ON 25 JULY 2016 I was in a paediatric roundtable at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, where we discussed early interventions in Koori children’s lives to help give them the best start possible. Later that evening I found myself horrified by images of teenage Dylan Voller being stripped naked, hooded and strapped in a chair by adult men in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Like many others I will never forget those images. I grew so distressed during the airing of that show that my husband wanted to change the channel. I said, ‘No. I am a witness, I am witnessing something here.’
During and after that Four Corners episode and Q&A, Twitter exploded. I joined in. Those acts of cruelty and violence, the brutality and inhumanity against powerless children, was an unambiguous reminder to me of why many of us do the work we do.
After decades at the intersections of social work, public health and business development, my current work focuses on family support for children from conception to their second birthday. The genesis of this time-specific focus occurred in 2014, catalysed by three ideas. While I chaired the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Equity Council and during a presentation from Professor Joseph Sparling, the designer of the 3a Early Childhood Education Project for 0–5 year olds, I came to understand the powerful contribution that the Abecedarian approach can make to create health and wellbeing benefits for children and families that extend across their lifetime. A relatively low-cost initiative, Abecedarian methods have been proven to change the architecture of a child’s brain facilitating improvements in cognitive functioning, particularly for children who have been developmentally compromised.
The work of former Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Andrew Jackomos with Koori children in out-of-home care also showed the critical importance of cultural connection, early life supports for families and a culturally competent workforce to ensuring our children remain in families, not in care. And then I heard from Dr Jacinta Tobin, a paediatric gastroenterologist and senior lecturer of medical education in Indigenous health at the University of Melbourne, about First 1000 Days, an international movement premised on a widely held view that the health and wellbeing of a human life is decided in the thousand days from conception to a child’s second birthday.[i] Grounded in evidence from The Lancet, the movement demonstrated the contribution of good nutrition to the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies; and the powerful impact of early life investments across a person’s lifetime.[ii] I took this framework as a starting point and created First 1000 Days Australia, a broadening of an international nutrition program to a comprehensive program of activity developed by a process involving more than four hundred people and a hundred organisations. From 2015, references to First 1000 Days Australia appeared in major policy initiatives, Children’s Commissioners’ reports[iii] and policy positions made by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, most recently in the Redfern Statement to Federal Parliament.[iv] We understand that complex circumstances have meant that while some families have prospered, others have not. Recent examples from the tenth anniversary of the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples show individuals experience the type of trauma that carries through their family line.[v] Evidence shows this trauma can interrupt children’s early life developmental trajectories; infants exposed to these injuries are often less well positioned to heal from them and that early life exposure increases the likelihood that people will continue to experience vulnerabilities across their lifetime.[vi]
THIS POINT WAS powerfully illustrated by two of Australia’s most recent royal commissions, which looked into the treatment of children in detention in the Northern Territory and institutional child sexual abuse. Both commissions contained recommendations to heal current and future generations, setting them up for a life of contribution rather than incarceration, in a century marked by unprecedented change.
Children born in 2018 will be thirty-two in 2050, in an age and society deeply influenced by the intersections between key civilisational drivers that include automation, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, an increasing and ageing population, personalised health, quantum computing and environmental pressures.[vii] We can be sure that the skills required for living in the latter part of this century will be very different to those required at its commencement. Our generation’s task is to do no more harm to our natural systems, ensure sustained capacity to care for country and prepare children for an uncertain future. The next generation, the treaty-making generation, will need to re-create human systems in the context of natural systems and to find ways to thrive and prosper. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, under the age of fifteen, are uniquely equipped to contribute to this civilisational challenge provided they are appropriately parented and have the skills and means to unite us all.
While taking practical steps to help create a future of and for strong Indigenous children and families, witnessing those images of abuse at Don Dale was a brutal reminder of how far we have to go as a nation. Through the sadness that followed the broadcast, members of the paediatric roundtable harnessed the energy of our outrage and channelled it into actions that were practical, political and aspirational.
We created opportunities for people to make a difference in the lives of boys who suffered harm at the hands of people employed to protect them. We mobilised our networks to condemn the territory government, while supporting the actions of the Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance Northern Territory and others working on behalf of the families and the boys. We connected people with resources and armed leaders with evidence to bring light to the darkness of this stain on contemporary Australia. Our response complemented others actioned by everyday Australians who refused to accept state-sanctioned systematised child abuse as appropriate conduct for our country’s service systems. Change.org stepped in; the responsible minister was sacked but retained portfolios in the NT Government; emails were sent to the Australian Human Rights Commission; statements were made and protests happened, supported by do-it-yourself protest organising websites.[viii] A GoFundMe campaign paid for Dylan’s mother Joanne, sister Kirra and younger brother Caleb to travel from Alice Springs to Darwin to see Dylan for the first time in two years.[ix] Comments made by those who donated to this campaign ranged from outrage to deep sorrow – not only for the boys and their families but for the nation:
‘Hoping Justice and a better future will be found for the kids who have been undeniably let down by the State.’
