With 1 in 3 Australians living outside major cities and difficulty in accessing services increasing with every kilometre, too many kids are missing out, writes Lindsay Cane, CEO of rural children’s health charity Royal Far West.
We recently celebrated the anniversary of the General Assembly’s adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – 54 Articles founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each and every child. As I look down the list of Articles, Article 6 draws my eye:
Children have the right to live a full life. Governments should ensure that children survive and develop healthily.
As the CEO of a charity dedicated to supporting the development and wellbeing of children and their families, it strikes me that in Australia we are failing many of our children and have a way to go before we fulfil our responsibility to ensure that children develop healthily and thrive.
This is particularly true for our children in rural, regional and remote communities.
Australia is blessed with excellent health and education services in the form of pre-schools and schools, hospitals and primary healthcare facilities. However, they operate in a web of complicated systems and silos, and service a population spread across a vast and disparate land. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of gaps, where services are not provided.
At Royal Far West, we see a lot of kids who have fallen through these gaps. Kids from rural communities with potentially preventable conditions who have no access to the services they need where they live. Kids who have not developed healthily, and who risk not being able to live a full life to the best of their potential.
And we know that there are plenty more of these kids out there – the last Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) in 2012 showed that on average 22% of Australian children starting school were developmentally vulnerable on at least one domain.
That number is often much higher in rural and remote communities, where it is not uncommon to see 50% of children developmentally vulnerable.
Our Healthy Kids Bus Stop program — a 3-6-year old health screening program run by Royal Far West with support from Local Health Districts — backs this up with similarly alarming figures. Over the 18 months since the program began, the average referral rate for treatment is 80%.
This means that 4 out of every 5 children assessed in rural and remote communities need treatment for a previously unidentified issue.
Without intervention, children who start school developmentally delayed never catch up to their peers. They are likely to have poorer health and education outcomes over the course of their life, are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, and are at risk of social, emotional, behavioural and mental health issues. So, this is not just an issue that will affect the lives of these individual children. It is a problem for the Australian community as a whole. It is no coincidence that many Australian communities with high rates of developmental vulnerability are counted in the country’s “most disadvantaged”.
Canadian research has linked developmental vulnerabilities with the quality of future labour supply and has projected that a reduction in early developmental vulnerability could return billions of dollars to the economy. Through reduced costs in education, criminal justice, and welfare, as well as additional returns to productivity through an improved quality of labour supply, the Canadian research extrapolated that unnecessary vulnerability across Canada was “equivalent to throwing away today between $2.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion from the economy”.
If we are to continue to live in this “lucky country” of ours, we need to ensure we are supporting our children to grow to be healthy, well educated, innovative and employed adults with strong social and emotional competencies. Early physical, social, emotional and cognitive vulnerability in our children and young people will significantly impact on the quality of Australia’s labour market participation in later life.
Considering the current economic climate in Australia it may be well worth taking note – strong policies to support early childhood health and development will not only ensure children can enjoy living “a full life”, but will support long-term economic growth and the future of our nation.
Lindsay Cane is the CEO of Royal Far West, a NSW-based NGO that provides health services to children living in rural and remote parts of the state.
 Kershaw et al, 2010. “The Economic Costs of Early Vulnerability in Canada”, Canadian Journal of Public Health – vol. 101