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Young parents need our support, not judgement

Children's Children's Rights

Megan Mitchell, National Children's Commissioner

There is so much we, can – and should – be doing to support teenage parents and the 8,500 babies born to teen mothers in Australia each year.

While there has been a huge reduction in teen pregnancies over recent years, young parents and their children face lives of prolonged economic hardship, poor health and intergenerational disadvantage.

Part of the problem is lack of access to education for young mothers, many of whom leave school early and are unlikely to attain secondary or tertiary education.

Health issues and family circumstances also play a role. Pregnant teens are at greater risk of anaemia, hypertension, renal disease, eclampsia and depressive disorders, and have often experienced poverty, trauma and abuse. Their children too have lower birth weights, higher rates of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) and experience other health problems.

Over the past year, I investigated the experiences and needs of young Australian parents. I heard the pride these mothers and fathers have for their children. I also heard about the stigma they experience. I heard how they were struggling to find time for their own education, to get and keep work, and struggling to find somewhere affordable and safe to live. Many were afraid to seek help for fear that their babies would be removed.

Removing babies from teen parents is not the solution. Doing so further perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage, particularly among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Mothers with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background account for 26% of all teen mothers, and a disproportionate number of these mothers have themselves been in care.

In 2015, Swinburne University led a national study of 400 homeless young people and found two-thirds of homeless youth had been in the out of home care system.

The study estimated 50 per cent of young people who leave the out of home care system once they turn 18 will be homeless, in prison, unemployed or a new parent within their first 12 months.

Through my investigation, I discovered Australia does not routinely collect or publish information about the age of parents who have their children taken away from them.

Nor do we collect or publish information about the pregnancy rates of children in care, or among those who have left care.

In many jurisdictions, authorities consider the age of the parent to be a risk factor in itself. Young parents consequently feel targeted by child protection agencies and are fearful they will lose their child.

We can provide much better support for these young people and their children.

For a start, we can make a concerted effort to understand the relationship between child maltreatment, poverty, risk taking and teen pregnancy. If we understand the context, we can deliver health and education programs that further reduce the rate of unplanned teen pregnancies.

The most effective programs are those that target teenagers with the greatest risk factors. For example, the support, health and educational needs of young people who receive child protection services or are in care are different from many other groups of children and young people.

These young people are more likely to be sexually active at an earlier age and are more likely to be disconnected from school. They are more likely be homeless, more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to have mental health problems and disabilities. Often they are on their own, with little or no family support.

What struck me most in my consultations with young parents was just how many of them were utterly on their own, at 16 or 17, trying to cope with a new baby, learning to parent, and struggling to navigate systems and access support, with no-one in their corner.

The luckier ones were those who had by chance linked into a service for teen parents, but there are few of these, they are often time limited, have waiting lists, and many do not offer the full suite of support these young people and their children need.

The young people I spoke to reported difficulties accessing confidential contraceptive and sexual health services. Most said there were very few services tailored to young mothers, and they felt unwelcome and judged by workers and participants in mainstream parenting services.

Teenage parents need targeted and integrated programs that promote health, identity, respectful relationships and parenting skills and knowledge. And critically, we need to incentivise these young people to recognise and pursue employment and education options.

Young parents also need our help to deal with their own childhood experiences and to be the safe and skilled parents they clearly desire to be. For many, becoming a parent has brought meaning, focus and discipline to their lives. We owe it to these young people, to build on their strong motivations to parent well and provide better lives for their children than many of them had growing up.

As one young mother said to me: “I would like to set a good example for my sons. If they see mum doing well, living a happy healthy lifestyle, they’ll see it and want to live the same.”

The Children's Rights Report 2017 was launched by Attorney-General Christian Porter in Sydney this morning.  The report includes the findings of National Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell's eight-month investigation into how to improve outcome for young parents and their children, which makes 16 recommendations. 

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