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HomeIssue 7Little kids have the key to our future

Little kids have the key to our future

p2355-donna-ah-chee-3-okBy ERWIN CHLANDA
Denying children stimulation – talking with them, reading to them, praising them – very early in their life is more serious than either sexual abuse or physical abuse in terms of impact on life long health and well being.
Donna Ah Chee (at right) quoted these findings by the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child this morning in her keynote address to the national health conference in Alice Springs.
“By age four children in the most well off families had been exposed to 32 million more words than children in welfare dependent families,” she said.
“In addition to this, children in the most well off families had been exposed to 560,000 more positive affirmations than negative, whereas in the welfare families children had 160,000 more negative affirmations than positive. This is a staggering difference of 720,000 from a supportive environment towards a discouraging one.”
Ms Ah Chee is the CEO of the $40m a year Central Australian Aboriginal Congress which, not surprisingly, has early childhood care as its top priority.
“The next generation of young people, who are likely to be impulsive, have unhealthy brain development leading to poor school performance, develop alcohol and other drug addictions, be violent on the streets and incarcerated, are already there.
p2355-congress-landrights-70s“We must do better at preventing this from occurring and early childhood is key.”
Congress has runs on the board. It is one of the oldest Aboriginal NGOs in town, founded in 1973.
“We [Aboriginal people] controlled it from the beginning, and still do,” she says.
“In some ways we had no choice. Our health status was very poor as you can see from the infant mortality rate and Life Expectancy figures in 1973 when Congress started.
“The mainstream health system had completely failed us.”
There was a heavy dose of politics to get the point across. Congress was the key organiser of the first land rights rally here (pictured above)  “as the newly formed organisation was clear about the connections between health, control, land, culture, employment, shelter and so on long before we started to use the language of ‘Social Determinants of Health’.”
Congress has had a role in an improving health system that has had many big players, not least the NT and Federal governments: Infant mortality in the mid ’70s was 120 per 1000 live births. Now it is 10. Life expectancy for men was 52 – now 63; and 54 for women – now 70.
The organisation now looks after 12,000 people a year, including 2000 bush visitors.
“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” Ms Ah Chee quotes the 17th century saint Francis Xavier.
p2355-congress-mother“Children who start behind tend to fall further behind. Babies are born with 25% of their brains developed, and there is then a rapid period of development so that by the age of three their brains are 80% developed.”
Ms Ah Chee quotes epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot, former chair of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health, producer of “Closing the Gap in a Generation” in 2008 and currently presenting the Boyer Lecture series on the ABC.
She says he published the results of a British study on 70,000 children all born in 1970.
“He showed that brain development by age four is highly dependent on being read to every day, conversational language in the home, going to bed at the same time every night, being part of a good playgroup and being physically active – that is responsive parenting,” says Ms Ah Chee.
“Such programs can help some children to “leapfrog” out of the intergenerational disadvantage that they are otherwise destined to.
“They can reverse the large social gradient seen in this graph. In the second Boyer lecture Professor Marmot describes one such program that has achieved this in the poorest part of London – in Hackney,” she says.
p2355-congress-brain-growth“Yet in spite of all the evidence for the effectiveness of early years interventions this is how most OECD countries spend their funds – it is the inverse of what is needed,” flicking the graph (at left) on the screen.
She says more than 70% of Aboriginal mothers who have accepted participating in the Congress early childhood program “are significantly educationally disadvantaged so it is reaching the right families.
“Corresponding with the educational disadvantage is the reality that 80% are not working and have incomes of less than $500 per week.
“The program is clearly accessing some of the most disadvantaged families in Alice Springs with whom it will have it greatest impact.”
She says there needs to be one carer for every four children “but the carers can be community people trained on the job. This is another advantage to this approach as it provides employment for local Aboriginal people who want to care for kids.”
The primary health care sector through “its antenatal care and healthy kids checks establishes supportive relationships with mothers, families and children in the critical period from conception to age three.
“The education sector should continue to take responsibility for pre-school from age three and primary education. This is how the two sectors should work together in partnership to ensure all children get the best possible start to life.”


  1. If it were my family in this position, as a parent I would take more interest in the development / health of my child and not just expect someone else to fix it.
    One key to this is ensuring kids get the best education, and at least turning up to school every day.
    Parents can be proactive and demand this of their children.
    It seems obvious that neglected children will always be disadvantaged.
    I’m all for assisting the disadvantaged but if you really want to fix the problem we need parents to take responsibility and they must be pushing a positive attitude.
    Remember, negativity breeds negativity.

