Home visits urged for checks on kids
CHILD protection experts want the government's mental health screening program for three-year-olds to include home visits to check for family problems such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems and neglect.
The Australian Childhood Foundation has called for broader screening that will consider the home life of young children in a bid to avoid behavioural problems sparked by domestic conflict being labelled mental illness.
It comes after The Sunday Age last week revealed the federal government's Healthy Kids Check will screen three-year-olds for early signs of mental disorders, using a checklist that will include behaviour such as sleeping with the light on, temper tantrums or extreme shyness.
The program is expected to identify more than 27,000 preschoolers who may require further support from a psychologist or paediatrician. The voluntary scheme has caused heated debate, with the government claiming it will reduce rates of mental illness - 50 per cent of which start in childhood - but has some mental health professionals fearing it will pathologise normal behaviour and lead to misdiagnosis.
''We've seen kids where the initial diagnosis by a GP or a psychologist and the symptoms that they're showing might look like mental health problems - they might be crying, their behaviour's erratic or they're not sleeping - but the medical professional hasn't identified that abuse has happened in that child's life or there's financial pressure because a parent's lost a job or there's family violence and drug and alcohol problems,'' said Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation.
Mr Tucci said the Healthy Kids Check was a good opportunity to intervene early when children were being placed at risk, but simply asking parents questions about their child's behaviour might not tell the whole story.
''What parent is going to say to their GP, 'my child's behaving like this because there's violence at home'? A one-off test is context neutral, it doesn't give you the total picture of what's happening in the family … whether there are hidden problems that a child's experiencing.'' Ideally, Mr Tucci said, the checks would pull together information from the family and agencies including school, police, child protection and housing services, to give a complete picture.
Last week the Australian Psychological Society came out in support of the mental health checks, which are due to be rolled out before the end of the year.
The society's executive director, Professor Lyn Littlefield, a member of the expert advisory group that devised the checks, insisted the screening did not seek to diagnose mental health disorders or pathologise normal behaviour. It would identify children showing early signs of developmental, social, emotional and behavioural problems and deal with problems before they went to school.