After a life of frequent beatings, four-year old Stephen Vaccaro was finally beaten to death. One can imagine his small body quivering with fear at the sight of his abuser or the sound of his abuser’s voice. That was over 30 years ago - and the horror is still stuck in my memory.
It was a finding of the Vaccaro inquiry that at some stage or other, a total of 19 individuals (both officials and laypersons) had the opportunity to intervene on the defenseless boy’s behalf, but failed to do so.
And there lies the sad truth - those 19 people were enmeshed in a culture which did not accept that regardless of any worthy attribute, a society which fails its children is an unequivocal failure.
In the more than 30 years since Vaccaro’s death, several children have been killed, and tens of thousands have been left with lifelong physical and psychological health problems due to having unfit parents.
We have been talking about child abuse for over two centuries. Dorothy Scott in 2007 advised that if we do not attack the child abuse problem at its sources, we will still be talking about it two centuries from now. However, she described a background to the abuse which is beyond our capacity to change:
As long as we tolerate poverty, poor housing, the marginalisation of indigenous people, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse, problem gambling and the sexualisation of children, increasing numbers of children will suffer.
So if child abuse is inexcusable under any circumstance; and we have environments in which children are at a high risk of being abused; and we cannot do anything effective about those environments - then why allow people to bring children into them in the first place?
As the explanation of the abuser is invariably; “I just snapped”, should a newborn ever be permitted to enter a domestic environment which is exceptionally vulnerable to being stressed? If the bottom line is that no battering of small children is tolerable under any circumstances, then society can act in two ways:
- we could directly move the newborn at a high risk, from the maternity unit to a safe home; or
- we could interfere with the biological ability of a high-risk person to be a parent.
The first possibility has been identified as a real option and already has a history. During the years of the Stolen Generation, probably an equal number of unmarried, young, white mothers were not permitted to take their babies home from the hospital. Some were placed with foster parents - and had good lives - while others were left to face the experience of being a ward of the state. As wards of the state, many were not safe.
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