The November 2012 parliamentary report titled FASD: The Hidden Harm Inquiry into the prevention, diagnosis and management of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs made 19 recommendations, which, if implemented, could have done much to reduce the incidence of this condition.
While the report was not consigned to a bottom drawer, the recommendations, which the MPs said “should constitute the Commonwealth Government’s National Plan of Action for the prevention, diagnosis and management of FASD”, have never been fully acted upon.
Outstanding items include implementing a general public awareness campaign which promotes not drinking alcohol when pregnant or when planning a pregnancy as the safest option; mandating specific health warning labels on alcoholic beverages; and mounting a comprehensive public awareness campaign.
The Committee also recommended that the government commission an independent study into the impacts of the pricing and availability of alcohol and the influence of these factors in the changing patterns of alcohol consumption, and an independent study into the impacts and appropriateness of current alcohol marketing strategies directed to young people.
The deadline for these and other actions was mid-late 2013.
In late 2019 we see another inquiry into “Effective approaches to prevention and diagnosis of FASD and strategies for optimising life outcomes for people with FASD” being conducted by parliamentarians, this time by the Upper House. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee Senate inquiry was announced on 11 September 2019, with submissions closing on 29 November, and the report due in June 2020.
The seven-member committee is examining the level of community awareness of risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and the prevalence of FASD as well as the current approaches to diagnose and support people with FASD. The Chair, Senator Rachel Siewert, said, the inquiry “will also look at the approaches to FASD in vulnerable populations, including children in foster and state care, migrant communities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”.
The 16 terms of reference include a raft of topics – prevalence, diagnostic services available, social and economic costs etc - as well as an analysis of “progress on outstanding recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs report, FASD: The Hidden Harm.” That is, the 2012 report.
It seems highly unlikely that the thrust of FASD inquiry Mark 2 will differ greatly from the version tabled seven years ago. In the meantime, many more women have continued drinking during pregnancy, a significant proportion being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, and many more children have been stricken with this debilitating, lifelong affliction.
Most FASD sufferers will never make the headlines, although some will. In an in-depth report on the alleged shooting by police of young Aboriginal man Kumanjayi Walker in Yuendemu recently, The Weekend Australian quoted an elder saying the deceased had a “mental disability”.
“Others,” the report said, “describe it as a learning difficulty or, possibly, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, an under-recognised condition in outback Australia, according to several submissions to an ongoing federal parliamentary inquiry.”
One term of reference in the Senate inquiry is to gauge “the prevalence of, and approaches to, FASD in vulnerable populations, including children in foster and state care, migrant communities and Indigenous communities.”
The final report may have no surprises but it remains uncertain whether concrete action will be taken to address this national, yet largely hidden, health crisis.