As AWCH celebrates its 40th anniversary during 2013, it is timely to reflect on all the AWCH volunteers past and present who have contributed to the improvements made in the care of children in Australian hospitals over the last 40 years.
From the very first meeting in 1973 when a bunch of concerned men and women got together to form an association, AWCH volunteers have worked hard to make things so much better for children and their families.
In the words of Doris Hart, first Secretary and National Organiser of AWCH - the moving force behind the Association's initiatives from 1973 to 1983 – there was a dark underside to children’s hospitalisation….
‘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
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.
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
Thus AWCH was born in the belief that parents and professionals together could crack the system' for the good of the children.’
During this national volunteers week 2013 AWCH would like to thank all our volunteers both past and present