A Tale of Two 4-year-olds: The UGLY TRUTH about vulnerable kids in this country

In the same week that little four year old Willow Dunn is allegedly murdered by her father, it so happens that my own gorgeous threenager Patrick turned four.

I thought it apt – given the timing – to share my experiences as a paediatric SLP working with vulnerable children. Because yet again, another week has passed and another HEINOUS incident has been committed against a young child.

A young girl, only four years of age was not just left to die – but left to rot – in the most disturbing of circumstances. Allegedly murdered by the very people who should have nurtured, loved and cared for her most, in her very short, very sad life.

These cases are harsh, confronting and emotionally gut-wrenching.

But my professional opinion is from what I see in my clinical work, is that this is not uncommon.  We need to change the broken system otherwise the cycle of neglect will repeat. Unless we as a society,  break it.

Four year olds are such lovely creatures. So sweet and lovable, naïve and very much becoming their very own little person. My own son loves Super Heroes, play doh, colouring in and drawing, and wrestling and in general, terrorising his two older brothers! He has loads of friends, is loved and adored beyond measure, and every day is a new and exciting adventure. Will I play tennis, go to the skate park or read some books with Mum! Life is good. He’s not worried about where his next meal is coming from, what may happen to him next or who will cause him pain.

And unlike Willow Dunn he’s had the very best start to life, in a loving home.

NEGELCT is a funny thing. Jack Shonkoff the world renowned Paediatrician from Harvard University said many years ago “Brain plasticity is the worst when a child is neglected”.  Because we become what we repeatedly do.

So if your little life is filled with abject NEGLECT, so does your brain.

I’ve worked with children who’ve spent years in their biological home eating like dogs from bowls of food placed on the floor.

I’ve worked with children whose only possession is a rock. They literally talk/play/cuddle/sing to the rock.

I’ve worked with children taken out of the worst ICE domestic settings imaginable; non-verbal, no early play, in nappies having been treated like animals for years well into school.

I’ve worked with children starved of the most basic stimulation, care, engagement and love.

And these are probably the ‘better’ stories that I can share.

One of my teen clients was removed while only a baby and given to family, who she says were “worse than her own”. She spent four years in a juvenile home. She recounted to me of how she “literally wasn’t talked to for the first ten years of my life – no one cared about me”. Of her elder sibling’s suicide because they were so despondent that there was no other choice “life wasn’t worth living”. I could go on and on.

What do we expect as a nation for our future – when so many of our children – are living this reality on a day to day basis?

We have a real problem in this country, when vulnerable children with heads so misshapen from neglect, are being taught ‘life skills’ (e.g. how to open the fridge or a tube of yoghurt) so they can BE RETURNED to their Ice addicted parents.

We have a real problem in this country, when vulnerable children are neglected and LEFT TO DIE as we’ve seen in Queensland recently.  

We have a real problem in this country, when vulnerable children – those not talked to, read with, played with or loved during that critical period when all that brain connectivity occurs – are further disadvantaged with NO ACCESS to high quality early education care settings.

We have a real problem in this country, when vulnerable children like Billy cannot access the best therapy, intervention and if required top level paediatric specialised care, required in some cases so a child can lead a literate and constructive life. And so the CYCLE CONTINUES.

And we have a real problem in this country, with the drug ICE and its impact on a whole generation of kids. It’s so far beyond NEGLECT – we’re way out of Kansas on this one Dorothy – we’re talking BRAIN DAMAGE, mind blowing damage that alters brain pathways. That’s what ICE does. It’s hard to explain unless you have worked with these little ones. Because it is so far beyond NEGLECT. And as users increase use – the brain damage increases – and the havoc this drug causes within their own family and not to mention the damage to a baby in-utero that ICE causes, also exponentially increases.

We can find 150 million federally to fund the NASA Space Moon Landing bid.

Billions have appeared out of the woodwork to support our communities during the Covid 19 pandemic.

The Brisbane Times estimates another 5.3 billion dollars will be used to fund Queensland’s bid for Brisbane to host the 2032 Olympic Games.

But we can’t seem to get funding to fix a broken system which has such SIGNIFICANT consequences for our most vulnerable kids.

So during this week when my own very treasured and well cared for little man turns four. I think of little Willow. I think about the horror she endured during her first four years of life. I think of the sadness that must have filled her every waking moment. I think of her pain, of her tears and of the times she must have wondered why me.

There will be hundreds more Willow’s that we will see on the news. Mark my words. The system is broken and the cycle has not been stopped.  

Ghandi once said The true measure of any society, can be seen by how it treats its most vulnerable members.

Well, we are doing a TERRIBLE JOB of caring for our most vulnerable here in Australia.

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