‘I wish I could give you boys the moon, and the stars and the earth. Instead I am one of the many who are fighting for you. Please be strong.’
‘I am sorry you were treated so brutally, I wish you all the best for the future.’
‘…my small contribution to putting out the flames of pain that these young people experience.’
‘I want these kids to know they have our support. This treatment has to stop, let’s build a decent future together.’
‘There are no words to express the shame we must all feel for allowing this to happen on our watch.’
The handwritten letter from Dylan Voller, widely circulated after it was written on 26 July 2016, was gut-wrenching; spidery, misspelt and crossed out words etched across a lined A4 page. ‘I would just like to thank the whole Australian community for the support you have showed us boy’s as well as our families I would like to take this oppurtunity to Appolagize to the community for my wrongs and I cant wait to get out and make up for them.’
This small offering was from a troubled boy who, because of behavioural problems and the escalation in severity of his crimes, had been in and out of detention for years. His treatment sparked a royal commission, and his early release on the basis of mercy was a triumph for his solicitor Peter O’Brien and all involved. The NT Government resolved to address the issues of youth detention as did the Queensland Government, which just two months later passed legislation to end the incarceration of children in adult jails. Irrespective of their crimes, Dylan Voller and the other boys in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre achieved a decisive victory for us all. Their suffering and emancipation will have a lasting impact on any other child incarcerated in Australia, and because of this we owe them a great deal for their resilience and determination.
We initiated our campaign in response to the Four Corners broadcast because we are all better than the acts of miserable bastardry done to those children in institutional settings. We did our best to expose and destabilise institutions that control children by violence and justify such acts by blaming the children.
For me, the violence perpetrated against our children in Don Dale is evocative of the many thousands of violent acts casually littered through Australia’s history. I cannot reconcile such acts with the deepest yearnings and highest aspirations of both First Nations people and Australian citizens more generally. The words and pictures on the television on 25 July 2016 brought home to us all why loving, protecting and teaching our children safely within our families is perhaps our most important generational challenge and the most important contribution any adult can make to any treaty-making or nation-building process.
DURING THE ROYAL commission hearings I wondered not only what we could have done, but when we could have intervened and made a real difference for children and others who end up in detention. The commission pointed to the need to address a crisis-driven system that could not protect vulnerable and at-risk children or families, and chronic resource shortages in over-burdened health and welfare systems. Having worked in child protection I know that systems designed in a different era, for a different population, perpetually fail our children and families. Our communities are not safer, nor are our children equipped to have a fulfilled life in institutional or out-of-home care – not when a large proportion of justice-involved youth have cognitive impairments.[x] Prisons are not, and never should be, solutions for health problems. The commissioners declared that ‘only by tackling the risk factors for neglect from an early age, within the family, will it be possible over time to reduce the risk of harm to children and see fewer children taken into care’, recommending preventive and protective public health approaches to child abuse and neglect, investments in family support centres and place-based services.
Worthy aspirations, but given the history of government failure to implement policy initiatives from previous inquiries, there is a real danger the recommendations might become welfarised responses to socio-economic inequality. Throughout the hearings, Elders said: ‘We want responsibility for our children. It is the role of Elders to keep their children on country’; and, ‘People needed to be supported to fulfil their responsibilities as parents, rather than have their children removed.’ These breathtakingly simple statements hold the central truth of an appropriate response. Invest in parenting, not prisons. These sentiments encapsulate the core thinking and intention behind First 1000 Days Australia: personal and family responsibility for children; support for rather than punishment of parents; and the end of unnecessary removal of children.
Public services have a role to play in supporting parents to uphold responsibility for their children’s health and wellbeing. First 1000 Days Australia does all we can to support and encourage families, parents and carers to provide their children with the best start in life. This is the ultimate meaning behind every children’s rights agenda: parenting before placement; use of services, not over-servicing; achieving aspirations and life goals before a welfare response to need.
