Western Australian communities are facing significant early learning disadvantages, higher child poverty rates and a disproportionate number of children in child protection, according to a new report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (BCEC).

The latest report by BCEC, The Early Years: Investing in Our Future, reveals the extent of inequity in early learning opportunities across the nation, with a focus on WA.


Early learning disadvantages

The findings show that remote areas of WA, many of which are Indigenous communities, are typically areas that have the highest level of early learning disadvantage with lower access to preschool, poorer development outcomes in their first year of schooling, and lower economic resources to draw from.

Report co-author and BCEC Principal Fellow Associate Professor, Rebecca Cassells, said the research highlights the divide between the most advantaged and disadvantaged areas, and the impact this has on early childhood.

“Children living in the most disadvantaged areas are ten times more likely not to be accessing 15 hours of preschool each week in the year before school compared to children in the most advantaged areas,” Associate Professor Cassells said.

The suburbs with greater early learning disadvantage exist along the Albany Highway, starting from Orange Grove through to Armadale.

Two Rocks, at the northern edge of Perth, was found to be an anomaly, with very low levels of early learning disadvantage yet higher socioeconomic disadvantage and high unemployment.

There are signs of improvement, however, with WA having the biggest increase in the number of children accessing preschool between 2018 and 2019.

Yet a significant gap remains, with only 50 per cent of Indigenous children getting the required 15 hours or more of preschool a week, compared to 70 per cent of non-Indigenous children.


Too many children in poverty

One in five children under age five in WA are living in poverty-affected families—equivalent to 33,000 children. This is higher than the national poverty rate of 19.6 per cent of children under five.

Report co-author and BCEC Professor Alan Duncan said the extent of young children living in poverty in WA had also increased over time.

“In WA alone, child poverty rates have been increasing over the last decade … with 11.4 per cent in severe financial hardship,” Professor Duncan said.

“This means that a single parent in severe poverty with a young child under five could face living on less than $370 a week after paying for housing.”

BCEC also found the out-of-pocket costs of childcare contributed to an increased likelihood of poverty, even after childcare subsidies were factored in.

“This brings into sharp focus the question of adequacy of income support payments and government assistance, and the need to ensure that payments are set at a rate that serves to protect our most vulnerable population,” Professor Duncan said.


Child protection overrepresentation

The WA child protection system has one of the highest rates of overrepresentation of First Nations children anywhere in the world, with Indigenous children aged between zero and four being 19 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.

Evidence comparing child protection risk factors within WA indicates parental mental health, substance misuse and assault-related hospital admissions, together with socioeconomic disadvantage, were the strongest risk factors linked to increased risk of child protection.


Trialling solutions

Amendments to the Children and Community Services Act 2004 (WA) are currently before WA Parliament, but the BCEC said while legislative change is critical and the changes currently proposed offer some improvement to existing requirements, they are of limited scope.

The reform Bill indicates an intention to ensure Aboriginal children develop and maintain connection with community, culture and Country, and includes provisions requiring close consultation with an Aboriginal Representative Organisation before a child placement is made.

While these are steps in the right direction, the BCEC said the changes remain behind reforms implemented in other jurisdictions and do not appear to meet community expectations.

Trials of Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making (AFLDM) in WA have just been announced by the Minister for Child Protection, Women’s Interests and Prevention of Family and Domestic Violence, Simone McGurk, which is said to promote greater participation for Aboriginal people in addressing Indigenous overrepresentation in out-of-home care.

The trial will have an initial focus on reducing infant removals and keeping children safe with their families, potentially paving the way for further reforms.

By Grace Crivellaro