ADJOURNMENT;National Child Protection Week – 08 Sep 2009

This week is Child Protection Week throughout Australia. This is an annual campaign that aims to raise awareness that the wellbeing and safety of Australia’s children is everyone’s responsibility. I rise to speak on the important issue of child abuse and neglect. It is not a pleasant subject but one that I feel passionately about and an area that we need to acknowledge and take action on to eliminate. In an ideal world, our children would be loved and protected by everyone. However, as we know, the world is far from ideal. As a result of this less than perfect world, many of our children suffer in many different ways. Tonight I want to discuss both the abuse and the neglect that take place but also some of the vital work that is undertaken to help prevent abuse and to help those children who have already suffered.As this week is Child Protection Week, there are many special events taking place throughout Australia—as Senator Moore alluded to. Yesterday I attended a breakfast hosted by Bravehearts to celebrate the launch—as Senator Moore just mentioned in her speech—of the National White Balloon Day Campaign, to raise awareness of child sexual assault. One of the disgusting statistics we heard was that one in five Australian children will be sexually assaulted by their 18th birthday. These children are little people; they are not just numbers. It is incumbent on us as adults and as politicians to do all we can to protect all children from this insidious crime. White Balloon Day sends a message to victims of child sexual assault encouraging them to break the silence that all too often surrounds these crimes and to let them know that they are supported and, most importantly, believed. Bravehearts offer comprehensive counselling and education for children and young people, along with parental support for non-offending family members and advocacy for adult survivors. They also invest in extensive training and research, developing strategies to help combat the complex issues associated with child sexual assault. I congratulate all those people involved in Bravehearts and commend them on their hard work.

We have all seen cases of abuse that make the front page of the newspaper or the evening news—including most recently the horrific story of the young American girl who, when only 11 years old, was kidnapped from a bus stop and subjected to years of abuse by her kidnappers. It is right that we are appalled by these incidents. However, we must be aware that they form only a small percentage of the overall abuse that occurs, because these are the ones where the perpetrators have been caught. How many do we not know about? We all need to remember that every child is important and each act of abuse is one too many. How frequent is child abuse in Australia? In 2008, over 30,000 Australian children were subjected to substantiated abuse or neglect. That is a disturbing statistic, as I am sure you will all agree. As I said, if you think about the number 30,000 and think of each digit of that number being a child then that is very sad. It is even more disturbing when you take into account claims that were unsubstantiated or not reported at all.

Another disturbing fact is that the 2008 figure is similar to the figure for the 2001-02 financial year. In the 2001-02 year, 27 per cent of the substantiated abuse involved physical abuse, 27 per cent involved emotional abuse and 14 per cent involved sexual abuse. In my home state of Tasmania in the financial year 2007-08, 807 individual children were removed from their homes, compared to 664 for the previous year. This increase can partly be attributed to the change in law taking place, where cases that previously would have slipped through and not been reported are being reported and recognised as serious and people are taking the necessary steps of intervention. In 2008-09, 2,424 notifications were referred for investigation compared to 3,269 in the previous year.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Tasmanian state government on moving in a positive manner to improve processes in the department to help improve the future of those Tasmanian children at risk. As part of the overall commitment of the Department of Health and Human Services to the health and wellbeing of all children in Tasmania, they have undertaken a project to redesign the Tasmanian family support service system with the expectation of improving early intervention and support. While the agency remains committed to providing safe placements for children affected by abuse and neglect, improved support is expected to effect an overall reduction in the number of children in out-of-home care. Risk factors identified as contributing to an increased number of admissions to out-of-home care for 2008-09 relate to alcohol and substance abuse, family violence and mental health issues. The diversionary programs provided through the Gateway and Integrated Family Support Service project will target appropriate supports to vulnerable families before placement in out-of-home care is required. It is considered that the introduction of the new operating model will continue to improve performance in managing the demand for child protection services.