IF WE ARE going to close the gap by 2030 then we should be working with and supporting the fifteen year olds, who will be parents in the next ten years to ensure their capacity and preparedness to undertake their parental roles and responsibilities. We also take the view that for far too long, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men have not had their fathering roles and responsibilities acknowledged, celebrated and supported. In contemporary public policy discourses our men have generally been described as perpetrators of violence, paedophiles or individuals from whom women and children need to be protected. This oversimplified view of violence in our families and the blaming of men is rarely understood as having a whole-of-society consequence. We are all diminished when the role and capacity of men to contribute to the life of our infants is rendered invisible in early life services and maternal- and child-health programs.[xi]
This destructive attitude is reinforced through service delivery strategies that privilege the biological capabilities of mothers but do not heed the cultural or social circumstances in which mothers and children live. Service deliverers either punish or reward mothers for their capacity to have a pristine pregnancy while denying the important role men play in supporting their women in the lead up to and during conception, pregnancy, birth and their child’s early years. Both parents create families in which their children thrive and flourish, whether they are living with their children or not. First 1000 Days is about restoring responsibility to both parents to raise their children well.
UNDER THE CULTURAL authority of the First 1000 Days Australia Council, we have adopted a ‘Charter for the rights of children yet to be conceived’.[xii] This world-first charter provides us principles that are political, prophetic, poetic and powerful. It acknowledges that parenting is a learned skill. The charter declares that every child can rightfully expect to be born into families who:
Choose to become parents at a time when they are resourced and supported to provide optimum care for the child who will be born to them;
Seek appropriate preventative and early intervention medical and cultural supports prior to, during and after the First 1000 days;
Can nourish them in the mother’s womb with good quality nutrition, free from alcohol, smoke and the experience of violence;
Have loving expectations of them, are hopeful about their future and help them to achieve their life aspirations in powerful and tender ways;
Participate in their education from birth to ensure that personal aspirations are nurtured and aligned with our people’s cultural values, responsibilities and entrepreneurial spirit;
Provide an appropriately stimulating environment, age-appropriate games and the ability to grow with siblings and family members who themselves are capable of experienced and knowledgeable caring and parenting;
Know who they are, where they come from, who they are connected to, who loves them, who advocates for them, who listens to them and who is responsible for them – culturally, morally, physically, spiritually and emotionally;
Are part of a healthy, vibrant society shaped by strong kinship relationships and a resilient culture, in which all members thrive, flourish and enjoy the same opportunities as other Australians – without being made the same;
Have healed and broken free from trans-generational trauma, and are able to transform harmful experiences into a positive future for their children and grandchildren;
Have the capacity to celebrate their children and offer them ceremonies, rituals, language, songs, stories and environments that strengthen their resilience, encourage their growth and support their choice of identity.
FIRST 1000 DAYS Australia focuses on conception as an opportune time to invest in First People’s nation-building. Because of the lifelong outcomes generated through this period of time, we now say we are not birthing babies, we are birthing Elders. Every baby born is a gift to their families and a future Elder of their community. To carry an Elder in our bellies, for women, is a sacred responsibility. The ways a man tends to his family during those early days determines the qualities and characteristics of our future Elders and leaders.
First 1000 Days Australia encourages self-determination in family groups over deficit-driven responses to early life. In a staged process, we discover families’ aspirations and life goals over the short and long term and match families with life coaches, mentors, services, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. We create opportunities for families and their children to enjoy and enrich each other’s lives. The collection of household-level information provides a regional understanding of the goals and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from fourteen and up, including aspirations families have for their children before these children are conceived.
Using research and culture as cornerstones of our effort, we work to ensure evidence-based and evidence-generative strategies inform best practice, specific to the cultural requirements of families in participating regions. With on-the-ground partners, we implement training and development programs to enhance people’s engagement with research and development, entrepreneurial and innovation opportunities. We also work to have departments, and non-government and community-controlled services reorientate their discourses, policy and programming in order to support families to achieve their aspirations, not just meet their needs.
OUR CENTRAL HYPOTHESIS is that culture is the protective factor for our families, essential for identity and connection. We do this because evidence says it is vital for our future health and wellbeing. We facilitate ‘Welcome Baby to Country’ ceremonies in regions where we are active. Based on the work of communities, Elders and local councils around Australia, these ceremonies celebrate the birth of a child, born the year prior.[xiii] These ceremonies have instilled pride and connection for the parents who introduce their babies, and give babies an identity as members of the community. We have adopted ‘pristine pregnancies’ as a cultural protective factor. Referring to pre-colonial practices, our campaign is premised on babies flourishing when their mothers are nourished, can access traditional food sources and quality personal and professional care, when she can birth her child on country, surrounded by women and supported by the men who are connected to her child. We also reactivate our people’s entrepreneurial spirit, supporting family businesses to encourage economic independence. We are also investing in a new-look workforce – intentional peer communities, independent business owners and operators, community members well versed in low-intensity interventions – growing this capability within families and making this workforce available to other families.
