I recently had the opportunity to present at an Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration (AIJA) Conference about the role alcohol plays in child protection and youth justice. The audience was comprised of Judges and Magistrates, Family and Youth Court staff and researchers: people who deal with cases involving children and young people who have been harmed by others.
From varied perspectives one thing was clear – to protect children requires evidence-based, collaborative approaches involving government and non-government agencies.
In my presentation, I spoke of the Australian ‘Alcohol’s Harm to Others’ study, which found almost 1 in every 4 Australian children (22%) had been harmed by other people’s drinking in the past year.
In fact, there are many ways that children are affected by the drinking of others. Alcohol is implicated in between 30 to 70% of reported child abuse cases, and up to 70% of cases where children are removed from their families (Jeffreys, Hirte, Rogers & Wilson 2009). Alcohol misuse by carers is particularly associated with chronic emotional abuse.
Alcohol may also prevent parents from protecting their children from dangerous people or situations or attending to a child’s health or welfare needs expeditiously. I was told of a case where a child was sexually abused by an unknown male after her mother brought a group of strangers home from the local pub. The child’s mother was so pissed, she wasn’t even the one who found and comforted the child after the assault, or called the police.
Alcohol can be both a death sentence and a life sentence for children. A perusal of Coroner’s findings is a depressingly enlightening way of learning about the impact of people’s drinking on children. Maternal drinking while pregnant may lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum disorders (FASD), which can burden a child with various disabilities and significantly increase their chances of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
And, as is known by anyone who works in child protection, drug and alcohol misuse continues across generations, whether due to the significant biological link between parental alcohol abuse and the alcohol use of their children, or because of behavioural modelling (refer Hayes, Smart, Toumbourou and Sanson 2004).
There is a definite role for public health policies in child protection. But the public health sector needs to market its messages more effectively. It needs to get real.
It is not enough to tell Australians that raising the price of alcohol reduces harmful drinking levels. That just makes us worry about how this alleged price or tax rise will affect the cost of our favourite beverage.
Public health policies can help to reduce child abuse and neglect, target serious, repeat youth offending and decrease the most extreme domestic violence (refer: World Health Organization; Livingston, 2011).
Finally it’s important for me to remember that children don’t vote but footy supporters do. So, while it’s not OK that my four-year-old can watch AFL with her dad and be inundated with beer ads on a Father’s Day afternoon, according to the Australian Government Minister for Health, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, the Government has no interest in banning alcohol sponsorship and advertising at sporting events.
This just serves to illustrate the fickle, siloed approach the Government takes to social issues.
While Minister Plibersek supports the AFL’s, NRL’s and Cricket Australia’s right to alcohol sponsorship and free-to-air advertising of alcohol, Australian Governments (including the States and Territories) concurrently recognise that protecting children is everyone’s business.
It worries me that the Minister for Health doesn’t see it as her business.
We all play a role in convincing the Government that both alcohol misuse and child protection are everyone’s business.