A chance anomaly in two sets of data led PHD researcher Alison Gibberd to discover one in five children Aboriginal children in Western Australia do not have their births registered, leaving them without an official identity.
Ms Gibbern was originally researching perinatal outcomes for Aboriginal children when she spotted a difference in data from Births, Deaths & Marriages, and the data reported by hospitals.
“When we received the data sets and I was going through checking them, and I was confused as to why the data set with all the birth registrations was so much smaller than the set from the Midwives Notification System (MNS),” Ms Gibbern said.
“We were quite surprised to discover there were so many unregistered births”.
The MNS collects information about every birth from midwives and doctors, including information on previous pregnancies, complications during labour, method of birth, details of caesarean section, and anaesthesia administered during labour.
Examination of the figures revealed that 4,628 Aboriginal births to Aboriginal mothers weren’t recorded in the Registry in the 16 years from 1996 to 2012.
While this information is communicated to the Department of Health, parents are still required to register the birth of the child independently.
Why are so many births unregistered?
The high number of unregistered births suggests Aboriginal families face major barriers registering the birth of newborns, particularly in relation to literacy, and the practical means to get the required forms back to authorities in the required time.
“At the moment, the onus is well and truly on the parents to complete the paperwork and literacy may be a barrier for some parents in finalising the form.
“Also, additional requirements might be if one of the parents hasn’t signed the form, then a written explanation is needed as to why that hasn’t happened.
“The paperwork needs to be returned to the Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages and if the paperwork is lost at some point, then the parents need to try and get hold of new paperwork form the hospital.
“For parents from a remote area with a high-risk birth who are flown into Perth, say, it might be quite difficult to get replacement paperwork in that situation.”
Ms Gibbern said communicating the importance of completing the paperwork can also be difficult.
“It also relies on parents recognising the value of birth registration, particularly if they cannot afford the cost of a birth certificate at that time,” Ms Gibbern said.
“Just thinking about, in daily life, how often we use our birth certificate – to open a bank account, for example – you can just imagine how difficult it may be if you are not able to prove your identity easily.”
How can the problem be addressed?
Ms Gibbern said within the current system, parents carry the responsibility to register the birth of a child.
Potential solutions could be using the data from the MNS to create a ‘footprint’ of each child to make it easier for registrations to occur after the 60-day cutoff, and even into adulthood.
“Almost all births take place in hospital.
“If help is given to new parents to finalise the paperwork and help return it to the registry – I think that would dramatically increase the proportion of children who have their births registered,” Ms Gibbern said.
“If more fundamental changes were made, such as linking the MNS to the births registration system – so there is almost like a ‘dummy’ registration in place – until the parents or the grown-up child come back to the Registry with further information about their birth.”
Barbara Henry, CEO of Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service Inc, agrees the report highlights a need for better education about the benefits of birth registration and more support for new parents in navigating the relevant bureaucracy to achieve certification.
“There are a number of very simple changes we could make to make it easier for new parents to register the birth of their child,” Ms Henry said.
“We could look at streamlining the current system and providing additional support to new mothers to complete the birth registration paperwork before they leave hospital.
“It may also be possible to integrate administrative assistance for mothers through existing funded programs such as nurse home visits.
“Importantly, this report has surfaced an issue that causes disadvantage amongst Aboriginal people. Now that we understand the scope of the problem, we can turn our attention to raising community awareness and finding creative solutions.”
Low birth registration rates aren’t limited to Western Australia. A recent Queensland study reported that 17 per cent of 2 to 4 year-old Aboriginal children did not have registered births.
In Western Australia, parents must lodge the necessary forms with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages within 60 days of a child’s birth.
The relevant forms are supplied to parents soon after the birth of a child by hospital staff or a midwife and registering a birth is free but a birth certificate currently costs $47.
The reports suggests the high rate of unregistered births in young Aboriginal children comparative to older populations shows people registering themselves in adulthood.
This could be attributed reasons such as several programs run in remote Western Australia to assist Aboriginal people to obtain driver’s licences (including the prerequisite birth certificate).
Key findings of the research on Aboriginal children
- Of 49,694 children born to Aboriginal mothers from 1980 to 2010, 5,272 (11%) did not link to a birth registration.
- Among those who were aged under 16 years, 18% of births were unregistered.
- The gender of the child, mother’s relationship status at the time of birth, and drug and mental health-related diagnoses around the time of birth were not associated with birth registration.
- Maternal smoking during pregnancy was high (49% of those with known smoking status).
- The offspring of mothers who did not have a registered birth themselves also had much higher odds of unregistered births.
- 47 per cent of unregistered births were from mothers from “remote” or “very remote” areas of WA.
- 43 per cent of unregistered births were from mothers aged 19 or younger.