‘Child abuse’ is the term for a variety of acts or behaviours which result in harm to children. It refers to physical abuse, sexual assault, emotional abuse and neglect. It is a sad fact that Australian children are more in danger from someone they know and trust than from a stranger. In recent times, child maltreatment,
especially that of a sexual nature, continues to be an issue surrounded by controversy, with public attention focussed sharply on the role of holders of public office such as the Governor General, and the clergy, with others, for example, politicians, teachers and sports coaches, featuring intermittently, for either failing to take
appropriate action against perpetrators or as those directly involved in the sexual exploitation of children.
In fact, it is not difficult to begin to envisage measures to reduce such ‘extrafamilial’or ‘institutional’ abuse: these include appropriate policy and procedures that can be adopted to render such behaviours less likely. Among these are pre-employment screening e.g police checks, (adopted by Departments of Education),
psychological testing, and protocols, (being utilised for selection purposes by the Catholic Church) or even simple prohibitions e.g about adults not being alone with children (as practised by the Scouting movement), which when enacted, clearly articulate an institution’s lack of tolerance and preparedness to enforce strong sanctions
e.g dismissal and instigation of criminal proceedings against such abuses of power. That said, it would be imprudent to suggest that any, or even all of these can be totally effective against sophisticated paedophile strategies. What is important however, is that we initiate and systematise solutions that strengthen our capacity to
protect children within our institutions.
While each of these cases rightly attracts public opprobrium, I would argue that the highlighting (perhaps ‘sensationalising’ is a more accurate description) of such institutional abuse actually serves to obscure the broader societal issue of child abuse prevention. What we see in response to the examples above, is a
preoccupation with reactive measures rather than proactive ones — those kinds of policies and practices which might actually contribute to disrupting the pattern of continuing vulnerability for the least powerful members of our society.
Unfortunately, the reason we have not begun to take on this challenge in any meaningful way is that such an endeavour requires systematic intervention on a number of fronts, all of which require political will, broad-scale collaboration between departments, across all levels of government and adequate resource allocations. These
- a community which is well informed about the causes and consequences of child abuse;
- a child protection system that actually takes a proactive stance, thereby upholding the prevention effort rather than channelling resources into investigations and ‘outsourcing’ appropriate responses to external agencies; and
- community agencies and organizations e.g, kindergartens, schools, churches and children’s recreational and sporting centres that combine to disseminate information and adopt supportive practices related to child protection. For example, the teaching of personal safety skills to children of all age groups or the provision of
parenting education programs.
The development of such a system would obviously require long-term bi-partisan support.
That the community is ready to embrace such endeavours is no longer in doubt. In fact research commissioned to establish this, some 10 years ago, by the Commonwealth Minister for Family Services demonstrated this unequivocally (Donovan and Francas, 1992). Indeed, the means of achieving a co-ordinated, and hence, effective system of
child protection have been clearly and competently elucidated in several public documents. Among these I would nominate the Victorian Crime Prevention Committee’s "Combating Child Sexual Assault: An integrated model, (1995)", which
was chaired by Ken Smith (M.P) and "Preventing Child Abuse, A National Strategy" by the National Child Protection Council (1993), authored by Gillian Calvert, the current Children’s Commissioner for New South Wales. I now invite readers to consider the fate of both of these invaluable contributions to public policy
development. Both ‘sank without trace’, the former by the Kennett government’s refusal to implement all but a few (presumably, cost-neutral) recommendations, and the latter by a change of government, the new Howard government focussing its attentions elsewhere, and the disbanding and replacement of the National Child Protection
Council by a panel with an attenuated brief.
In the meantime, we continue in a piecemeal policy fashion with the demand for services to abused children having difficulty keeping pace with supply. This amounts to ‘treading water’ since, unless such services are supplemented by preventative measures, children will continue to be abused and the demand for post-abuse services
will continue to fall short of their availability. But, how acceptable is it to wait until child abuse has occurred before we are prepared to take any action? Are we willing to tolerate a situation which condemns tomorrow’s parents to replicating the mistakes of today’s?
Consider for a moment the effects of child abuse. Apart from the emotional and physical distress experienced in the short-term, research has indicated that youth homelessness, childhood prostitution, juvenile offending, psychiatric disorder and drug and alcohol abuse are strongly associated. However, tackling the ‘symptoms’ in
an isolated way leaves the underlying problem unaddressed as well as increasing costs of service provision in law enforcement, health and welfare sectors. On the other hand, can we afford the costs of prevention? According to the U.S Government Accounting Office (1992), while prevention is costly, it pays for itself in the long run. In
one example it was demonstrated that the future lost productivity of severely abused children in the U.S.A was between $658-1.3 billion, assuming that abuse caused impairments could limit potential earnings by 5-10 per cent. In another, the costs of an early intervention program for parents extending from the pre-natal period to the
end of a child’s first year were compared with the costs incurred when a child is abused. It was found that while offering the program to every parent in the state of Michigan would cost $43 million per year, the costs associated with abuse and low birthweight babies amounted to $823 million - almost 20 times greater! The question
now is, can we afford to ignore the benefits to individuals and the community in general, of adopting preventive strategies?
Speaking of strategies, it has been heartening to hear of Senator Lynn Allison’s plan for a national approach to child abuse for schools, the current situation being characterised by widely varying expectations of teachers across the states. This
needs to be accompanied by a commitment to in-depth training available on an ongoing basis such that teachers are confident about discharging their responsibilities. (In some states, it has been the case that mandatory reporting legislation has been adopted in the absence of adequate professional preparation.) Again, I would reiterate
the need for personal safety teaching as a core curriculum inclusion given that it provides children with skills to recognise dangerous situations. Education is however, just one sector. As alluded to above, what is needed is an integrated strategy which links all community services, possibly overseen by a Federal Children’s
Commissioner as in Norway. One can only hope that the outcry against the Governor-General’s behaviour signals our community’s heightened awareness of the impact of child abuse and a determination to advance its eradication.