Child abuse a pervasive problem

Posted on online opinion 15th July 2009
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Author – Dr. Cathy Kezelman, chairperson ASCA (Adults Surviving Child Abuse)

The Productivity Commission’s report Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage released on July 2 and commented on by Minister Macklin reveals the parlous rates of child abuse and neglect of Indigenous children. The figures indicate a significant increase on prior figures, and while they may in some part reflect an increase in reporting, they, without a doubt, highlight the devastating scale of a problem which remains largely unaddressed despite the concerted but often paternalistic interventions of successive governments.

The report also demonstrates that the rate of child abuse and neglect for non-Indigenous children has risen as well. It remains challenging to accurately analyse these trends because Australia does not have reliable child abuse and neglect statistics; definitions as to what constitutes the various forms of abuse vary between our states and territories.

A report released last year by Access Economics suggests that the true rate of abuse and neglect in Australian communities may be up to five times that of official figures. There are other difficulties in assessing the true prevalence of the problem – child abuse and child sexual assault remain secret crimes, with multiple bars to disclosure and the pervasive attitudes of denial within our society contribute to the silencing of both child and adult victims.

Either way the relentless parade of new and intractable cases shows that the combined force of current initiatives is not stemming the tide of abuse, child sexual assault or neglect in any communities across Australia. The Forgotten Australians and Lost Innocents Report as well as the report by the Anglican Church into sexual abuse within the Church both released last month have taken positive and proactive steps to address institutional abuse both historically and going forward.

These are crucial initiatives but we also need to shift our focus to the domestic domain, where far too many Australian children are being criticised, humiliated, beaten, molested and raped on a daily basis by those responsible for their care.

Statistics consistently show that the vast majority of cases of child abuse and neglect are perpetrated by a child’s natural parents. One report documented that 96 per cent of abusers have a relationship with the child with 72 per cent being the natural parents. Last month ASCA, the key national organisation for advancing the needs of adult survivors of child abuse, lodged a submission to the Human Rights Commission Consultation in support of the first human rights charter.

ASCA’s submission, co-authored by Dr Jennifer Wilson from the Centre for Peace and Social Justice and myself as ASCA chairperson, urges child abuse and child sexual assault in the private domestic domain, perpetrated by primary caregivers, for example parents, step parents and legal guardians, to be acknowledged as human rights violations and to be introduced into Australia’s first charter of rights as such. Previously the human rights discourse has only concerned itself with the public domain and transgressions between the state and its agents, and the individual.

ASCA’s submission is based on Article 19 on the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which clearly establishes a relationship between children and their primary caregivers. When parents fail to keep their young safe the state must intervene. Sadly the incidence of new child abuse and child sexual assault cases shows that despite the best efforts of police and child protection agencies, the human rights violations of child abuse and child sexual assault in domestic settings by primary caregivers continue unabated.

This Federal government has commissioned and is implementing some important initiatives including the Framework for the Protection of Australia’s Children and the Time for Action report developed by the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and Children. The Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children states that “All children have the right to be safe and receive loving care and support … However parents have the primary responsibility for raising their children and ensuring that their rights are upheld.”

ASCA contends that a human rights approach must be taken if we are to see a real reduction in the incidence of child abuse, child sexual assault and neglect across the board. To achieve this the domestic domain can no longer remain private and untouchable. We would all prefer to believe that all Australian children are receiving the loving care and attention they deserve and need from those charged with their care. Sadly for the 55,000 children substantiated to have been abused in 2008 and the up to five times children who were abused but failed to come to the attention of child protection authorities this is no more than a fantasy and we must act. As quoted in the background paper to Time for Action:

The growing international consensus on human rights stresses the right of women and their children to live free from violence.

Domestic and family violence can no longer be hidden as a private matter within families, nor sexual assault hidden as a personal shame beyond the reach of governments or the sanction of our communities. Violence against women and children violates the universal human rights instruments to which the international community has agreed through the United Nations.

ASCA asserts that it is impossible to separate the abuse of the child from the whole of life consequences of the adult survivor and that human rights abuses, begun in childhood, almost invariably continue into the survivor’s adult experiences. Our current laws let survivors down and are not relevant or sufficiently comprehensive. The long-term repercussions suffered by the more than two million adult Australians surviving child abuse are well documented, and the mental health impacts, human rights abuses particular to women and the homeless, contribute further to the marginalisation of this already victimised group.

Article 19 on the Convention on the Rights of the Child also makes provision for appropriate referral, follow-up and treatment following abuse, child sexual assault and neglect. Historically systemic failure to provide appropriate care and support for children following child maltreatment, and for adult survivors, to help them find a better sense of health and well being, has had disastrous long-term consequences not just on individuals but on the social and economic health of this nation.

Abuse within institutional settings, religious and otherwise, and that within the Indigenous community requires urgent attention. However it is high time child abuse and child sexual assault in Australia are acknowledged as pervasive social practices, reinforced by long-standing cultural beliefs and norms at the core of which is a basic lack of respect for a child’s human rights. By broadening the terminology around human rights to include ‘private abuses’, the majority of cases of child abuse and child sexual assault, we will improve the climate for disclosure, acceptance and understanding for both child and adult victims and empathic support and follow up.

Appropriate care and support for child and adult victims would be enormously helpful to victims who currently experience inadequate support for coping with the after-effects of abuse and a silencing taboo. Greater community open-mindedness in the community will help reduce the legacy for adult survivors and reduce the ongoing marginalisation.

ASCA is calling on the Federal government to show leadership in helping to shift community attitudes, and the attitudes of commentators, policy makers and organisations concerned with human rights to encapsulate child abuse, child sexual abuse and the human rights of surviving adults within the mainstream human rights discourse. The health of our children and of our nation depends upon it.