First 1000 Days Australia strongly supports and encourages families, parents, playgroups, childcare centre workers and other partners to access Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages specific to the infant and/or the local community, and to reinforce these languages through books, dance, songs and play.
Our language and family gives children the experience of safety and belonging, which significantly shapes their encounters with the wider Australian society. Evidence shows that cultural strength and social connectedness act as buffers against those adverse stressors that are most keenly expressed in families experiencing vulnerability.[xiv] Evidence also shows that wider community respect for and acknowledgement of culture helps children develop strong identities, and foster positive self-esteem, emotional strength and resilience.[xv] That is why we play to the strengths in our families. First 1000 Days Australia recognises the importance of collective community approaches and the shared responsibility of raising children. This collective approach to child-rearing improves family functioning and builds strength in communities. We preference those child-rearing practices that prioritise autonomy and independence, because these approaches strengthen children’s adaptability, coping skills and resilience. We support family members and professionals to teach children about the world around them and their place within it. We engage with spirituality and country-centred approaches by supporting families’ access to natural play environments and to go out on country and learn together.
The caution is this: we are radically disruptive for those we engage with. We are future-focused and referent to our past. We do not privilege nor do we reward the position of ‘empowered victim or empowered service provider’. Our identity is not bound to or defined by our access to any service-delivery system. We have strong moral positions that we know can be challenging, and because of our focus on family strengthening and self-determination, we work with households and support them in commissioning the services they need, when they need them. We are unapologetic for holding our people accountable for the self-determination that leaders ask for and we would have our people aspire to. We are citizens, not clients; self-determining, not service-seeking; we promote health in homes, not access to health services; and we promote positive parenting before children are conceived through to a child’s second birthday over childhood detention and imprisonment. We know it is difficult for people to let go of the advantages of victimhood, but transition we must. We do not need welfare, we need to create warm and loving environments and powerful advocates who can protect our children from harm within families and the authority of governments, and prepare them for the later part of this century, when our knowledge systems, our capacity for connecting to country and our resilience will be needed by the world.
First 1000 Days Australia is Indigenous-conceived and led. We emphasise research and evidence generation rather than deficit-focused programmatic responses to issues impacting our most fundamental community building blocks: our families. This is an interesting position to assume, and not without its difficulty, but one absolutely needed to guarantee our health, happiness and future prosperity.
We cannot and will not give up on our children, and reject any deficit standpoints when discussing our families. Deficit language perpetrates harm, facilitates a culture of low expectations and homogenises responses to some of the most culturally diverse groups of people on Earth. We have specific strengths and outcomes for which the Uluru Statement provides a platform: valuing community over individuals; relationships over economics; self-determination over prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approaches that are generally not measured, recognised or embedded into current policy frameworks. Our health and wellbeing cannot be achieved in welfare economics driven by the need to reduce overall systems costs. The resultant programs are too much at odds with our values and do not facilitate our capacity to develop and prepare ourselves for a future unlike the world has seen.
AMARTYA SEN’S NOBEL prize-winning work on the development of human capability suggests the focus on any work with our communities should support an individual’s capability to achieve the kind of life they have reason to value.[xvi] Our families have aspirations, yet few supports to achieve them.
First 1000 Days Australia is based at the University of Melbourne and has partnerships with diverse agencies. The holism reflected in the model has been recognised as an exemplar for the implementation of early life prevention and intervention programs in Australia with a growing number of agencies becoming engaged in what we do and how we do it. This year, we hope to engage more than a thousand households in First 1000 Days Australia work, through a regional network extending across Queensland, Victoria and our collaborators in Indonesia and Norway, to make sure that no child in any community has to live an early life like that of Dylan Voller and the boys in Don Dale.
When our families are at breaking point and the pathway is well carved for our children to end up in out-of-home care or incarcerated in institutions, we need to return to the values that saw us live well for millennia. We do this because we never ceded our rights to our country nor our values.
