In the newspapers and magazines of the 1960s/70s, information about children in hospital centred around hospital success stories; visits of royalty and film stars; Easter bunnies delivering a surfeit of Easter eggs; and Father Christmas and his helpers with an abundance of toys and good cheer. The stories conveyed images of hospitals working near miracles; of everyone caring about children in hospital and of the kindness shown by hospitals for their child patients. All of this was true but it hid a very dark underside to the hospitalisation of children - long term, often devastating, emotional trauma.
In Australia, the need for change was heralded by the concern expressed in 1970 by the Aust. & N.Z. College of Psychiatrists. Their Position Statement entitled “The admission of mothers to hospital with their young children" accused hospitals of……doing more damage in one year than all the psychiatrists together could undo in several years. . .
That hospitalisation could have such devastating effects on young children was well known to me. In the late 1960's I worked for three years in the children's unit of a psychiatric hospital handling the most severely emotionally disturbed children in the State. Hospitalisation at an early age appeared regularly in the case histories of these children.
One would have expected the psychiatrists' position statement to bring forth cries for an immediate enquiry and remedial action. Instead, it was virtually ignored. The hospitals' case was that parents upset children who were soon settled and better off without them. A fallacy already forcefully disproved by the published works, both written and audiovisual, of James and Joyce Robertson http://www.awch.org.au/2-year-old-goes-to-hospital.php .
|The "cage” cot with a wire frame 1976|
If the mother (or the child's caring person) was not admitted, how did hospitals cope? Nurses did their best in an often impossible situation. For the most part, children simply cried until they became withdrawn and “settled". Distressed toddlers were particularly difficult to manage. In their anguish they often tried to climb out of the cot. Fearing that they would harm themselves they were sometimes put in restrainers. Documented cases of children choking to death in them discouraged the practice. Another method was to put a wire frame over the top of the cot thus making it into a cage. In the 1970's, I saw one of these in a regional hospital in NSW, another one in Victoria. In each case, the hospitals saw the cage as a perfectly valid solution that ensured the child's safety, even though there were empty beds at the side of the cot which could have been used by a parent. Indeed, in Victoria I was told the cage was used because the child was the only one in the ward so, instead of having a nurse there just for one patient, the sister in the adult ward kept popping in. When I asked why they hadn't admitted the child's mother in these circumstances, I was told it wasn't hospital policy. The nurse admitted she would willingly have let the mother stay (had it been allowed) as the toddler was a nuisance disturbing and upsetting her patients all night
Of course, most hospitals did not use restrainers or cages, but there were still very distressing sights associated with necessary treatments. I remember seeing a very young child in a side ward with his eyes swathed in bandages and his wrists tied to the sides of the cot so that he did not pull off the bandages. He was kept heavily sedated but one couldn't help wondering what fears or dreams he was having in that twilight state. I felt sure his mother holding his hand and comforting him would have helped.
Cracking the system
In the literature, the problems of hospitalisation of children had been identified and the solutions outlined. As hospitals failed to implement more humane policies, there were various attempts by individuals and groups to force action but none had been successful. Hospital boards were thought to be omnipotent. To challenge them from inside the hospital was to invite personal disaster career-wise; to challenge from the outside was to invite ridicule as a trouble-maker.
At the first meeting of the group which subsequently became AWCH I voiced my strongly held convictions:
- that infants and young children needed their mothers in hospital and that need had to be met
- that parents and professionals must work together publicly if the above aim was to be achieved
I believed that we could do better by drawing upon Australia's egalitarian ethos and creating a platform from which all could speak on behalf of the children, free of professional, personal or vested interests.
Thus AWCH was born in the belief that parents and professionals together could crack the system' for the good of the children.