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Babies and Toddlers forgotten victims in CCYP family violence report

Posted by Kerrie Gottliebsen | 21/12/16

The Commission for Children and Young People (CCYP) has tabled a report in Parliament which examines the Child Protection service system and the needs of child victims of family violence and sexual abuse.

The report’s findings, ‘Neither seen nor heard’, an Inquiry into issues of family violence in child deaths, mirror those of the Royal Commission into Family Violence which highlighted how children were often considered an extension of their caregiver rather than victims in their own right.

The report however failed to address the often forgotten victims of family violence, the 0-4 year group and the services that support them.

The report reviewed 20 cases where child deaths had occurred during the period between 2013 and 2016. In all 20 cases the children experienced a range of forms of family violence, including severe violence.

Of the 20 cases 6 children were 3 years of age or under.  Three (3) children died from non accidental injuries, one SIDS and two (2) congenital issues (these two children were never discharged from hospital following birth). It also highlights the history of involvement in the child protection system of the older children whose deaths are considered in the report.

Every case in the sample involved a history of violence towards the children’s mother and children witnessing their mother injured. The family violence was generally an entrenched pattern of multigenerational trauma and disadvantage where the risks of cumulative harm were not identified. 

Tweddle CEO Ms Jacquie O’Brien agreed that while the report highlighted the importance of supporting vulnerable parents and children, there are no recommendations focussed explicitly on the needs of babies and toddlers.  

“Tweddle’s work with families is seen through a lens of transgenerational trauma. Environmental influences such as family violence, alcohol, drugs and chronic stress can affect the genes of children and possibly even grandchildren. We know that trauma in the first thousand days not only impacts brain development but impacts at a cellular level." She said

"This disproportionate exposure to early trauma and other developmental risk factors can result in a variety of mental health disorders. Physical abuse impairs a young child’s social adjustment ,including elevated levels of aggression that are apparent even in toddlers. Long-term negative outcomes including school failure, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and the continuation of the cycle of maltreatment into future generations. So we need to make babies a priority and do much more”

In the latest police statistics on family incidents it is noted that there was a 51.6% increase in the number of family violence incidents involving 0-4 year olds in 2015-2016.

“There’s limited understanding of the impact of violence on children, especially in the first critical 1000 days.  We know that babies and toddlers who are chronically exposed to violence (e.g. child abuse and neglect or family violence) never shut down their stress responses"

"They live constantly in a state of alert and crisis, which can produce neurochemical changes that ultimately alter brain architecture if not addressed. Science also tells us that this sort of impact is intergenerational so the earlier the intervention the better.”

The World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) recently released a position paper on The Rights of Infants to highlight the additional and specific needs of the 0-3 age range and how we need to differentiate the needs of babies and toddlers from those of older children based on the fact that babies and toddlers are non verbal and totally dependent upon the availability of consistent and responsive care from specific adults for the adequate development of their basic human capacities.

Ms O’Brien posed that future recommendations include a focus on babies and toddlers. “We know that not only direct physical violence, but also witnessing and hearing acts of violence, even in utero,  cause children to experience high levels of fear and distress. Research tells us that this sort of chronic and toxic stress interferes with brain development which can impact the child for life"

"Specialist Early Parenting services such as Tweddle, change the life trajectory of vulnerable mums and babies and vulnerable men through specialist behavioural change programs.  As a society we need to be serious about making babies a priority and whilst they are non verbal, we need to make their needs heard.”

Tweddle staff follow procedures for identifying and reporting family violence including as seen through the lens of infant mental health. 

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