When our best efforts don’t seem to be enough

Child Aware Approaches Conference 2017

Thank you for joining me this morning. My name is Linda Savage and I am Convenor of the Valuing Children Initiative. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

My Policy Think Space session is titled ‘When our best efforts don’t seem to be enough’. So what do I mean when I say our best efforts on behalf of children don’t seem to be enough despite widespread concern that far too many children are not experiencing the safe, caring, and supportive childhood they deserve and have a right to? I certainly don’t mean that people are not trying hard enough.

Quite the opposite in fact, because I believe the focus on children today is unprecedented in Australia’s history. There are hundreds of organisations, thousands of individuals, as well as parents, carers and all levels of government committed to children.

The last decade has seen the launch of the National Framework (for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020) and the National Plan (to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (2010-2022). This year alone there are two Royal Commissions due to report about the abuse and mistreatment of children. The last decade too has seen the appointment of Commissioners for Children and Young People.

Across Australia there are centres of excellence dedicated to children that are conducting research, generating high-quality reports, as well as hundreds of peer-reviewed articles every year to inform policymakers and practitioners. Efforts to accelerate and translate research into policy and practice, refine service delivery, overcome fragmentation, and coordinate state and federal responsibilities are ongoing. Momentum too is growing for a National Plan for all children, and a new collective approach to policy and service delivery.

And when I say our best efforts are not enough, I certainly don’t mean that there is not enough evidence that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are critical to a child’s future life chance.

There have been numerous state and federal government inquiries, as well as independent reports, acknowledging the crucial impact of the early years of a child’s life on a person’s future health and wellbeing.

From mental health to literacy, the critical impact of the early years is well understood. Examples abound such as a recent statement by the AMA on obesity, calling on the federal government to show leadership and saying:

“The AMA recommends that the initial focus of a national obesity strategy should be on children and adolescents, with prevention and early intervention starting with pregnant mother and the foetus, and continuing through infancy and childhood.”

Yet despite the compelling evidence about the early years, the emphasis is still on treating problems after they arise, crudely what could be described as ‘mopping up the mess’, rather than using cost-effective prevention approaches that have a far greater chance of improving a child’s life course, as Professor Oberklaid said in his keynote address this morning.

You can’t help but wonder just how many more times the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study needs to be quoted? How often do we need to quote the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, or the World Economic Forum that said as recently as January this year, that there is a very strong case for entirely reframing our understanding of human capital based on what we know about the first 1000 days, given its exceptionally high return on social investment. 

So what is really going on? With the wealth of evidence about what makes for a safe and supportive childhood, and the unprecedented focus on children today, what accounts for the gap between what we know, what we do and the lives some children have to endure.

A decade ago Harvard Professors Ron Heifetz and Martin Linksy counseled organisations grappling with tough, and seemingly recalcitrant problems, to ‘get on the balcony’ so they could gain a clearer perspective.

And this is in effect what the Valuing Children Initiative has done since it was established in January last year, and as it has grappled with trying to understand why the best efforts of so many, have not been enough to ensure all children have the safe, caring and supportive childhoods they deserve and have a right to in modern, affluent 21st Century Australia.

So what has getting on the balcony meant for the Valuing Children Initiative. What it has meant is challenging the very attitudes we have to children and the motherhood statements about children that we hear and often accept – about how precious children are and that children are our future and everything we do is with that in mind.

It has meant asking ourselves what is it, embedded in the cultural attitudes and behaviors of our society, conscious or unconscious, that explains the gap between what we say we want for children, the lives some children endure and the challenges that far too many children are experiencing growing up. It has meant considering deeper issues of causality and asking if the adult world really values children enough, rather than making the assumption that we do.

And this is because of how we value children matters. It matters because it determines the worth we assign them, and underpins and shapes our attitudes and behaviour towards them. It is important because it directly impacts how we treat children, and the priority we give their needs and rights, and in turn on policy, programs, and resources.

What we value as a society underpins our culture, our outlook, and our attitudes. And although sometimes overlooked, it plays a pivotal role in a child’s safety and wellbeing.

Societal attitudes set expectations about what is acceptable and also drive change. This is obvious when you reflect on how attitudes have changed to the participation of women in public life, to smoking, to the protection of the environment; as well how we view children born to single mothers today compared to the past.

Children themselves, identify being valued as one of the most important aspects of wellbeing. And in countries such as Sweden, that measure strongly on child wellbeing indicators, a strong culture of valuing children is an important factor. Professor Fiona Stanley, who I am sure is well known to many of you, has said that we need to change the culture in terms of how we value children if we are going to be more successful in our efforts on their behalf.

Attitudes to children have of course changed enormously over the years, and so correspondingly has our care and treatment of them.

Until the 19th Century children, like women, were the property of husbands and fathers, and not even recognised as a separate legal person. Slowly, over the next century, there was a growing acceptance of the need for the state to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation. By the mid-20th century, laws to protect them were becoming commonplace. In the last 50 years the role of the state in protecting children, providing services, and acting in their best interests, has increasingly been embedded in legislation and policy. Today, not even a parent has the right to beat or abuse a child. Once, what went on in the home and how a man treated his wife and children, was considered to be no one else’s business. Today few would subscribe to this view when it comes to violence and abuse today. International conventions too, most recently the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, have helped to change the way children are viewed. They have led to the growing acceptance of children as citizens from birth, with individual rights of their own, including the right to be heard, listened to, and have their wishes taken into account and acted upon.

So changing societal attitudes can be a powerful positive force driving change, but they also impede change.

