Help Stop Child Abuse
January 31, 2011, 5:22 pm Julietta Jameson marieclaire
We all agree child abuse must be stopped – so why do only 1 in 3 of us report it? marie claire investigates Australia’s shameful code of silence.
As a child, Cathy Kezelman was shy and studious – the kind of dark-haired, quiet wallflower who’d fade into the background among the more boisterous pupils at her suburban primary school outside Brisbane. Occasionally, she’d seem particularly withdrawn, even as if she was in some physical pain, but no matter how she felt she never drew attention to herself. “I was terrified of my own shadow,” says Cathy now.
Yet, if they noticed her dishevelled appearance, Cathy’s teachers didn’t ask questions. And in response to what had happened at home in those early years, Cathy’s brain simply erased any memory of her experiences. As an adult, “I had no memory of 10 years of my childhood, and I didn’t know what that signified.”
It wasn’t until much later, when her niece was killed in a car accident, that Cathy plunged into an anxiety so deep she was forced to leave her job as a GP. Now a married mother of four, she was bedridden for two years with depression and began to have flashbacks.
“I thought I was going mad,” she admits. “The flashbacks were absolutely horrific. I’d be minding my own business and all of a sudden I’d be back to the age of four or six, in abject terror and pain and having God knows what done to me.” The reason for the flashbacks soon became clear. From the age of four to 14, Cathy’s father, a schoolteacher, had sexually abused her – and, during those 10 lost years, no-one had tried to help her.
While some would dismiss Cathy’s ordeal as rare, new statistics have revealed that it is shockingly common. In fact, only 34 per cent of Australians said they would call the police if confronted with clear signs of child sexual abuse, according to a recent survey by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN). While 92 per cent considered child abuse a serious issue, less than 50 per cent said they would take action to protect the child.
Unsurprisingly, when these figures were released late last year, they caused outrage. “Shameful and short-sighted,” railed columnist Gretel Killeen. And the reasons given for this reluctance to intervene seem hollow and weak: not knowing what to do; a fear of being wrong; worrying about personal consequences; and the belief that the abuse of a child not associated with them was none of their business. About 30 per cent said they wouldn’t want “to upset the parents”.
Dr Joe Tucci, CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation, believes these responses point to a deeper, cultural sense of denial. “We don’t want to believe that adults hurt children – let alone adults who are supposed to be caring for them,” he says. “There’s also a preference for believing that this happens in someone else’s community and someone else’s family, not our own.”
In the year to July 2009, there were 339,454 reports of child abuse in Australia, more than three times as many as during the same 12-month period a decade earlier. More than 34,000 children were forcibly removed from their families for their own protection – more than double the amount 10 years ago. But experts say those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. According to NAPCAN, child abuse and neglect often goes undetected.
Today, Cathy Kezelman, 56, wonders how the adults she knew could have missed the repeated signs that something was wrong. Her mother turned a blind eye, but others could have helped her.
“I was in a very isolated family but should the teachers have noticed?” asks Cathy. “Perhaps. I imagine there must have been some days when I must have looked pretty terrible when I went to school, and it really is quite astounding that it wasn’t picked up. And you know, neighbours, it’s hard to know what they knew, what they didn’t know, and whether they had a hands-off policy.”
Cathy has since written a book about her experiences, Innocence Revisited (JoJo Publishing, $29.99), and, as CEO of the support, advisory and advocacy group Adults Surviving Child Abuse, helps others deal with the trauma of abuse.
In the years since Cathy was abused, Australia has introduced “mandatory reporting” laws in an attempt to help vulnerable children. The laws mean that it is illegal not to report a suspicion of child abuse, but the people to whom they apply to varies across the states and territories. In the Northern Territory they cover every adult; however, in most states, reporting is mandatory only for medical professionals, teachers, childcare workers and police. The penalty for not reporting to the relevant government department is a fine, ranging from $2400 to $22,000. In all states, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, legislation protects the reporter from legal action and their identity is kept confidential, except in “exceptional circumstances”.
These laws have undoubtedly encouraged more people to voice their concerns about vulnerable children. The problem is that many Australians, who aren’t trained to spot signs of abuse and aren’t compelled to report any suspicions, feel confused about how to react. In one survey, the Australian Childhood Foundation found that one third of us would not believe a child if they disclosed abuse to us. “Another 20 per cent said they weren’t sure. So kids have got a one in two chance of hitting an adult who’ll believe them,” states Dr Tucci.
“The impact is that [victims] shut down,” explains Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of Child Wise, a child protection agency. “Even with adult survivors, they look back at their childhood and they say, ‘All the signs were there. People didn’t pick them up. People didn’t listen to me. I was expressing all this hurt and no-one took what I was going through seriously, so I stopped telling people.'”
