What is this about?
In late 2019, the Australian Parliament’s Senate Community Affairs References Committee began an Inquiry into Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
FASD includes a range of physical and neurological harms as a result of brain damage caused by exposing an unborn child to alcohol during pregnancy. After they are born, FASD affects children, young people and adults in a range of ways, and conditions can range from very mild to severe. FASD is an entirely preventable permanent disability.
The true prevalence of FASD in Aboriginal Australia is unknown, however it has been estimated to be between 3 and 7 times as common in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander as it is in the non-Indigenous population.
What does Congress think about this?
Congress thinks FASD and the other harms that alcohol does to Aboriginal children and families is a very important health issue.
Our submission to the Senate Inquiry in December 2019 started from the position that the nurture and care of children is at the heart of Aboriginal culture. FASD has not always been part of the story for Aboriginal families. However, the effects of colonisation, dispossession and impoverishment have been devastating for generations of Aboriginal families.
For some Aboriginal people and families, the intergenerational experience of trauma, poverty and inequality can become too much to bear. This is the story for many of our people who struggle with alcohol and other substance abuse, and who have seen their parents and grandparents face similar traumas and struggles.
Key points and recommendations that Congress made in our submission to the Inquiry include:
- the importance of Aboriginal community controlled health services (ACCHSs) in providing services to Aboriginal people especially for issues related to pregnancy, childbirth and addiction
- the need for alcohol reforms that aim to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed across the whole community to reduce the numbers of children born with FASD, because many women may continue to drink at dangerous levels before they know they are pregnant
- the central role of early childhood development programs (like Congress’ ANFPP, CHaD and Preschool Readiness Program) because they work with children and families to address developmental vulnerabilities from an early age
- the need to resource schools properly to support students with FASD and other developmental conditions, and to resource ACCHSs to provide these supports to Aboriginal students
- the need for more research to help us understand how common, or prevalent, FASD is amongst the Aboriginal population, and to find out more about patterns of alcohol-related developmental harms such as FASD
- programs such as our CYATS service are very important and should be established and properly funded in other ACCHSs around Australia
- the way NDIS funding is provided to remote and regional areas should change so that some of the funding is pooled together to provide early childhood programs to all Aboriginal children in remote and regional areas, along with pooled funding for specialist services for children with diagnoses such as FASD.
In October 2020, Congress appeared as a witness to provide evidence to the Senate Committee in a Public Hearing. In this hearing, Congress answered questions from the Committee about our submission. We also gave the Committee more information about our services such as CYATS, to help them understand the work we do in assessing, diagnosing and treating children with neurodevelopmental conditions like FASD.
What happens next?
The Senate Committee released their final report in March 2021. The Senate Committee found that FASD is still not well understood or recognised in Australia, referring to FASD as an ‘invisible epidemic’. However, it is clear that the burden of FASD, including the human, social and economic costs, are immense.
It is hard to find the right data to understand how widespread FASD is across Australia and often times these data do not exist. The Senate Committee wanted to make sure that the Government can make policy decisions and budgetary measures that are able to address the impact of FASD in communities and individuals. This Senate Inquiry was clear that the Government should ensure that there is good knowledge and education across our society, including in schools and amongst health professionals, to help reduce the number of people affected by FASD in the future.
The Committee made some key recommendations that are worth mentioning, such as recommending that the Australian Government include FASD in the List of Recognised Disabilities, and recommending a specific public education campaign on the roll-out of mandatory pregnancy warning labels on alcoholic drinks. The Committee also acknowledged the importance of First Nations community-led initiatives and recommended that the Government should provide adequate and longer term investment for such projects.
The work of Congress’ CYATS team was recognised by the Committee in their report, as was the overall role of ACCHSs.
There was a missed opportunity with the Committee failing to recommend population-level efforts to reduce alcohol consumption. Congress will continue to speak up about the importance of population-wide alcohol reduction strategies, early childhood development programs, services like CYATS and changing the way the NDIS is funded to remote areas.
All these things will be important in making sure we can reduce the impact of alcohol, including through FASD, on our children, families and communities.