, and given to a parliamentary secretary, Sussan Ley.
Political interest in children's issues waxes and wanes. For a while, early intervention programs were high on the agenda; now interest has fallen as other concerns, such as an ageing society and terrorism, take hold. Even the United States, which is rarely a leader in social policy, has better early childhood programs than Australia.
There is funding here for schools, of course. But for many children, the die is cast before they reach kindergarten. Prevention is not a high priority, nor are the 680,000 children in poverty, the Aboriginal children doomed from birth to a foreshortened life span, nor the 54,000 children in homeless shelters.
No one can read the future of this February baby. It may be lucky in its genes, its natural intelligence, and its temperament. It may be resilient. It may get the lucky breaks. It may also be much loved and cared for by its parents throughout its life. Its parents may prove to be good enough, which is all we can expect of any parents.
But all the odds are against this child. Conceived to homeless teenagers with drug problems, it is hard to imagine a worse start in life. It is not the child's fault; it is the luck of the draw. But later, if the child fails at school, or commits crime, or turns to drugs, society will blame the individual. It will expect this child to have shown more grit, hard work, and psychological maturity to surmount its tough circumstances than most children can muster.
Professor Clyde Hertzman, a pioneer researcher into the effects of early childhood experiences on later life, recently visited Sydney from the University of British Columbia. His research underlines the importance of giving children the best possible start. By the time they reach kindy, some children are already greatly disadvantaged, and struggle ever to catch up. "These differences are not randomly distributed through society but follow a predictable systemic pattern," Hertzman says.
His research in Canada shows that the poorer the neighbourhood, the bigger the proportion of kindy-aged children with social, intellectual and emotional difficulties. As you descend the socio-economic ladder, the risks increase at each step. But even the researchers were surprised at the gap between top and bottom.
In Vancouver's richest neighbourhood, none of the children fell into the bottom 10 per cent for language and cognitive difficulties. But 21 per cent of the children in the poorest neighbourhood languished there. Hertzman argues that a poor start sets a child down a crooked path to bad health and social problems as an adult. "It's a process that begins before birth," he says.
Yet governments, through social and economic policies, can do much to influence the environment in which young children are raised. It is economics, not accident, which explains why 5 per cent of Scandinavian children are poor compared with 13 per cent in Australia.
Australia has preened itself on the rhetoric of the fair go. But it does too little to tackle poverty or to help disadvantaged children when it matters most. Even the early intervention programs on Anthony's watch were relatively small-scale.
Abbott's obsession with abortion is not matched by a passion to help those children born into difficult circumstances. Yet, as Health Minister, he is in a perfect position to promote programs that would give these children a fairer go.
Nurse home visitors are a proven success in preventing child injury, abuse and death. Abbott should launch a national program that identifies at birth all at-risk mothers and children, and provide them with regular nurse visits over an extended period. For good measure, his Government should ensure all three- and four-year-olds have access to free child care or preschooling.
A baby will be born in February to parents who are barely out of childhood themselves. It is pointless to disapprove. Their own backgrounds, unsurprisingly, were difficult.
But politicians can do more to break the cycle of deprivation. They can rally to ensure this child, and others born to unlucky circumstances, will get proper support. Every child deserves a fair chance to write its own life story, not to act out a script.