In 1974, the American historian Lloyd de Mause produced the first treatment of the history of child abuse and neglect in the Western world, and declared that "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorised, and sexually abused."
It is true that in recent decades progress has been made in how children are treated, at least in some respects. In general, despite horrific exceptions, children in Western societies are no longer killed, sold into slavery, or abandoned to the elements, at least not to anywhere near the extent of previous eras. Society’s attitudes to children’s needs and rights are broadly more enlightened, informed by knowledge newly gained from the study of children in disciplines including developmental psychology, medicine and law. In the last century, childhood has been investigated and social and legal policy has developed to better protect children’s rights, and to better provide for their needs.
In some areas, though, there is little evidence of progress. Children remain highly vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. This is partly due to children’s physical and intellectual vulnerability but is more due to the ineptitude (at best) and vicious cruelty (at worst) of adults who have power over them. Bearing in mind that child abuse and neglect are vastly underreported phenomena, the statistics of their incidence are horrifying. In Australia in the year 2002-2003, there were 198 355 child protection notifications to government authorities. Of these, there were 40 416 substantiated cases involving 30 953 children. In Queensland in 2002-03 there were 31 068 notifications of child abuse and neglect to State authorities, involving 22 027 children. Of these, there were 12 203 substantiated cases involving 9032 children. The image of the anonymous dirty old man lurking in wait to abduct a victim is a myth; only a small percentage of child abuse is inflicted by individuals unknown to the child. Parents, family members and close acquaintances are responsible for most of this suffering. For thousands of children in Australia, the family home is a place of cruelty, hostility and pain.
It is difficult to find much evidence of preventative strategies adopted by governments to reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect. Such strategies might include universal pre-natal and post-natal care and support services, with closer monitoring and increased support available for those in need. They might also include the provision in schools of information about relationships and parenting, and the development of emotional skills such as impulse control, empathy and foresight. Preventative strategies are not popular for many reasons including funding constraints (i.e. choices), and the political myopia borne of short governmental terms and the perceived need for quick, tangible gains to preserve power.
Governments have implemented responsive strategies, though, aimed at early detection, reporting and treatment of child abuse and neglect. One such response is the legal obligation imposed on members of many professional groups who have frequent contact and or supervision of children to report all knowledge and reasonable suspicions of child abuse and neglect. These professional groups include doctors, teachers, police, and those involved in the provision of education, health care and social services to children. The legal duty commonly covers diverse forms of abuse and neglect: physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual.
This broad statutory obligation is enshrined in child protection statutes in all Australian jurisdictions except Western Australia and Queensland. The common argument against this mandatory reporting requirement claims that it inflates the number of reports, diverting scarce resources to investigate unsubstantiated cases, depriving deserving cases of the resources available. This claim, however, is not a principled argument against the reporting requirement. Rather, it is an argument for (a) adequate training of members of these professional groups, and (b) adequately funding and staffing investigative bodies and support services.
The presence of this legal obligation on professional groups who are trained or otherwise well-placed to be able to detect and report child abuse and neglect makes recent legislative amendments in Queensland all the more remarkable. From 19 April 2004, teachers and staff in Queensland schools are legally compelled to report known or suspected sexual abuse of a student by a school employee. This is the first statutory obligation ever imposed on teachers in Queensland in this context.
When compared with the legal obligation imposed on teachers in other Australian jurisdictions, the Queensland provisions are extremely limited. Statistically, sexual abuse is the least frequently occurring form of abuse and neglect. More to the point, it is extremely rarely inflicted by school staff members. At best, the new legal provisions will make a very small contribution to child protection in Queensland. This is not to say that the new obligation, limited though it is, should not exist.
The question is: why has the new obligation been drawn so narrowly?
Queensland has an appalling record of child protection that has created the need for the 1999 Forde Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Institutions, a 2000 Criminal Justice Commission inquiry into sexual misconduct committed against school children by teachers, the 2003 Report Of The Board Of Inquiry Into Past Handling Of Complaints Of Sexual Abuse In The Anglican Church Diocese Of Brisbane, and most recently the Crime and Misconduct Commission Inquiry in 2003 into abuse of children in foster care. Premier Peter Beattie called the February 2004 election because he wanted to improve child protection in Queensland in the wake of the CMC inquiry, or so he claimed.
The statistical incidence of child abuse and neglect in Queensland strongly suggests that adding teachers as an early detection and reporting resource can only enhance an effective early intervention strategy, by increasing the chance that children who are being abused or neglected will come to the attention of government authorities, whereas they otherwise might not. This suggestion assumes – in my opinion, fairly - that imposing a legal obligation on teachers to report known and suspected child abuse and neglect constitutes on balance a positive contribution to child protection, whereas lacking that legal obligation diminishes the contribution teachers can make. Teachers in Queensland already make a significant number of substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect, and there is a policy in State schools that teachers should report known or suspected child abuse and neglect. However, Queensland teachers make a substantially smaller proportion of reports than do teachers in other jurisdictions who are legally obliged to report.
These legislative changes are a direct response to the Anglican Church Inquiry, which investigated several incidents of abuse in Anglican Church schools. The obligation is imposed on staff in both state and non-state schools. The confined scope of the obligation, and the focus being limited to the acts of school staff, support an argument that this new obligation is more concerned with minimising schools’ liability for the acts of their staff than with child protection. That the obligation appears in the Education (General Provisions) Act 1989 and not the Child Protection Act 1999 adds to this argument.
If the Queensland government made no claim to take child protection seriously, then at least it could not be accused of hypocrisy or inaction. But the statements made by the Premier, and more importantly by government members in Parliamentary debates about these legislative changes, show that the government does in fact claim to be interested in child protection. Unfortunately for children in Queensland, the evidence of the government’s actions indicates that this claim is empty.