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Help vulnerable children and families through intensive early years support

The VCOSS 2016-17 State Budget Submission: Putting people back in the picture outlines a number ways the Victorian government can support vulnerable children and families in the early years of childhood.

Children’s early years shape how they learn, develop and form relationships, and can influence their long-term health, social adjustment, educational achievement and life expectancy.[1] Between the ages of 0-3 years a child’s brain grows from approximately 25 per cent to 80-90 per cent of adult size. [2]  During this time there is enormous brain development and plasticity and the neural pathways formed are heavily influenced by a child’s experience and environment. [3]

Children who are exposed to increased stress or trauma during this time, such as family violence, neglect and extreme poverty can face long-lasting learning, behaviour and emotional regulation difficulties.[4] Even antenatal experiences such as maternal stress can have both immediate and long-term consequences for children’s health and development. [5]

Programs that support children’s early development and wellbeing are likely to have long-lasting positive outcomes, particularly for children from families facing disadvantage. Access to intensive support can assist vulnerable families build stronger parenting skills, develop nurturing environments and form strong parent-child relationships, helping to support their child’s healthy development and reducing the risk of child abuse and neglect.[6]

Despite strong evidence about the clear benefits of supporting children and families in the antenatal period though to toddler years, to date much of the investment focus has been for children aged 3 to 5. The Victorian government can support vulnerable children who may be at risk of poor developmental outcomes and at risk of entering the child protection system, by expanding intensive early intervention and prevention programs that support children and their families, from pregnancy into their child’s early years of life.

Investment should be based on the best evidence available and incorporate lessons from initiatives such as right@home, Cradle to Kinder, the Aboriginal Cradle to Kinder program and Bumps to Babes and Beyond Program. The government could also consider extending the support available through these programs, such as Cradle to Kinder, until children reach school age.

CASE STUDY

Bumps to Babes and Beyond (BBB) developed by QEC Early Parenting Centre provides parent education and holistic support to vulnerable mothers and their families prenatally from 26 weeks gestation till their child is 18 months of age. The program aims to develop strong parent-child relationships, improve child health and development and parenting capacity and to reduce the risk of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being placed in out-of-home care. The program also encourages mothers to build links with services outside the program to enable a supported transition into the community.

A recent evaluation of the program found that:

  • all children had remained in the care of their family during the program;
  • a decrease in mothers’ depression between beginning the program and three months post birth
  • 86 per cent of mothers breastfed on discharge from hospital following their child’s birth (compared to 45 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers not engaged in BBB)
  • all antenatal appointments were attended by the mothers engaged in the program
  • all children attending the program were up to date with their immunisations and milestone visits with the Maternal and Child Health Nurse
  • participants had significantly increased community supports and networks [7]

 

In addition to helping vulnerable families by providing intensive early years support, the VCOSS 2016 -17 State Budget Submission outlines a number ways the Victorian government can to support vulnerable children and families by:

  • Improving children’s health and development with better access to Maternal and Child Health Services
  • Helping vulnerable families and children benefit from playgroups
  • Better supporting all Aboriginal children to thrive
  • Helping foster and kinship carers given children a supportive home environment
  • Giving every child in out-of-home care high-quality therapeutic placements
  • Supporting young people leaving care to achieve independence

 

[1] M McDonald, T Moore and R Robinson, Policy Brief No. 26: The future of early childhood education and care services in Australia, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Centre for Community Child Health, 2014.

[2] S Fox, A Southwell, N Stafford, R Goodhue, D Jackson and C Smith, Better Systems, Better Chances: A Review of Research and Practice for Prevention and Early Intervention, Canberra, Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), 2015.

[3] S Fox et al., Op. Cit., p.18.

[4] Centre on the developing child, Harvard University, In brief: The science of early childhood development, 2007.

[5] T Moore, Understanding the nature and significance of early childhood: New evidence and its implications,  Presentation at Centre for Community Child Health seminar Investing in Early Childhood—the future of early childhood education and care in Australia,  Centre for Community Child Health, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, 2014.

[6] Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect, 2013.

[7] A Burrows, B Allen and S Gorton, Evaluation of the Bumps to Babes and Beyond Program, A Partnership Between The Queen Elizabeth Centre and Mallee District Aboriginal Services, December 2014.