‘Invisible children’ of rural Australia revealed

Royal Far West shines the light on Australia's ‘invisible children’


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Royal Far West chief executive Lindsay Cane .

Royal Far West chief executive Lindsay Cane .

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Report reveals one in three country children are unable to access the health services they need.

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CHILDREN in country Australia are five times more likely to suffer developmental problems when compared to their city counterparts, an alarming report has revealed.

One in three kids in rural areas is also unable to access the health services they need and the gap between city and children’s health and development outcomes is widening.

These statistics have been bought to light by “The Invisible Children”, a report on the state of children’s health and development in rural and remote Australia by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute’s Centre for Community Child Health on behalf of the NSW-based country children's charity Royal Far West.

Report author Dr Tim Moore said when building the Invisible Children report, which was launched in Sydney on Monday, it became clear how little data existed for childhood development at a local government level.

“If you can’t easily access data for your area then sensible planning (for these services) is a problem,” Dr Moore said.

“Each local government area should have access to regularly updated information about their particular population and the services and where the shortfalls are so collectively all the services in that area can do some sensible planning.”

He said services within LGAs could work together better, rather than competing with each other.

“We recommend a place-based approach where all the players – local, state and federal government services and the non-government services and the local community – actually get together to look at the data and what it tells them and then come up with a co-ordinated way of address the problems identified.”

Royal Far West chief executive Lindsay Cane said while there was plenty of data on the chronic health of children there wasn’t much for those with developmental disorders as they “don’t identify naturally” in the current health system.

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“They aren’t sick kids in that they don’t have a chronic illness… they are children with potentially correctable developmental disorders that untreated can give them a lifelong disorder,” Ms Cane said.

“I want to put a face, a name and a number to this problem, as while it is invisible we don’t have to do anything. But when we name it and shape it and have a size to it we can see the economic consequence as a nation and then it could become something really vital.”

Ms Cane said if children showing a conduct disorder at age three were identified, it could prevent them having to access expensive mental health services and inventions at age 15. 

Families who accessed Royal Far West’s services said they expected long waiting lists and low service levels in their local communities, and the report confirmed this and found gaps in early intervention services in rural and remote settings in mental health, paediatric and allied health services.

The report found recruiting and training staff in rural and remote mental health services was a significant and continuing challenge, with chronic staffing issues widely reported.

And while many country families couldn’t rely on all services being physically available it was possible to increase access to services using facilities such as telehealth.

On the back of the report Royal Far West has recommended a nationally co-ordinated approach to telehealth to ensure equitable access for services for rural families that goes beyond the traditional medical model adopted by the states.

Long travel times, distance and a small number of services funded to meet the needs of families in remote areas were all factors in country children getting less early childhood education and care than their city counterparts.

Those children were also more likely to be socially isolated.

While only 17pc of children (0-15 years of age) in major cities across Australia faced a great risk of social exclusion, the percentage increased by more than double for children in remote areas (46.5pc) and by more than four times for children in very remote areas (71.6pc).

Indigenous children and families were significantly more likely to experience social isolation than non-Indigenous Australians (40pc and 22pc respectively).

The report found the economic cost of not tackling developmental vulnerabilities could be high.

If they weren’t halved in the next 60 years, they could curb the growth of Australia’s gross domestic product by 10 per cent, as these country kids would be left unemployed, homeless, incarcerated or facing personal relationship issues.

Dr Moree said the highest rate of return in early childhood development came from investing as early as possible, from birth through to age five in disadvantaged families.

“The early years set the stage, the platform for what happens in later life… so you really want to get this period right for the children, and the parents and the good of society as a whole because if we don’t get it right then we pay the cost down the line.”

What comes next?

LOOKING ahead Royal Far West chief executive Lindsay Cane said telecare and government departments working together would play a vital role in improving outcomes for vulnerable children.

“We are all about infrastructure and regional development in terms of roads and rail but I’m a charity in the business of strengthening regions but from a different perspective, I work with human capital,” Ms Cane said. 

“If we can improve the vulnerability of children in country regions they’ll grow up to be stronger more resilient adults and that will give us a workforce that is able to grow the agricultural industry.”

To do this, Ms Cane said she’d like to see the social care, health and education departments come together and see this as a regional development issue.

“We want all regions to be stronger and so we need to be looking at physical and human infrastructure.”

It would be a 10 to 15 year investment by all departments, she said.

“We (Royal Far West) can’t do it on our own, we are leading the charge but we are inviting other agencies to join up and there is plenty of room for everyone, whether you are a corporate that wants to support it financially or with your staff, or whether you are a government agency or NGO (non-government organisation).”

Ms Cane said more research into these invisible children was also needed, as was growth in telecare, which helped connect rural and remote communities with specialists without the need for travel.

In the next five years Royal Far West wants to work towards being recognised as an essential infrastructure to rural Australia and supporting country kids and families.

Royal Far West has made a range of recommendations following the release of the report.

They are:

  1. Government leadership: An increased commitment to a National Strategy on Early Childhood with renewed focus and investment on adequately supporting early childhood development including access to comprehensive early childhood intervention services for all families regardless of where they live.
  2. Early identification: Investment in consistent and comprehensive pre-school developmental screening and school-readiness programs, with a particular focus on disadvantaged communities.
  3. Increase access to services in rural communities: Invest in innovative approaches to increase access to paediatricians, allied health services and mental health support in rural communities to support childhood development, such as technology supported services.
  4. Integrated allied health and education services: Increase support for and investment in delivery of integrated health and education services for children with identified developmental concerns or emerging conditions who will not meet the requirements for access to the NDIS.
  5. Capacity building and support: Provide access to professional development and support services for early childhood educators and teachers in rural and remote communities to enable better support for children with additional needs, including developmental and behavioural conditions.
  6. Health education: Provide services to educate and empower parents, early childhood educators and teachers to better identify developmental concerns at the earliest possible time.
  7. Strengthen the provision of telehealth nationally: A nationally coordinated approach to telehealth to ensure equitable service access for rural families that is broader than the traditional medical model adopted by the states.
  8. Targeted funding for culturally appropriate services Indigenous children: Increase provision of services appropriate for the most vulnerable members of rural and remote communities.
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