Presentation to parliamentary briefing session Feb 2009

This paper was presented to a parliamentary briefing session Feb 2009:

“Just imagine a plague that’s not immediately fatal. It attacks in childhood and lurks in the bodies and minds of its victims into adulthood and old age. It makes its victims up to sixteen times more likely to experience debilitating mental illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, self harm and suicide, persistent nightmares and flashbacks, drug and alcohol abuse. It prevents its victims from getting an education, finding a job, forming relationships and feeling okay about themselves and leaves them struggling day-to-day to get to first base, to do those things that most people take for granted.

The plague of child abuse has caused more misery and suffering than any of the great plagues of history and yet the Australia community and successive governments continue to deny its consequences.

By conservative estimates, there are more than 2 million adults surviving child abuse in Australia and 8 million members of the Australian community directly affected by this tragedy. A 2008 study by 5 Australian universities of over 21 thousand older Australians found that over 13% of those surveyed reported having been sexually or physically abused in childhood. These figures are consistent with prior studies and do not include those who have been emotionally abused or neglected or forced to live in domestic violence situations. With Australia’s population sitting around 21.5 million people, the number of Australian adults surviving child abuse is probably more like 4 or 5 million – or every 4th or 5th person in this room.

This 2008 study showed that child abuse survivors are two and a half times more like to have poor mental health outcomes, four times more likely to be unhappy even in much later life, more likely to have poor physical health, to smoke and be physically inactive. The research also shows a higher prevalence of broken relationships, lower rates of marriage in late life, lower levels of social support, and an increased likelihood of living alone. A 2008 report by Access Economics, the Australian Childhood Foundation and Monash University found that the cost of child abuse to the Australian community in 2007 was $10.7 billion, and could be as high as $30.1 billion; and that the projected cost of the consequences of abuse over the lifetime for children abused for the first time in 2007 at $13.7 billion and could be as high as $38.7 billion. The cost of not addressing adult survivors’ needs is crippling.

These statistics may seem hard to believe but have been established by Australia’s most reputable institutions but the legacy of child abuse has long been challenged by the politics of disbelief. This very shame and stigma and a conspiracy of silence has long kept survivors isolated, stopped them speaking or accessing the help they need. Despite a recent surge of media stories about child abuse, the rates of abuse and neglect continue unabated at an estimated 5 times officially reported levels and no change in community attitudes to the issue. A 2006 study by the Australian Childhood Foundation showed that community concerns about child abuse had not altered between 2003 and 2006 and were ranked lower than concerns about the cost of petrol and the vagaries of public transport.

This issue of child abuse touches on some very raw social nerves. Children who are abused live in fear of disclosing while adults are expected to shut up and get over it. The majority of people would prefer to imagine that child abuse doesn’t go on and that if it does, not in our community and certainly not in our homes and families. However 85% of abuse occurs in the family and 96% is perpetrated by someone the child knows; no sector of Australian society is
immune. Until we tackle this issue head on survivors’ needs will continue to swamp our psychiatric hospitals and homeless shelters, and flood our criminal justice and welfare systems.

The impact of child abuse does not stop when the abuse stops. The advertising campaign, the TV component of which you are about to see is confronting and we make no apologies for that. It has to be to expose the entrenched taboo around the impact of child abuse, to highlight the plight of adult survivors and to confront a pervasive myth – the myth that it is easy to get over child abuse. Both the community and successive governments have turned a blind eye to the needs of adult survivors for too long and this inaction has caused devastating repercussions for all Australians.

I have no doubt that some of you will find this TV ad uncomfortable or perhaps even shocking. However speaking as a survivor of child abuse myself I would like to stress that being abused as a young and innocent child is far more uncomfortable than any 30 sec advertisement, and living long-term with the impact of that abuse is devastatingly shocking.

The needs of adult survivors are a significant social, health and economic challenge which have been crying out for government action for a long time. Since 1995 ASCA has helped thousands of survivors reclaim their lives. Our creating new possibilities workshops for survivors, education and training programs for health care workers, network of skilled service providers and other services are of proven benefit. We have the skills and expertise to help but our resources and funds are severely limited; we cannot solve this community scourge alone but we are ready to work together with government and other service providers on a solution.

It is high time we saw the needs of adult survivors high on the national agenda alongside other significant social and health issues such as depression, suicide, substance abuse and homelessness. As a prioritized focus for government with a minister with portfolio responsibility for policy around capacity building and service delivery and ongoing funding commensurate with the scale of the problem, and its impact. ASCA is committed to ensuring that all Australian adult survivors of child abuse will be able to find the help they need to find health well being and meaningful engagement in the Australian community. We look forward to working with you all on the way forward.”

Dr Cathy Kezelman

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