The largest survey ever undertaken of Aboriginal children and families has thrown new light on why most existing intervention programs are failing to produce results needed for overcoming the present levels of Indigenous disadvantage.
The finding is contained in the fourth volume of results from the Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, launched in Perth today.
The survey, undertaken by researchers at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, analysed data from more than 5000 children in 2000 families across Western Australia.
Chief Investigator Professor Steve Zubrick said the report "Strengthening the Capacity of Aboriginal Children, Families and Communities" unpacked the reasons why there had been little or no improvement in the health and well-being of Aboriginal children despite a large number of intervention programs.
"What these results clearly show is the successive failure of programs that are simply delivered too little, too late," Professor Zubrick said.
"The programs generally start too late in the child's development, are delivered for only a short time and are often too broadly targeted to have sustainable impact.
"What's desperately needed is high quality, high frequency early intervention programs that directly increase the capacity of Aboriginal parents and others caring for children - teaching them how to prepare their very young children so that when they start at school, they are ready and able to match it with other children."
Professor Zubrick said that only an intense focus in the early years could begin to break the inter-generational cycle of disadvantage.
"There are just 1800 Aboriginal babies born in WA each year - that makes targeted 'head-start' programs to help them onto a strong path for life, a very practical and viable investment."
Associate Professor Colleen Hayward who heads the Institute's Indigenous study group, the Kulunga Research Network, said the survey showed that 60% of Aboriginal children were already significantly behind non-Aboriginal children by the time they started Year one.
"What this shows is that our children are very disadvantaged even before they start school - so action must be taken before they enter the formal education system," she said.
"Aboriginal parents, like all parents, want the best for their children. However many Aboriginal parents have not had a positive experience of early education themselves, so they need support in building the skills to help their children learn effectively.
"We know that early experiences, particularly stress, can affect brain development, so it's critical that we get it right for children from the very start of their lives."
The survey also found that:
24% of Aboriginal children have significant emotional and behaviour programs
16% live in poor quality housing
60% are below average academically by Yr 1
Aboriginal children live in families where:
28% have teenaged mums
31% are in sole parent families
20% of teens are not living with either parent
there is four times the levels of extreme stress
Professor Zubrick said it was unacceptable that on the United Nations Index of Human Development, which reflects aspects such as life expectancy, literacy and standard of living, Aboriginal Australians were ranked at 103 compared with Australia's overall population which is ranked number four.
"Indigenous people in Canada, the US and New Zealand are all faring better than our Aboriginal people - that tells us we can and must take urgent action," he said.
Assoc Professor Hayward said the effects of disadvantage were being passed down the generations.
"What's happening is that the Aboriginal adults who are caring for the children are burdened with an enormous number of factors that affect their ability to raise the children," she said.
"There are three adults to every child in the non-Aboriginal population, but in Aboriginal communities there is only one adult per child - and many of those are very young, or constrained by ill-health, high stress and low education levels.
"There is much talk about community development - but that can't happen until there is support and development for the individuals within those communities."
The report makes 23 recommendations to address a broad range of issues including housing, financial strain, stress and how to boost capability within the Aboriginal community.