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Playing the blame game no solution to child abuse - 17.10.2005 SMH

The failings belong more to state and federal government policies, writes Garth Alperstein.

The NSW Ombudsman reports that "children as young as two weeks old have died and others have been left in grave risk of abuse because of under-resourcing, and poor judgements by the Department of Community Services".

Will an adequately resourced and functioning department prevent child abuse and neglect and child deaths due to abuse?

Child abuse and neglect is related mostly to poverty, poor educational status, poorly functioning communities and unsupported families. Australia has two to three times the proportion of children living in poverty of Scandinavian and some other northern European countries. Countries with a smaller gap between rich and poor have lower rates of child abuse. Australians think of themselves as living in an egalitarian society, but the wealthiest 50 per cent hold 93 per cent of the wealth and the least wealthy 50 per cent possess only 7 per cent of the wealth. Poverty rates and the distribution of income in a country are determined by government economic policies.

Child abuse and neglect have been shown in a number of studies to be related to lack of social capital - trust, networking, support - in a community. Social capital can be either supported or eroded by government policy and leadership.

In addition to government economic, educational and social policies, there is overwhelming evidence that nurse home-visiting programs that provide intensive support to poor disadvantaged and unsupported first-time young mothers, starting during pregnancy and continuing until the child is two, reduce the rate of child abuse and neglect by around 50 per cent. The State Government should be applauded for its Families First Initiative, of which home visiting is a crucial component. However, despite the evidence, this component of home visiting has not yet been funded. The only component of home visiting that is funded at present is a single home visit to all newborn babies, which will have no effect on reducing rates of child abuse.

The NSW Government has also claimed it is funding early intervention for families. Every $US1 spent on early intervention results in $US7 returned to society through reduction in crime. That data comes from the Perry Preschool program in the US, a high-quality preschool program for disadvantaged three- to five-year-olds. It is combined with parental involvement in child care, and child-care workers enhancing the developmental environment in the home. The Perry children were followed up at age 27 and at 40, when the return to society had increased to $US12.90.

Neither the NSW Government nor the Federal Government has funded a Perry Preschool-type program. Access to quality child care has only been made more difficult through insufficient government funding for public child care and the proliferation of private for-profit child-care centres. Once again, government policy on child care can provide a free universal system like Sweden, or a restricted system.

To have an impact on longer-term intergenerational child abuse and neglect there is once again ample research to support investment in the early years of life. The 2000 Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences, James Heckman, stated that "investments in social policies that intervene in the early years have very high rates of returns, while social policies that intervene at later stages in the life cycle have low economic returns". Crucial in the early years are home-visiting programs, high-quality, accessible child care, Perry Preschool-type programs in disadvantaged areas, early literacy programs, support for parents through adequate paid parental leave, availability of high-quality parenting programs and strategies that support all Australians attaining the highest possible level of education.

Do we do something to stop the bodies falling into the river upstream, or do we merely continue to give more money to the Department of Community Services to attempt to pull out a never-ending stream of bodies further down the river and continue to use it as the scapegoat for failings that belong more to state and federal government policies, and how they choose to spend taxpayers' money?

Dr Garth Alperstein is president of the NSW Branch of the Public Health Association of Australia.