This is particularly apparent when there are competing rights and interests between different sections of society. WHO is valued most, determines whose rights and needs are given priority.

The evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has provided a striking and chilling example of this. Despite rape and sexual abuse of children being a serious crime, despite children speaking out about their abuse, none of this was any match for the prevailing culture and attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose generally not to believe children and put the protection of institutions and adults first. The result was that for decades both institutions and perpetrators were able to avoid scrutiny. And they were aided in this by societal attitudes that too often involved turning a blind eye or unquestioning deference to the authority of people in positions of power.

It is no coincidence that last year the Prime Minister spoke about the need to look at the culture and prevailing attitudes as part of trying to understand what happened at the Don Dale Juvenile Justice Centre. And not just in regard to the treatment of those children, but also the lack of a more urgent response despite the previous reports, media coverage, and the many who knew what was occurring.

Surprisingly, there is not much research available about the wider community’s attitudes to children. To better understand them, the Valuing Children Initiative commissioned a baseline survey about perceptions of children and childhood. The survey has been revealing. At times encouraging, some of the results disturbing and also at times contradictory.

It was encouraging that 86% of those surveyed said that looking after the interests of children was important to them. A classic motherhood statement you might say, so the survey asked questions that dug a bit deeper to see how that translated into something more concrete.

And what the survey found, was that the interests of children actually ranked only ninth out of a list of ten issues. By comparison for example looking after the interests of older people, ranked sixth. Jobs and the economy were ranked highest,  perhaps reflecting the assumption that if it is performing well, the benefits will invariably trickle down to children.

Let me give you another example of the contradiction between the broad statements and the specific when we are talking about children. The survey found that only half-believed children in Australia today all have a fair and equal opportunity to flourish and maximise their potential, yet when asked to describe children, the most commonly chosen words were spoilt, lazy, selfish, and fortunate. Almost half (49%) also thought that children today have too many rights.

This harsh characterisation of children, says something about our attitudes to children and at the very least the need to do more to portray children in a more positive light. It certainly points to the invisibility for example, of the 17% of children who live below the poverty line, despite Australia being ranked as the seventh wealthiest nation in the world on a GDP per capita basis.

The survey provided some other thought-provoking findings. For example, 70% agreed that children ‘belong’ to their parents until the age of 18 years. One particularly disturbing finding was that 63% believed that a child’s word is less likely to be believed than an adults.

So all in all it does beg the question have attitudes to children really changed as much as we think they have?

What I do think is true to say is that the failure to value children, whilst glaringly obvious in retrospect, is far more difficult and far more confronting to recognise today. In fact, people get quite defensive at the mere suggestion!

But this is at the heart of the work of the Valuing Children Initiative because the VCI believes children are simply not valued enough, and this helps to explain why, despite the uncontested evidence about the early years, our policy settings do not adequately reflect that, because if they did a good start in life would be non-negotiable.

It helps to explain why health budgets in this country are skewed in favour of adults.

It helps explain why public debate about high levels of anxiety and depression, childhood obesity, sexual abuse, and the homelessness and poverty children experience in Australia today, is not central to election campaigns.

It explains why it has taken decades, and finally a Royal Commission, for adults to be able to tell their stories of the sexual abuse they suffered as children.

And it helps explain why another Royal Commission has not been established immediately to force us to face up to the shocking statistic that an estimated one in five children will be sexually harmed in some way before the age of 18, and most often by someone they know in a private residence.

We know that all children must navigate a world they had no part in creating. The childhood they experience is entirely dependent on the circumstances they are born into, and the attitudes and actions of the adults closest to them, as well as the wider society. This is the inevitable consequence of being a child in an adult’s world.

There is only one chance at childhood. As we speak, those babies and children missing out on that good enough start in life do not know the impact it is having on their lives, but one day they will. And they will know that modern, affluent Australia in 2017 knew too, but decided other things were more important.

One day they will ask us what were we thinking and how we let this continue.

So what to do? – Fundamental social change usually occurs because civil society rises up and demands change. Others follow. Let me give you some examples.

Not so long ago it was impossible legally for a husband to rape his wife. Until the 1980s, a bride, whether she knew it or not, in effect entered into a contract to be always available to have sex once married.

The activism that changed this law, was part of the seismic change in attitudes to women that has occurred since the 1960s.

And evidence too can change attitudes and can eventually prevail over powerful vested interests. For example, by 1957 the evidence implicating smoking as a causative factor in lung cancer had been established to a high degree of scientific certainty, leading to the first official statement from the US Public Health Service implicating smoking as a cause of lung cancer. The tobacco industry also took notice of the emerging evidence, but instead of acknowledging what they knew to be true, hired a public relations firm (in December 1953) to implement a massive campaign to challenge the evidence. Medical doctors and academic scholars were hired to defend the industry’s claim that the evidence was “merely statistical” or based only on “animal evidence”. Similar campaigns were run in Australia. These so-called ‘public relations campaigns’ — that extended for over 40 years — were designed with the goal of reassuring the public, especially current smokers, that the question of whether smoking caused harm was an “open controversy” But attitudes changed and decision-makers began to respond and eventually played a part in creating that change. Australia came to lead the way for example by the introduction in of plain packaging for cigarettes and is now a world leader with smoking rates half what they were compared to 1991.

Today it is our attitudes to children that require a seismic change if all children are to have the safe, supportive, and caring childhoods they deserve and have a right to expect. That is why challenging and understanding the impact of conscious and unconscious attitudes to children is critical to effective advocacy and influencing policy development, and so requires far greater attention.