Dr Robin Frances Fancourt, CNZM, paediatrician. Died aged 63.

As a paediatrician, Robin Fancourt, of New Plymouth, became a particular champion for children who were abused, neglected and disadvantaged.

Her substantial lifetime contribution lay in trying improve their protection and care and her appointment as a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit was for her services to children.

Child abuse and its consequences is a subject with a hard edge and Robin Fancourt never backed away from trying to get more done to help.


She observed, in 2000, that child abuse was rife in New Zealand and that GPs must take more responsibility for reporting it. "Health can't opt out of its responsibilities. It is not a privacy issue," she said.

At that time, Commissioner for Children Roger McClay had called for a sharing of health information in his report on the death of James Whakaruru, a 4-year-old who died at the hands of his stepfather in 1999. James had been taken to health professionals 40 times.

Fancourt observed that there were horrifying numbers of children being abused in New Zealand - "you would hate to hear how common it is".

While 11,000 cases of child abuse were then being reported each year an extra 27,000 cases went unreported, she said. A third of those were children under 5.

At the time she saw an increased risk in new GP clinics because people who took their children along to them often did not have a regular GP.

"I am horrified by that. That person [doctor] has no idea of the background of the child and no idea of multiple injuries. If we don't take some notice of children and their behaviour we're never going to get anywhere."

Robin Fancourt started taking a particular interest in neglected children when she and her surgeon husband Michael (they met at medical school) went to England for postgraduate degrees. At Hammersmith Hospital in London she found no one, apart from herself, was really interested in the neglected children there.

She started getting a lot of referrals. That was followed with more work when she returned to New Zealand and Wairau Hospital in Blenheim.


But the turning point, she told North and South deputy editor Jenny Chamberlain some years ago, came when she read papers by Dr Bruce Parry, a paediatrician in Houston, Texas. He had produced scientific evidence backing a theory about the effect of abuse on the brain development of children.

She visited him and later spent time learning from him about the effects of fear and neglect on an infant brain.

Coming home she talked to anyone who would listen and was a founder of the Brainwave Trust in 1996.

The trust's message was that it is the day to day experiences of babies and toddlers that helps the development of their brain. Also that infants in a safe nurturing environment make crucial cell connections, most progress being made in the first three years.

In a further attempt to get the message through, Robin Fancourt wrote Brainy Babies in 2000, now considered essential reading for parents and others.

She wrote, for example: "A new-born baby is cuddled and talked to; a father reads to his young daughter; a sister plays with her small brother.

"Unseen, a hidden miracle is at work. Instantly thousands of cells in these small children's growing brains are stimulated and respond."

A sad alternative is that in a child under stress persistently high levels of released cortisol may interfere with the body's functions.

But more terrible is that it affects the forming brain.

Robin Fancourt noted that a child's whole life can be spent poised in fear, ready for flight but also observed that while much damage was irreparable, there was room for hope, although changes were difficult to achieve.

It was a sad blow some 21 years ago when a brain tumour began to affect Robin Fancourt's many close and energetic involvements and leadership in child health.

She was given four years to live but as the Child Trauma Academy noted this week, she has only now departed "after a courageous, academically productive battle with cancer".

She is survived by her husband Michael and children Tineke, Sam and Nicholas and their families.