Before I go any further, I must clearly explain what the term ‘child abuse’ covers. It includes both physical and psychological abuse. Physical abuse also includes sexual abuse. It includes deliberately hurting a child or neglecting them by not providing them with the food, clothing and shelter they should have—that is, that all children should be able to take for granted. Abuse and neglect also involve not catering to children’s emotional needs. They include allowing a child to witness violence within the family or community. Children who are abused are usually subjected to that abuse on more than one occasion. Abuse harms the child in the short term and all too often in the long term as they grow into adulthood. The emotional scars of being an abused child are with victims forever. Child abuse and neglect lead to hundreds of deaths each year, and that is alarming. How can this happen in our great nation?

Abused children are at increased risk of many problems. These include substance abuse as they grow older, homelessness, committing crimes, poor health, low education, poor employment prospects, as well as depression and suicide. People who are abused and neglected as children are overrepresented in the prison population and for crime in general as well as in the low socioeconomic category. On average, the number of Indigenous children abused is six times greater than the rest of the population. Every adult has a role to play in preventing child abuse. Every adult has a moral obligation to be actively concerned for a child’s welfare. In many cases, there is also a legal obligation.

Abuse can be obvious but it can also be subtle. In the cases where abuse is not easy to see, there are a number of factors that may point to abuse. Quite often the child’s behaviour changes. Younger children can regress or become fearful of going home, their school work and attendance rate can suffer and they might participate in risk-taking behaviour. The child might begin acting-out or have unexplained injuries. If you notice these sorts of changes, there is reason to be concerned, although, and I must stress this point, it does not necessarily mean that the child is being abused. But, even if some of the above changes do not take place, it is no guarantee that a child is safe. It is difficult to know whether a child is being abused; but, if you have genuine concerns about a child’s welfare, it is best to act. If you are wrong, at least you will know. If you are right, your action will help to put a stop to the abuse and bring those accountable for it to justice. As I have said previously, every adult has a responsibility to ensure that children are not abused.

Since coming to government, the Rudd government has developed the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020. This is an ambitious long-term national approach towards ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Australian children and has been designed to deliver a substantial and sustained reduction in child abuse and neglect in Australia. All Australian governments have endorsed the framework and are committed to implementing the initial actions it contains. I am grateful for the wonderful level of collaboration between Australian state and territory governments, along with the non-government organisations who realise that placing the interests of children first is more important than partisanship.

Only this week, the minister, Jenny Macklin, announced another important element of the framework. The information sharing protocol started in January this year was initially between Centrelink and state and territory child protection agencies. This protocol formalises the processes for sharing Commonwealth information with child protection agencies, including the circumstances under which information can be requested and provided. Medicare Australia will now be involved in the information sharing protocol, which means that important medical information can now be shared. For example, if a child is placed into the care of a child protection agency, their medical and immunisation history and Medicare number can be accessed quickly and efficiently. Child protection authorities will be allowed to access a child’s history of doctors’ visits, and this will assist in detecting serious medical neglect cases. Working collectively to help protect vulnerable children and families is invaluable.

I particularly want to mention one other organisation that I have strong links with and that works tirelessly to educate people about child abuse and neglect. That organisation is the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, commonly known as NAPCAN. The mission of NAPCAN is to advocate on behalf of children and young people and to promote positive change in attitudes, behaviours, policies, practices and laws to prevent abuse and neglect and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Australian children. NAPCAN works with all stakeholders to improve the lives of Australia’s children. Over the last 21 years, NAPCAN has distributed in excess of 20 million resources across Australia. The resources are highly valued by all who use them, and they are the professionals who are working with families, parents and carers.

Like any behaviour changing tool, NAPCAN’s resources are most effective when they are used with complementary interventions. NAPCAN’s theme for this year is ‘Walls protect child abuse, not children’—and I strongly agree. Unfortunately, there are real walls between us in our communities and they are the walls of fear, ignorance, denial and disinterest in regard to child abuse and neglect. It is long past the time to break down these walls and help bring child abuse out into the open. We need to act and we need to act now.