But it’s not just children who might be helped by intervention. Dr Steve Hambleton, Australian Medical Association federal vice president, says that reporting can be a relief for perpetrators who are looking for a circuit-breaker – a mother who has frightened herself by shaking her baby, for instance. Experts point out that perhaps as much as 80 per cent of the time, the underlying issue is not malice, but parental stress, a need for help, or a lack of parenting skills.
But McMenamin pulls no punches about the difficulty everyday individuals face when confronted with a situation they suspect constitutes child abuse. “It’s a huge thing, probably one of the most difficult decisions you will ever have to make in your life,” she states. Yet she believes we can’t let understandable fears prevent us from doing the right thing. “Never ignore your gut reaction, your suspicions or your feelings,” she implores. “If you feel confident enough to go straight to the authorities, then contact human services, or the police. But if you’re not confident, call Child Wise or an equivalent organisation that will support you and help you through the process.”
Child Wise receives about 200 inquiries a week, mostly from people wondering if someone can help clarify whether what they’ve seen or suspect indicates a child is at risk. If a member of the public reports suspected abuse, their identity will be protected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t need to be interviewed by the authorities – or that they won’t have to disclose their name. “It would depend on the case,” says McMenamin. “Sometimes, the department will say, ‘Sorry, there’s not a lot we can do if the report is anonymous.'”
What is child abuse?
Child abuse falls into four main categories: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional or psychological abuse.
Neglect is the failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, supervisory, developmental and emotional needs.
Physical abuse is defined as injury from punching, beating, shaking, biting, burning or similar.
Sexual abuse includes both physical touching of a sexual nature and exposure to sexual content, such as pornography. Emotional/Psychological abuse is a chronic behavioural pattern directed at a child by which their social competence is undermined. Exposure to domestic violence falls into this category.
What are the signs of child abuse?
Neglect: Unsuitable clothing for weather, dirty or unbathed, extreme hunger, apparent lack of supervision.
Physical abuse: Unexplained burns, cuts, bruises, or welts in the shape of an object; bite marks; antisocial behaviour; problems in school; fear of adults.
Sexual abuse: Inappropriate interest or knowledge of sexual acts; nightmares and bed-wetting; drastic changes in appetite; over-compliance or excessive aggression; fear of a particular person or family member.
Emotional/Psychological abuse: Apathy; depression; hostility; lack of concentration; eating disorders.
If you are concerned a child is being abused…
Talk about your worries with someone you trust, for example, a friend, your GP, a school counsellor or a social worker at your local council. Can your concerns be alleviated with an offer of help, or do the authorities need to be contacted to protect the child from danger? Make a plan and act on it. Children rely on adults to protect them and to stand up for them, especially if their parents can’t. You can also talk anonymously with the government services in your state: ACT: Care and Protection Services, 1300 556 729. NSW: Child Protection Helpline, 13 21 11. NT: Child Abuse Prevention Service, 1800 688 009. Qld: Child Safety Services, 1800 811 810 (business hours) or 1800 177 135 (after hours). SA: Child Abuse Report Line, 13 14 78. Tas: Child and Family Services Line, 1800 001 219. Vic: Child Protection Crisis Line, 13 12 78. WA: Crisis Care, (08) 9325 1111; 1800 199 008 (for callers outside Perth). Young people can call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. NAPCAN lists state services and national helplines.
The statistics are truly shocking: this year some 34,000 children in Australia will become victims of abuse or neglect – and they’re just the ones authorities will find out about. While most people consider child abuse and neglect a significant problem, a sobering survey by the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) revealed fewer than half of us would take definite action if confronted with a specific case. Even if a child disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted, only 34 per cent of people said they would call the police.
Such inaction is mainly driven by the fear of being wrong, by people not knowing what to do, by what might happen to them or the child concerned, and a belief that it’s “not my business”. Many also don’t want to admit these things happen in our society. Tragically, they do. Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility, from big business to the person living next door. But as NAPCAN has found, few people know how to react when confronted with the horror of child abuse. To help turn this unacceptable situation around, we’re urging you to join marie claire’s call on Prime Minister Julia Gillard for a government-funded public awareness campaign.
“Australians need to hear a simple message that everyone can understand, like the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ sun protection campaign and the ‘Click, Clack, Front ‘n’ Back’ seat belt advertisements we all remember so well,” urges Alanna Hector, NAPCAN’s national manager for policy and advocacy.
“Such a campaign is needed, not only to show people what they can do if they suspect abuse or neglect, but also how they can support families who are struggling – to stop abuse and neglect before it occurs. Parenting is hard and all parents will need help sometimes. To protect our children, we need to educate the entire community to make it OK to ask for – and offer – parenting assistance.”
We’re inviting our readers, their friends, family and colleagues to take a personal step by signing our pledge below. By taking this step, you’ll be committing to do everything you can to keep our children safe.