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FASD ‘one of the great crises of our time’

History will judge us harshly on the under- diagnosis of children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in New Zealand, predicts Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft.

During his trip to Te Tairawhiti this week Judge Becroft called it “one of the great crises of our time”.

“There is no safe level of alcohol to drink while pregnant, and if you’re thinking about getting pregnant or behaving in a way that could result in a pregnancy — don’t drink.”

Judge Becroft said FASD was permanent, irreversible and life-long.

Out of 60,000 live births every year in New Zealand, 5 percent (around 3000) were born with FASD, and it was rarely diagnosed, he said.

Diagnosis often came later in life when the child started to have trouble at school, but for too many the diagnosis never came and instead the condition became a pathway out of school and straight into youth justice.

Judge Becroft has seen it himself.

Before he was appointed Children’s Commissioner in 2016, he was the Principal Youth Court Judge of New Zealand for 15 years, and before that a District Court judge from 1996.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is focused on ensuring Aotearoa New Zealand is a place where all children can thrive.

New Zealand has 1.12 million people aged 18 or under.

Judge Becroft said 70 percent of those were doing really well — some, “world-leading well”.

But 20 percent struggled in and out of significant adversity, and 10 percent (that 10 percent could fill Eden Park twice) were in environments of significant disadvantage, he said.

That did not mean it was a life script for bad life outcomes for that 10 percent, said Mr Becroft, but it did increase the risk.

“There’s nothing more important than nurturing children.”

Judge Becroft said he received a “fantastic welcome” and felt “huge warmth” from the Ruatoria community when he visited Reporua Marae on Tuesday.

Travelling by gravel road to get there, he acknowledged it was one of the most geographically isolated parts of New Zealand.

Meeting the children there had a profound impact on him, he said.

“As the Children’s Commissioner you can’t help but see it.”

“I am but an outsider there for a day,” he acknowledged, but he could see the needs and the challenges in the region -— that the children were largely removed from education, economic support and community engagement.

“This group of children seemed to be so desperately in need of education. It was encouraging to see Te Runanga o Ngati Porou there and the connection to their young people.”

He was also heartened to see strong whanau support, and meet with agencies like Manaaki Tairawhiti and the FASD working group.

Alternative education options were needed but he did not want to come across as “glib” and acknowledged there were no easy answers.

On the issue of social media, Judge Becroft did not want to be seen as a “grey-haired old man touting the disadvantages of social media” and said research showed it was both a significant step forward — and backwards.

“Access to pornography is sadly only a key touch away on any device.

“Eighty percent of 14-year-olds say they have accessed not just pictures but videos of pornographic sex.

“Youth workers I speak to say it is one of the biggest issues they face but not an easy one to talk about.

The role of Children’s Commissioner was that of a watchdog who advocated for young people, he said.

“Everyone loves a watchdog until it has to bark.” he said.

WATCHDOG FOR THE CHILDREN: Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft was in Te Tairawhiti this week. Nothing is more important than nurturing children, he says. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell