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Shocking childhoods

By Alice Hill - posted Wednesday, 10 September 2008

As the childcare debate rages, there is a group of children left out of the discussion entirely: children who suffer from abuse and neglect.

One of the painful ironies of the Australian system of childcare is that children in our community who would most benefit from long term access to high quality childcare have the least opportunity to use it.

In the fields of child development, education and protection, it is now widely recognised that 90 per cent of children’s brain development takes place in the first three years of life. Almost all of this growth is completed before children enter primary school. There is, therefore, a limited window of opportunity for children to develop in such a way that allows them to reach their full potential in later life.


Typically, the children that Children’s Protection Society (CPS) works with live in families who struggle to provide the type of nurturing that most of us take for granted. These families have a combination of mental health issues, substance abuse, family violence, and intellectual disability and are often very young and/or indigenous. Most of the parents have had shocking childhoods themselves.

The case of a three-year-old boy who has recently come to the attention of CPS illustrates how extreme the need is. His mother has serious mental health issues and his father, who now has sole care of the child, has a social phobia: he cannot leave his apartment. This child has spent the first three years of his life in a cot in a darkened room. Because this child is not facing immediate physical harm, there will be no place for him in the foster care system, but there are currently no programs or resources to meet this child’s developmental needs. CPS is currently working with 500 children under five who face comparable challenges.

It is well documented that children who suffer abuse and neglect also suffer developmental delays in consequence. Their physical, intellectual, emotional and social growth is stunted and their success in school and life is seriously compromised by the harm they suffer. Anecdotally, primary school principals tell us that these children arrive for their prep year developmentally two years behind their five-year-old peers and they never catch up.

According to Professor Frank Oberklaid, Director of the Centre for Community Child Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, “… many of the conditions that challenge us in adult society like crime participation, violence, aggressive behaviour, skill shortages and educational achievement have origins that can be traced back to the early years”.

The best way to stop intergenerational abuse and neglect is to protect and care for children from the very beginning of their lives. Where this protection and care is not prevalent at home, out-of-home care can provide it. Access to high quality early years care and education is - to use the language of the new government - an effective social inclusion mechanism for these extremely marginalised children.

Professor Dorothy Scott, Director, Australian Centre for Child Protection, notes that, “Early education and care for children in vulnerable families is one of the few interventions that we know to be effective. It’s an absolutely vital way of trying to prevent child abuse and neglect and all the long term damage that flows from that.”


Evaluations in the United States and Europe show that the payback of early intervention to society is huge. A dollar invested in early childhood care and education for vulnerable children returns $8 to $20 to the community.

But we know that childcare is expensive. Most parents of at-risk children are not in a position to use childcare, nor are they able to access the $3 billion system of benefits surrounding it.

The Commonwealth’s current Special Child Care Benefit program is inadequate. At the moment, childcare centres can access 13 weeks of funding for the children of “in need” families who are enrolled in their centres, the application of which is entirely at their discretion. After the 13-week period, centres need to apply to the Family Assistance Office (FAO), arguing the case to extend this funding for a further 13 weeks.

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About the Author

Dr Alice Hill is an economist and President of the Children’s Protection Society, a Melbourne not-for-profit working to assist vulnerable children and their families since 1896.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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