As I said, it is not a pleasant subject to talk about or even to think about—but think about helping children in need of our support. The safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children is everybody’s business. It is not just the responsibility of governments but a responsibility that should be shared by the whole Australian community—individuals, professionals, businesses and the media. As a first step, I call on all Australian adults—not just the people who have children, but everyone—to start thinking and talking about this issue to help solve this problem and to support the survivors and to help them tell their stories.

This morning, along with Minister Macklin and other parliamentarians and members of the public, I attended the launch of the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect national survey, the National Engagement Strategy. It is an online survey that aims to get as much information as possible from the broad Australian community about abuse and neglect of children. The start date for the online survey was 6 September and it will run through until 1 November. This date was picked to coincide with the start of National Child Protection Week. There are phone numbers that people can call if they do not have access to the internet.

This is the largest survey ever undertaken to look at Australia’s views on the abuse and neglect of children. The questions in the survey have been developed in consultation with numerous experts from around the country and are a key element in engaging the whole community to take action in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. We must bring child abuse out into the open and find effective ways to prevent it. A very important step in this process is understanding what Australians actually know and think about child abuse. As I said, a number of leading social researchers gave their time to work alongside NAPCAN to design and test this survey and, with a grant from the Commonwealth government and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, it has now been launched.

Across the country, business, government, community and media organisations are helping to promote the survey. In my home state of Tasmania I have sent a letter to all the local governments requesting that they help support people being engaged in undertaking this survey. Of course, individual responses will be treated absolutely confidentially. The results of the survey will be used to plan better and more effective ways to involve the whole community in the prevention of child abuse. It gives everyone—not just parents—a chance to take action. The more people that participate in a survey, the more accurate the results will be. This in turn will allow NAPCAN to develop strategies to move forward with prevention strategies.

As I said, I strongly encourage everyone and all politicians to participate in the survey. I would like to say a very big thank you to Maree Faulkner, the CEO of NAPCAN, who I know has worked tirelessly to ensure that this project gets underway. I checked the website at about six o’clock tonight and already around 2,000 people have participated. This shows a great willingness to support this very worthy cause.

As co-convener of PACAN—that is, Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect—along with Senator Helen Kroger, I take more than a passing interest in the welfare of children. PACAN aims to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect by holding regular seminars with a variety of guest speakers. This year we have had Maree Faulkner from NAPCAN, Kerry Graham from the Inspire Foundation, members of the Australian Federal Police and Father Chris Riley from Youth Off The Streets to help us understand what is happening in our communities and to discuss strategies to help end these awful practices.

During the August sitting of parliament PACAN held a really successful raffle to raise funds and to help raise awareness. Over $3,000 was raised in the raffle and this money will be used for causes like financing trips to Canberra for guest speakers who would otherwise not be able to come. I would like to take this opportunity now to also thank the sponsors of the raffle: the Gem Centre, Inverell, Virgin Blue, Balloons Aloft Canberra, NatRoad and the Canberra Day Spa. I would also like to say thank you to all the people who bought tickets in the raffle and to the staff involved in helping sell the tickets.

As I said, child abuse is an important issue that every member of society needs to be aware of. It is an issue that is painful for everyone involved but it is one that we need to acknowledge as a real social problem. Everyone has a duty to protect our children; and, as I have said earlier, every child abused is one too many. We can all help by ensuring that children in our care are loved, respected and treated fairly. Australia needs to do everything possible to help prevent child abuse. We need to do all that is possible to ensure that those children that have been abused get the help they need to deal with their traumatic experiences. I commend all organisations and individuals who are working towards preventing abuse or helping rebuild lives that have been shattered. As parliamentarians we have a duty to lead by example. Let’s help draw a line in the sand and break the cycle of abuse.