Better place: Karen of Rosemeadow with her children Tyson, seven, Taliesha, six, and Tiarni, 15 at a mentoring session. Photo: Danielle Smith
Australian welfare services fail to respond to social problems until they hit crisis point and cost billions to address, according to a new report pushing for an improved approach to early intervention.
Released by the Benevolent Society to mark its 200th anniversary, the report said more than one in five kindergarten children were already behind when they started school, according to the Australian Early Development Index.
One in seven Australian children is affected by a behavioural or emotional problem and fewer than half of children with a mental health issue get the professional help they need. Almost all trends are worse for indigenous children and youngsters with a disability.
The researchers found intervention was most effective if delivered in the prenatal period and in early childhood. ''The older a child gets, the more difficult it is for them to catch up to their peers and the more difficult and costly, and less effective the intervention. This fact drives the need for early intervention,'' the report said. ''Australia, like many other developed nations, has a 'culture' of late intervention; that is, responding to problems once they reach a critical point, rather than seeking to ameliorate the effects of those problems earlier or preventing the problems from occurring altogether.''
Benevolent Society chief executive Anne Hollonds urged state and federal governments to show a greater commitment to vulnerable young children.
''Failing to invest in prevention and early action is like signing a blank cheque now for much higher future costs,'' she said.
The annual cost of child protection and out-of-home care services was $3 billion nationally in 2011-12, while the overall burden of disease relating to child abuse and neglect is estimated to cost $6.7 billion a year.
The society made 10 recommendations to help disadvantaged families, including greater support in the prenatal period, free or low-cost preschool, direct services for families and children - such as in-home visits - and ensuring programs are of sufficient intensity and duration to be effective.
Rosemeadow mother of six Karen credited early intervention services for getting her family back on track. The 39-year-old previously lived in Sydney's west where she had difficulty finding services for herself and her children, aged six to 17. She suffered from chronic depression, was drinking heavily and was briefly incarcerated for driving while disqualified.
Since moving to Rosemeadow in Sydney's south-west she's turned her life around with the help of a number of different programs.
''I got a support worker who helped me set goals and I have been able to achieve those goals,'' she said. ''It's been a positive move.''
Her youngest children, Tyson, seven, and Taliesha, six, have taken advantage of support programs at their school and her 14-year-old son Wesley is taking part in Young Spirit Mentoring, an empowerment program for older children run by community leader Dave Bell.
Karen and daughter Tiarni, 15, both volunteer at the program, preparing breakfast for the participants three mornings a week. Having finished a TAFE certificate in child and community services, her goal now is to find a job working with young people.
The report found effective programs were not enough to address the needs of disadvantaged children unless there was wider community support. Many vulnerable families slipped through the cracks due to a lack of services in their suburb and difficulties travelling to an area where more support might be available.
The study by the Centre for Community Child Health analysed several successful international early intervention programs for vulnerable children and found they had five common characteristics.
Each program started when children were under five, they were of sufficient duration and intensity, they targeted high-risk families and they involved a direct teaching component. It found acting early had a number of social benefits such as higher educational achievement, higher earnings, improved physical and mental health, decreased criminality and fewer notifications of child abuse or neglect.