The Nature of abusive systems may have changed but its chilling effects have not (opinion piece)

The nature of abusive systems may have changed but its chilling effects have not

By Cathy Kezelman – posted Thursday, 16 June 2011 Sign Up for free e-mail updates!


As “child migrants” launch a class action over alleged systemic physical and sexual abuses at Fairbridge Farm School at Molong in previous decades 11 Australians have been charged in a four-month operation over child pornography and child sexual assault. While the horrific abuses alleged at Fairbridge Farm are all too representative of the institutional abuses suffered by too many “forgotten Australians” and “child migrants” the alleged offenders in this latest report are involved in a present-day system of abuse. In this system children are exploited to produce pornographic images of sexual acts in which no children should ever be involved. In some cases in this peer-to-peer investigation, it is reported, our children have been raped and subjected to unconscionable acts of bestiality. And images and videos of these atrocities have been disseminated across the internet to feed the perversions of adults.

In the case of the alleged abuses at Molong disadvantaged and orphaned children were separated from their country, homes and families and transported from the UK to Australia. These children were young, fearful and exceedingly vulnerable, and were denied the love and nurture which is every child’s right, on an ongoing basis. Not only did those charged with their care reportedly not keep them safe but certain adults feasted on the vulnerability of their young charges. The Fairbridge children were reportedly repeatedly beaten, raped, exploited and profoundly neglected. Without the security of a safe, stable attachment, children focus on simply surviving and so shift resources normally earmarked for learning and development. Many of the child migrants have struggled their entire life to find a sense of identity, to form relationships, hold down a job and reclaim their health.

Here we are in 2011 and by all reports the abuse of our children, in this case child sexual assault, remains, in some circles a pervasive social practice. In the newly reported cases, swapping of pornographic images has occurred through a global file-sharing network. All children are young, innocent and developmentally immature. During childhood the brain grows and develops rapidly, especially in the first 3 to 5 years, with further rapid development during puberty and it continues to grow and develop until a person is in their twenties. During this entire period the trauma of child sexual assault can and does impact fundamental neuro-chemical processes, and these in turn can affect the growth, structure, and functioning of the brain.

Child sexual assault breaches trust, ablates safety and exploits innocence and vulnerability. The fundamental betrayal and damage to future relationships a child suffers when that child is sexually assaulted, can and often does set up lifetime patterns of fear and mistrust as well as chronic feelings of hopelessness. Adults sexually assaulted as children are often left struggling to establish their own self-worth, to relate to others, to regulate their emotions and manage stress.

While some survivors do show remarkable resilience and function well, many struggle with mental and physical health issues. The statistics are chilling – adults sexually assaulted as children are 3-5 times more likely to be depressed as adults and up to eighteen times more likely to commit suicide. The good news is that with the right help and support Australian adult survivors of childhood trauma can go on to live healthy fulfilling lives. However many are left struggling day to day because of the appalling lack of investment in appropriate care and support – services which understand the trauma at the core of a person’s issues and respond to its impacts with empathy, respect, empowerment and validation.

We need to work together to be alert to the risks to our children, to report our suspicions to the appropriate authorities and to speak out in all cases about abuse and its effects. The nature of abusive systems may have changed but its chilling effects have not. Abuse in all its forms and child sexual assault in particular is a pervasive blight on us all. Let’s work together to prevent it and actively address the needs of those left struggling with its impacts.