The treaty generation, our children being born today and tomorrow, need the Uluru Statement and the intention of it to guide them in creating equity – structurally, constitutionally and within and between generations – so that we are well positioned to make the changes the world needs. Our treaty generation will negotiate for us the rightful place in our own country and strengthen our families so our children will flourish, walk in two worlds and give the gift of their culture to their country. This is the mandate for First 1000 Days Australia, one we honour and cherish. When we can make the gift of a strong family to children who will be born into them, we will be fulfilling our duty as sovereign citizens and of citizens to the nation-state. Maybe then, non-Indigenous people will recognise our leadership on issues relevant for the entire country, not just our own community. Our health and wellbeing initiatives are world standard, our primary healthcare sought after the world over, and the First 1000 Days Australia model continues to be taken up in other countries.
Yet, I am constantly told, ‘You can do this for Indigenous people and we [mainstream agencies] will do it for everyone else.’ Our work is at risk of being appropriated, bastardised and poorly implemented as if it were a program and not a nation-building exercise, one appropriate for the whole nation. That will be the day we are truly free, when the quality of our work is recognised as being appropriate for all Australians, and we are empowered to lead our country in the development of effective and efficient healthcare systems, rather than empowered as clients of services that don’t suit our needs. Until that day, we will keep working to support people to have a dream and to achieve it. That is the promise of every great nation, and it is the promise we support our families to achieve, one aspiration at a time.
[i] Centre for Community Child Health n.d., Strong Foundations: Getting it Right in the First 1000 Days, The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, viewed 18 April 2018, < https://www.rch.org.au/ccch/first-thousand-days/>.
[ii] Horton, R 2008, The 2008 Lancet Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition’, The Lancet, viewed 18 April 2018, < https://thousanddays.org/resource/the-2008-lancet-series-on-maternal-and-child-undernutrition/>.
[iii] Young children affected by family violence focus of new national action plan 2015, Human Rights Commission, viewed 18 April 2018, <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/stories/young-children-affected-family-violence-focus-new-national-action-plan>.
[iv] Redfern Statement 2017, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, viewed 18 April 2018, <http://nationalcongress.com.au/redfern-statement/>.
[v] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australian Institute of Family Studies 2013, Trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care for Indigenous Australian children, Australian Government Publishing Services, Canberra.
[vi] Elder, G 1998, ‘The Life Course as Developmental Theory’, Child Development, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 1-12, viewed 18 April 2018, via Jstor database.
[vii] Hajkowicz, S, Cooh, H & Littleboy, A 2012, Our Future World: Global megatrends that will change the way we live, via CSIRO.
[viii] Youth Central 2017, Do it yourself: Finding the people to join or organise a protest, State Government of Victoria, viewed 18 April 2018, <http://www.youthcentral.vic.gov.au/government-info-assistance/do-it-yourself-democracy/finding-the-people/join-or-organise-a-protest>.
[ix] Harrision, K 2016, For the children #4Corners, GoFundMe, viewed 18 April 2018, < https://www.gofundme.com/2ge82cb5>.
[x] Wahlquist, C 2018, ‘WA study finds 89% of children in detention have severe cognitive impairment’, The Guardian, viewed 18 April 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/feb/14/wa-study-finds-89-of-children-in-detention-have-severe-cognitive-impairment>.
[xi] Arabena, K 2017, ‘Is it time for a theory of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander masculinity?’, First 1000 Days Australia, viewed 18 April 2018, <http://www.first1000daysaustralia.org.au/it-time-theory-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-masculinity>.
[xii] First 1000 Days Australia n.d., The Charter of rights for children yet to be conceived’, viewed 18 April 2018, <http://www.first1000daysaustralia.org.au/charter-rights-children-yet-be-conceived>.
[xiii] Monash University 2017, Welcome Baby to Country, Medicine, Nursing, and Health Sciences, viewed 18 April 2018, <https://www.monash.edu/medicine/about-us/indigenous-health/welcome-baby-to-country>.
[xiv] Hopkins, KD, Shepherd CCJ, Taylor, CL & Zubrick, SR 2015, ‘Relationships between Psychosocial Resilience and Physical Health Status of Western Australian Urban National Youth’, PLoS ONE, vol. 12, no. 12, pp. 10, viewed 18 April 2018, via The University of Western Australia.
[xv] C. Young, A. Tong, J. Nixon, P. Fernando, D. Kalucy, S. Sherri , K. Clapham, J. C. Craig & A. Williamson 2017, ‘Perspectives on childhood resilience among the Aboriginal community: An interview study’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 405-410.
[xvi] Sen, A 1985, Commodities and capabilities. Elsevier Science Pub. Co., New York, N.Y.