Giving Children a Voice to Fight Harm
17 September 2018 at 8:40 am
Lesley Podesta is CEO of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a charity that fights to protect children from harm. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Podesta has previously worked in the government’s education and health portfolios, having led the health response in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, developed programs in response to the Bali Bombings and the SARS outbreak, and then taking charge of the Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH).
During this time, she learnt change couldn’t happen without strong partnerships and a solid evidence base, and took these values into the not-for-profit sector, where she lead the Fred Hollows Foundation for five years, establishing strong global partnerships that saw the roll-out of various programs to fight avoidable blindness.
Now head of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation (AMF), a charity born out of tragedy in the Port Arthur massacre, she is working to give children a voice, and protect them from all kinds of harm in practical ways.
In this week’s Changemaker, Podesta talks about the dangers children are facing today, the importance of an evidence based approach, and not trying to fight the big issues alone.
How did your time working in government get you to where you are now?
I was very privileged to have really senior positions in government, and learned that you can make changes for good. I think I was an unusual public servant, because I genuinely tried to work with partners, and with the sector in which I worked. I did a lot of work in population health, aged care and was in charge of running OATSIH, and I found all those areas rely on being part of a much bigger effort.
I think you’ve got to recognise that governments have financing and regulating ability, but to actually deliver and reach vulnerable or marginalised populations, you have to do that by working with trusted partners on the ground who have the credibility and the capacity to reach people.
One of the things I really came to appreciate when I moved from education to health, was the importance of evidence-based decision making. In health, it’s about life and death and it relies on a fairly calm approach to looking at the weight of evidence and making thoughtful investments.
You’ve said previously that your proudest moment was introducing the Nurse Family Partnership in your time running the OATSIH, why is that?
I was particularly affected by the long-term impact of the Stolen Generation, and enjoyed the work we did around primary health care and basic access to high quality primary health care services for Indigenous people. I think that’s really what led me to the role I’m in today at the AMF.
In terms of the Nurse Family Partnership, we had been led through a period of hysteria around child protection issues in Indigenous communities. We had a really awful knee jerk responses to a lot of that, especially with the Northern Territory intervention, and we were trying really hard to keep our integrity, of putting health first.
We brought in a partnership with the community controlled health services, which was a preventative approach, based on long term evidence that showed that if you worked with first time parents in their first trimester of pregnancy, and worked with them in the first two to three years of their children’s lives, that you could significantly increase protective behaviours towards children, and reduce risk of injury and harm to a child.
The evidence was absolutely overwhelming that by doing this you could make a massive difference for children and for the parents.
Were you able to transfer the skills you’d learnt in government to the NFP sector?
Absolutely, and I made a decision to work in this sector because I think this sector deserves good people too. I wanted to go somewhere where I thought what they were doing was something that was important for our country. I definitely use all of the things I learned in government. I worked with a lot of great people during that time, and I’ve kept good relationships, which always helps.
What was the one thing you wanted to see change when you first started as CEO of the AMF?
For me, it was recognition that children require greater safeguards than adults. I was really taken with the work the foundation does around online safety for children. Increasingly, children live their life both online and offline. And yet when the internet was designed children were not the primary customers, but they’ve become really big users. So we needed to look at what were the protective factors that we as a community could build, noting that we suddenly had an information superhighway which was designed originally for adults, and which was now used extensively by children including those under five.
It never really had anything different from the way it was first designed which was open access to every bit of information, freedom of expression. So something I was really keen to work on was their existing commitment around cultural change, and building protective behaviour and building skills with children and families and schools about making sure children were safe learners.
The nature of bullying and the safety of children has really changed because of the internet, how are you dealing with this?
So we teach children about how to be ethical and respectful online, but we also do a lot of work around teaching kids how to report unwanted information, how to block people who are causing them harm and how to take down information that’s been posted about them that’s untrue or hurtful to them. So we give young people the skills to be able to navigate this the internet in a way that protects them as much as possible.
The AMF is built around protecting children, but there’s a lot of issues under that umbrella. How does the organisation focus itself?
We try to be smart about what we can do, so we don’t try to do everything. Because AMF came out of the tragedy of the Port Arthur massacre we also do work on gun laws, because we know that gun laws in Australia keep children safe and are really important to who we are.
Bullying is really important to us though because it leads to a lot of other things, and if you look at the factors that contribute to people becoming angry and alienated and not having empathy to others, being bullied as a child can contribute to some of those things as adults. People who were bullied in school are four times more likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence and we know there is a direct link in many cases to young people who commit school shootings in the US.
This speaks to the availability of weapons obviously, but also a significant proportion of them were young men who were bullied and alienated at school. Addressing this issue is a really important protective factor in the population more generally.
Have you been able to weave your experience working in indigenous communities into your current role?
We work with schools across the country, but we were really conscious that some of the worst online behaviours and some of the worst impact of trolling and bullying online has affected young women in remote Indigenous communities. To combat that, we’ve partnered with the Star Foundation and we provide training and support for young women in remote Indigenous communities in Australia. It’s something we’re incredibly proud of.
Do you find it hard to convince others this is an important issue, when children can’t really represent themselves?
Absolutely. Despite the fact that even in hard headed terms, investing in children gives us the greatest return, we know they don’t have a strong voice and they don’t have a strong lobby group and they don’t have strong presence in government.
For example, the number of children affected by domestic violence and the response that gets in government is really weak compared to other issues people are advocating for, which is really frustrating.
How are you going about changing this?
One of the things we’re doing at the moment is running the National Centre Against Bullying. So we bring together experts to advocate about bullying, and we’ve just launched an action plan on bullying. We’ve been lobbying every state in the Commonwealth government around investment that we think they need to make on bullying. We’ve also connected with a number of other children’s services and charities to have a more collective voice about some of these issues. Just recently in fact, we issued a statement calling for a coordinated strategy on online education in Australia, because we’re concerned there’s still no national framework on online education for children.
If you could make one change to the system, what would it be?
I won’t leave the foundation until we have Australia on a national online safety action plan, which recognises that children are online before they can read and that an essential part of parenting and school-based skills is about being safe online.