Far Too Many Aussie Kids Have Their History Written Before They Are Born

This should be a vote-changing election issue.

14/06/2016 5:44 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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600,000 Australian kids live in extreme poverty.

This election, we're hearing a lot about 'jobs and growth'. This is hardly surprising or unique.

Afterall, the benefits of a strong, healthy economy are presumed to flow to all Australians. There's more money to spend on schools, hospitals and transport, more jobs, more opportunities.

The major parties have laid out their plans for achieving this holy grail of economic growth -- the Liberals say it's about company tax cuts; Labor says it's about spending on education and health.

Either way, they're in furious agreement about its absolute necessity.

But does a strong, thriving economy really equate to a strong, thriving community?

Maybe for a lot of Australians.

But for the more than 600,000 Australian kids living in extreme poverty, economic growth is like a car speeding away in the distance as they choke on the dust it kicks up behind.

A recent report by the Australian Child Rights Taskforce highlights just how dire life is for these kids.

It lays bare 25 years of successive governments' failure to adequately support children and young people already living a precarious existence, with breach after breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at a state and federal level.

The message is clear: we are failing many, many Australian children and have been doing so for a long time.

These are the kids going to school with empty bellies, their parents struggling to keep their heads above water. The kids who don't have footy cards to swap with mates over the lunch break, let alone the books or computers they need to keep up in class.

For some of these kids, child care or school may be nothing more than a brief respite from the abuse or chaos that awaits them at home. Until they inevitably start to fall behind and they're kicked out of school for bad behaviour or simply stop turning up.

For many children born into disadvantage and poverty, their history is written before they're even born. They start life from behind and never catch up. As they grow, the hallmarks of disadvantage -- poor nutrition, poor results at school, poor mental health, poor role models -- means the gap between them and their peers will continue to widen.

Across Australia, another disadvantaged group of 45,000 kids are drifting around the child protection system. They will likely have multiple foster care placements throughout their childhood, perhaps interspersed with stints in residential care or at home with their parents.

Most will miss out on the stability and consistency that children crave and need for healthy development.

Many will carry with them into adulthood an invisible but heavy burden of lingering trauma and emotional damage.

One in three kids in care are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, shunted into the child protection system at an alarming rate as intergenerational disadvantage, racism and discrimination continues to take its toll on their families and communities.

For children 'in the system', the future looks pretty bleak. Many struggle with their mental health. About one in three will end up homeless and/or jobless. Around half the boys will transition from the care system to the criminal justice system.

Heartbreaking statistics, but unlikely to rate a mention this election.

Viewed through the eyes of Australia's poorest, most disadvantaged children and young people, the Government's 'jobs and growth' mantra becomes more of a taunt than a promise of good things to come.

We can and should do better for these kids.

Their success or otherwise should be a key performance indicator of our country's economic success. It should be a vote-changing election issue.

As a start, we need to ensure children and families living with vulnerability and disadvantage have access to well-resourced and integrated child, family and mental health services. That they have good access to early year's education. That they are getting the right support to succeed at school and have pathways to higher education.

In Victoria, we've seen strong leadership from the Andrews Government, not only in its commitment to tackling the scourge of family violence, but also in improving and strengthening services and support available to the most vulnerable families in our community.

It's a great start. But if we are to give kids right across Australia the best chance in life, this level of political will needs to be matched at the federal level and across other states and territories.

If the next Australian Government is serious about delivering a strong economic future for this country, it needs to be for all Australians, regardless of their circumstances or background.

In the relentless push towards economic greatness, we must make sure we don't leave our most vulnerable behind. We should always, always put our kids first.

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