New Zealand's number 1 child advocate

08 Jun, 2010
PP's Dr Ian Hassall accepting his award from UNICEF

He was the first ever appointed Children’s Commissioner in New Zealand, played a major part in a world-first cot death study and has just received a reward from the UN for his work with children. If ever there was a child advocate who walked the talk, Dr Ian Hassall is him.

A member of AUT University’s Institute of Public Policy (IPP), Dr Hassall was recently awarded the Aldo Farina Award by UNICEF which recognises an outstanding contribution to child rights advocacy. It’s a bi-annual award given to one person out of 194 countries.

Originally a paediatrician, Dr Hassall, started his career with children at the Princess Mary Hospital (now the Starship Children’s Hospital) where he spent eight years as a specialist. But he left clinical practice to become the medical director of Plunket in 1978.

Leaving medicine was no easy choice. “I enjoyed clinical practice but I couldn’t help thinking that if we could change some of the conditions in which children live then there wouldn’t be such a need for paediatricians. Of course we’ll always need doctors but the conditions of life are important and even though I was working at the coalface, I always found myself looking further back at the conditions of life.”

“In some instances it was totally clear what the problem was and it wasn’t medical. The excitement of research and discovering something new no matter how small was what drew me in eventually,” he says.

New Zealand conducted the first well set-up cot death study in the world in 1987 at a time when 200 babies were dying a year of the mysterious illness. It made mothers fearful and created headlines and Dr Hassall was a key figure in the research which would change the way New Zealanders and the rest of world forever put their babies to bed.

“After the research was published cot deaths came down from 200 a year to 50. That’s something I regard as very important. “

As was campaigning to ensure home swimming pools were fenced adequately. After laws were passed requiring all pools to be securely fenced, the drowning rate of children under the age of four at home decreased from 12 a year to under five a year. “Those kinds of results are very satisfying. Often it’s the policy related work that I’ve done like this that’s not very sexy but in the long run is more useful.

In 1989 Dr Hassall was appointed the first ever Commissioner for Children in New Zealand following the enactment of the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act. Following his five-year term in the position and then various consultant and research jobs, Dr Hassall came to IPP in 2001 to continue his research and with others developed the masters programme- Children and Public Policy.

In a career that has included some remarkable discoveries and groundbreaking research, Dr Hassall says getting the award from the UN was really something for him. “I’m particularly happy it’s from UNICEF because it’s the premium international organisation for children- to protect children but to also improve their prospects.” UNICEF is increasingly focused on a child’s status and diversifying from their original role of just trying to keep children alive in times of disaster. The parallels between UNICEF’s changing focus and Dr Hassall’s own journey through the medical profession to one of child advocacy are obvious.

“A lot of people have congratulated me on this award and some of those people are in a position to make changes for the wellbeing of children. I’m not so interested in personal accolades but I would hope this award opens up more opportunities to advance the interest of children.”