Stillbirths: paid parental leave needed so parents can deal with loss, says Keneally

Senator Kristina Keneally says parents of stillborn babies also have parenting responsibilities and need time to deal with their loss. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Senator Kristina Keneally says parents of stillborn babies also have parenting responsibilities and need time to deal with their loss. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Australia could see a drop of 30 per cent of stillbirths in the next few years after it implemented a national action plan last year, says a parliamentarian whose daughter was stillborn. But for her the work is not yet done.

As parliament resumes this week, Labor senator Kristina Keneally will introduce legislation guaranteeing parents of stillborn babies access to paid parental leave in the private sector.

Parents of stillborn babies were returning to work before they were ready for financial reasons, a 2019 parliamentary inquiry heard, but its recommendation to give paid parental leave parity to parents of stillborn babies was not acted upon.

"The consistent experience of stillbirth is that it's a deep trauma and a great shock - it requires both physical and psychological recovery," said Senator Keneally, whose daughter Caroline was stillborn 22 years ago.

Parents of stillborn babies have parental responsibilities too, she noted, albeit very different to what the ones they expected. They include arranging funerals, organising for autopsy and other medical follow-ups.

"If parents don't have that time to recover from a stillbirth, their recovery period can become months and months longer, making it more and more difficult."

A PwC report in 2016 found mothers who returned to work for financial reasons after a stillbirth had comparative productivity rate of just 26 per cent after 30 days.

The federal government and dozens of other Australian employers are covered by legislation or agreements to ensure parents of a stillborn baby have the same leave entitlements as parents a baby born live. But for others, poorly designed company policies and no explicit entitlements mean it is often a manager or supervisor who makes the decision if parents of stillborn babies can access paid parental leave.

One mother told the inquiry said she was forced to return to work by her manager in just 11 days after her baby's stillbirth.

In the 2020 the Fair Work laws were amended to extend unpaid parental leave to parents of stillborn babies, changes welcomed by Labor as it waited for the paid leave to follow. But the senator isn't waiting any longer.

Kristina Keneally and husband Ben were given a few precious days to make a lifetime of memories. Picture: Supplied.

Kristina Keneally and husband Ben were given a few precious days to make a lifetime of memories. Picture: Supplied.

Senator Keneally hopes Australia can learn from the example of the Netherlands, which saw a 60 per cent drop in stillbirths in 20 years - from what UNICEF called an increased focus on vulnerable women and the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

Some parents have more than one stillborn baby. Autopsies could determine why.

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Six babies are stillborn every day in Australia, but only 40 per cent receive any form of postmortem investigation, and only 20 per cent receive an autopsy.

That rate of stillbirth will never be driven down until Australia starts investigating every stillbirth properly, Senator Keneally said. She estimated it would cost approximately $8 million to provide an autopsy for every stillborn baby.

"Every families deserves to know what happened to their baby, if that can be determined."

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This story Labor pushes ahead with stillbirth paid leave first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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