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Tuesday, 23 March 2004
Page: 21736

Senator MOORE (7:15 PM) —Last week I had the opportunity to visit some women in Cherbourg, an Aboriginal community about three hours west of Brisbane. This opportunity was given to me by an Aboriginal woman health worker who works in that community by the name of Lorian Hayes. Ms Hayes has a particular interest in and has been active for a long period on the issue of foetal alcohol syndrome, which is known as FAS. This is a particularly interesting problem and one that is very confronting. It is only when we have the chance to research the issue at the international level and to meet with the families of people who are immediately affected by it that we can understand what a major problem we are faced with. It is important to know that foetal alcohol syndrome is not just an Aboriginal issue; it is an issue that faces all communities. In Queensland this problem has been faced directly by a number of Aboriginal communities and some amazingly innovative programs have been introduced. We must research these programs, make sure they are widened and make sure there is more information around about this terrible condition.

Ms Hayes was talking with a group of women in Cherbourg and describing the program on which she had worked in the North Queensland cape areas of Kowanyama and Wujal Wujal—remote communities. The program that was run in these areas had been jointly funded by governments and the community. She had worked directly with young people, many of whom had faced a long-term problem with alcohol, on the issues of literacy, health understanding and, in particular, the probable—indeed, actual—damage that can be done to the foetus as it is forming by any alcohol consumption by the parent.

There has been significant research done in this area internationally, particularly in Canada and the United States where research has been done over a 25-year period. We are not that advanced in Australia, but one thing we have found is that there continues to be a lot of information floating around about what constitutes safe alcohol consumption during pregnancy. There is information around that says minor amounts are okay as soon as you work out the stage of your pregnancy or as long as you are healthy it seems to be reasonable to continue with your normal lifestyle. The information provided by the foetal alcohol syndrome people in Queensland—and certainly by those in the Aboriginal communities—is that no consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is safe because the risk is too great. Also, all those involved must take ownership of this issue. It cannot be taught from on high; it must be taught from within the community itself.

The structure of the training program in Kowanyama is very much around working with the community, working directly with people who have already identified as being pregnant, and with their parents and teachers, so that the skills used in the training can then be passed on and the information is not linked to just one or two individuals. The program is based on community understanding and learning. One of the more interesting parts of the program is the use of beautifully formed baby dolls so that people can see what a natural baby looks like and how they react, how they perform and how they cry. Also, there are dolls that have the characteristics of children affected by the foetal alcohol syndrome—that is, dolls whose limbs are not perfectly formed, whose facial features are not clearly defined and whose cries have a particular moan in them which is immediately identifiable as not natural. The children—and many of those undertaking the program are very young—can see, hear and feel the direct impact of foetal alcohol syndrome on babies affected by it.

The program depends on the understanding of all the community. It depends on people being able to be mobile and having the tools at their disposal to work with each other and pass on the skills. There are relatively small costs involved. One thing we talked about with the women was the need for certainty of ongoing funding for this program so that it would not fall over and end up like so many other government programs which have a period of effectiveness before being shelved, with all the value being lost. The cry of the people involved in this program is that no longer is this type of work to be subject to one-off pilot programs. No longer can there be an expectation that these things will work for one or two years, be translated magically and from then on just work. There has to be the confidence and the understanding that such support programs are jointly funded and jointly owned and will exist for an extended period into the future.

The women at the local meeting understood the needs of their community, they understood the difficulty of training and working with young people and they understood the difficulties and the horrors of unlimited alcohol consumption through all periods of life but what they needed was support from their governments at all levels—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Did Mr Beattie take a bottle of wine up there?

Senator MOORE —so that they could move forward—and, Senator, not use humour on such an important issue. One thing we have to understand is that too often issues to do with alcoholism and child care have been able to be pushed aside. There may have been lots of words spoken and lots of rhetoric but the actual funding, the insurance for the future, has not been committed. There needs to be a clear study into the future so that we can look at the generational impact of these issues. Children being born now suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome will have emotional and physical disadvantage and their ability to learn, to act and to relate to each other, to their parents and to the rest of the community will be affected by this medical condition. One fear of the community is that, if this generation of children is impacted by this problem and then continues the same behaviours—and there is the same access to alcohol and the same ongoing process so that people are continuing to act in this way—there will be monumental problems for the future generations in our communities.

We have already worked out—we know from other debates in this place—how much it costs to put someone into foster care. We know how much it costs to have someone in prison for a period of time. What we need to know is how much it genuinely costs to provide the support networks in the communities—not just the Aboriginal communities, all communities—to ensure that the education programs are in place, that there is effective understanding of the issues surrounding foetal alcohol syndrome and that, importantly, children who already have this condition receive the support they need through their schooling processes. It has been clearly identified that children who have had this syndrome given to them through their parents have greater difficulty in school, need different programs and support with the basic issues of literacy and communication and then need skill based training for employment opportunities. Once again, the children of today who may be affected by these issues need to have an effective future. They cannot be sidelined and they cannot be left just as victims of the ignorance and the illnesses of the current generation. We have no option. The women we met in Cherbourg who are facing these issues front on have given us no option. We must take the opportunity which we have been given to look at the research that we have from overseas, to place it in an Australian context and to make sure that the future is brighter and becomes a reality for the children today.