How alcohol fuels violence against children

A new report shows nearly half of the child protection cases in Australia involve alcohol

A new report shows nearly half of the child protection cases in Australia involve alcohol Photo: Stocksy

David McDonald remembers this case.

McDonald, a country town paediatrician for nearly thirty years, saw this one kid. Blood everywhere.

He puts it more clinically.  The child presented with an injury from being the collateral damage, coming between his father and his mother during a "physical altercation".

Glass everywhere. Blood everywhere.

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"This poor frightened little kid and everyone trying to cover up what really happened."

Alcohol is what happened. 

McDonald, of Port Macquarie, is angry and disappointed because the Australian cricket team has an ad for Victoria Bitter beer on its shirt. It's just another way to say alcohol is ok in any setting, at any time.

"And you can't even give people messages about the harms because it is so legitimised by the widespread intrusion into advertising," says McDonald.

Tuesday marks the launch by Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, of The Hidden Harm report: alcohol's impact on children and families. Published by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and based on the work of the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, the report is devastating.

The numbers are so overwhelming it's hard to know where to start – but one in five carers reported that their children had been affected in some way by others' drinking habits. One in six was negatively affected by a family member or partner's drinking.

And more than three million Australian adults said they had been affected by the drinking of others. Of the five million children in Australia, one-third live with a risky drinker. The effect? For the luckier ones, it's "verbal abuse".  For the rest, it's blood and bruises.

The research also looked at the effect over time, between 2008 and 2011. One third of the kids who suffered in 2008 were still suffering in 2011.

David McDonald says that in his country town – and everywhere else he has worked: "Alcohol is the most dangerous drug: in terms of domestic violence, social dislocation, harms to individuals."

Batty, utterly engrossing on the ABC's QandA last night, is clear-eyed about so much. She says: "We shouldn't forget that violence is a choice.

"Alcohol doesn't cause violence but there is clearly a substantial link and it inflames and fuels the potential for violence," she said.

FARE's chief executive Michael Thorn revealed that half of reported domestic violence incidents throughout Australia and nearly half of the child protection cases in Australia involve alcohol – and while it is terrific to know the numbers, we now need to work on the cause. And that requires a public health approach.

Moo Baulch, the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, is delighted by the work of the report – not because she welcomes the bad news but because she wants the discussion.

"We have to make sure that the right conversation is had about alcohol and domestic violence – violent behaviour is always a choice and there is no excuse."

But she says alcohol is so engrained in our culture – and we have to change the culture to change our attitudes. That's not a policy change – that's a change in the national psyche.

"We know that when there are sporting events or national holidays, there's a spike in alcohol-related violence."

Is that true?

More young people  require emergency medical attention for alcohol-related incidents on Australia Day than on any other public holiday, according to a 2012 VicHealth and Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre study.

And Andrew Finckh, director of Sutherland Hospital Emergency Department and an emergency physician at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney's Darlinghurst, says there are spikes on New Year's Eve and New year's Day, as well as Australian Day.

"There's a continuing association between celebrating significant events and over-indulgence in alcohol, there's a normalisation of that overindulgence."

Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, welcomes the FARE report. She says we need more work about the nexus between alcohol and family violence.

"Alcohol is a contributing factor but not a causal factor  . . . [but] we know it's an exacerbator," she says.

And reports like these show just how important it is that all the agencies involved must work together to combat violence against women: drugs, alcohol, mental health.

Batty agrees: "Organisations must work together to be more collaborative, instead of working in silos."

"[That way] preventative measures can be implemented."

We need those measures now. Thorn of FARE reveals that some of those families who struggle with parental alcohol misuse are probably not in the service system at all and might even be hidden to authorities. They don't show up on any organisations records until it's way too late.

The research says we need to focus on the problems of alcohol across the population. And one way to do that is to limit drinking. Australia needs a price signal for alcohol.

Six ways to stop alcohol-related family violence

1. Education campaigns which show and tell the link between alcohol and violence

2. Targeted screening of those young people who are at greater risk of harm

3. Reduce availability

4. Target the price of alcohol. Here's a good time to send a price signal where we really need it.

5. Regulate promotion. Get those obnoxious beer ads off our sportspeople

6. Drug and alcohol services should work in collaboration with domestic violence, child protection and mental health