  2. It is great what Ms Chee says. As a teacher I know that the early years of a child’s life are the most important for life development.
    But sadly her own organisation is not a good example of how to run early childhood programs.
    My hat goes off to the early childhood nurses and preschool readiness program that gives parents and carers great support in maintaing children’s health.
    But the Congress Childcare Centre is a disgrace. The leadership is lacking the knowledge and managment skills to provide a quality experience as Ms Chee has described. Especially when these kids come from such impoverished homes.
    The staffing is always barely minimal and staff are very poorly trained.
    Congress should be an example of how to do things well for children.
    And it starts with ensuring that the leadership of the Congress Childcare Centre is up to the task.

  3. Hi Liz,
    Congress is committed to continuous quality improvement and encourages all clients and partners to provide feedback including complaints either verbally, by email, via our website and or by using the feedback boxes and forms located in all Congress locations, with strict internal reporting processes to ensure adequate follow up.
    If you have not used your real name and have previously made a complaint and were not satisfied with our response then please contact our head office on 8951 4401 and Congress will arrange to meet with you to discuss further.
    Congress’s Ampe Kenhe Apmere Childcare on Gap Rd in Alice Springs has undergone considerable change following the completion and implementation of an evidence-based Early Years Improvement Plan developed by Congress and the University of Melbourne in 2015.
    Significant investment has been made to strengthen the childcare’s educational program, staff recruitment and development, and in integrating Congress health programs to provide children with access to comprehensive health care to support the learning, developmental and physical health domains.
    Concurrent funding from the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training has also enabled an upgrade of the building and surrounds further supporting a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment to meet the learning and development needs of all children.
    As a result of the improvements, the service is now in line with National Quality Standards and Aboriginal families are now able to claim child care benefits.
    The updates to our educational program, based on what I presented in my keynote address, ensures that we are implementing evidence-based practices while providing a culturally appropriate service that is responsive to the needs of the children.

  4. Baron, even if you don’t care about the individual kids who suffer from the impoverished conditions they live in you must agree that failed kids become failed adults and it sends them into a spiral of welfare dependence, unemployment and crime. The entire commmunity suffers when kids are not being looked after.
    The kid who smashes your car or breaks into your house has already begun to fail at life and the interventions Donna discusses here will contribute to stopping that creating a generation of citizens.
    Congress, like other Aboriginal organisations around town is owned by Aboriginal people, so when they talk about raising kids it is them talking about raising their own children.

  5. It’s great to see whatever can be achieved within our communities to help grow strong, healthy children from conception through their early childhood years. 80% of everything we ever learn occurs in the first four to five years of life (including in utero).
    Best practice and next practice models of community engagement help us all to thrive. It’s a mindset that needs to change so that we embrace positive language and positive behaviours in all members of our communities.
    If we all choose to work together in whatever capacity we are each capable of (a strengths-based approach), there are so many possibilities that can be achieved. Sharing skills with each other, growing our vibrant communities all over the NT and becoming the best we can be is a new paradigm we are capable of.

  6. It’s interesting to note the statistic from the mid-1970s that states Aboriginal infant mortality was 120 per 1000 live births.
    I’ve just stumbled across a front page report published October 22, 1964, which “pointed out that a survey of the NT said the infant mortality rate in some settlements is 208 to 1000 live births.”
    The story headlined “500 Aboriginal children die in 3 1/2 years” began: “The Federal Opposition intends to put the Government on the spot over its handling of Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory – particularly the high death rate of children. During the debate on the estimates for the Territories Department, the Opposition put statistics to the Government which show that infant mortality among Aboriginals in parts of the NT is among the highest in the world.”
    The story reported how Kim Beazley (snr), in “what was virtually a vote of censure on the Government” intended “to inquire into the deaths of 500 Aboriginal children in the Alice Springs area in the last three and a half years.”
    That report implies Aboriginal infant mortality was already trending downwards significantly one decade later when the CAAC appeared on the scene therefore the claim “The mainstream health system had completely failed us” appears to be an undeserved criticism.
    It also demonstrates the magnitude of the task that has confronted every organisation that has undertaken the task of improving the standards of living for Aboriginal people over many years.
    If it is the case that “the connections between health, control, land, culture, employment, shelter and so on” are the factors determining “Social Determinants of Health” then clearly something is massively wrong, as this is not reflected in the appalling statistics that characterise the life experiences for so many Aboriginal people.
    The recent unrelenting barrage of media reports about crime, domestic violence, imprisonment rates and so forth are virtually no different to any time one cares to nominate since the mid 1980s, notwithstanding all the resources and assets available during this period at public expense. It’s obvious that much of this has been misdirected.
    It’s one thing to reduce mortality rates but quite another to improve quality of life.
    Donna Ah Chee’s speech about the importance of early childhood development provides valuable insights that clearly indicate where some of the solutions to the deeply entrenched problems afflicting many Aboriginal people lie (as it does for any group coping with impoverished circumstances). Congress’s emphasis on “early childhood care as its top priority” is to be applauded and is fully deserving of support.


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