Northern Territory urged to act on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder
Fourteen months after a report into the condition’s effects, the government is yet to implement a single recommendation
A parliamentary select committee on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder found it was doing ‘untold harm to children in the Northern Territory’. Photograph: Martin Barraud/Getty Images/OJO Images RF
The Northern Territory government is yet to implement a single recommendation from a report into the effects of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, 14 months after it was handed down.
A conference on the health of rural children this week heard from Caterina Giorgi, director of policy and research at the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, who called on the government to explain its inaction and address the recommendations.
A parliamentary select committee on action to prevent foetal alcohol spectrum disorder tabled its report in February 2015, and found the condition was doing “untold harm to children in the Northern Territory”.
FASD is an umbrella term for a range of permanent behavioural, learning and developmental disabilities resulting from exposure to alcohol in utero. There is no national data on prevalence but studies have found higher rates amongIndigenous Australians, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The select committee’s report made 26 recommendations including “alcohol management and support services, sexual health, pregnancy support, early childhood support and education services, and FASD diagnostic and support services”.
“However, the greatest gains are to be obtained through prevention, and key to prevention is alcohol management and restriction of supply.”
Giorgi, who addressed the Country Kids conference in Alice Springs on Monday, said the NT government’s implementation of policies and programs had been unacceptably slow, or non-existent.
“Many Australian states and territories have taken action to prevent, manage and diagnose FASD over the last five years and there is an increased awareness of the need to take a whole-of-community approach to FASD,” Giorgi said.
“But the NT government is dragging its feet in responding to the FASD inquiry report and is fixated on punitive approaches that ignore the evidence.”
The health minister, John Elferink, has been contacted for comment but haspreviously pointed to the NT government’s measures to reduce alcohol consumption, including stationing police outside bottle shops, and enforcing paperless arrests – a highly controversial policy of detaining problem drinkers without charge.
The alcohol policy has been criticised as unfairly targeting Indigenous people, and going against the recommendations of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
In March he told the Guardian he was disappointed the inquiry did not address “the one issue I wanted them to look at” – an idea of “confining pregnant women who are knowingly drinking while they are pregnant”.
Speaking in the context of an Aboriginal woman with FASD, Roseanne Fulton, who had been detained without conviction because she was unfit to stand trial, Elferink acknowledged there was “a massive problem coming down the tube towards governments” with FASD cases.
He predicted an increase in manifestations in the NT. “The reason for that is we now have a society that tells people they’re not responsible for their actions,” he said.
“And they engage in getting free money through a passive welfare system, they sit around in parks and gardens, they drink to their hearts’ content, knowing they’re pregnant, knowing they’re causing a massive problem into the future and they just don’t care.”
In parliament Elferink said the recommendation relating to a diagnostic tool was concerning because he “suspected they may not be able to develop” one, but Giorgi told reporters a diagnostic tool would be finalised and in use among health workers from May this year.
The Labor MLA Gerry McCarthy told Elferink in parliament the committee – of which McCarthy is a member – had given him more a holistic view than simply recommending the law he was looking for.
“The time is now, minister, and time is ticking as it has been for decades,” he said. “It has been your opportunity as a minister for the crown, and the Giles CLP government, to address this.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.