MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST;Child Protection – 27 Oct 2010

I rise today to speak on a matter of public interest, and that is the very important issue of child abuse and neglect and caring for our children. We all know that child welfare is an issue we all need to be concerned with and that there are many ways in which we can play a role in protecting children. Madam Acting Deputy President Kroger, I know that as my fellow co-convener of Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect, or PACAN, you too share a very great interest in this topic. It is not a nice topic—we have had some conversations about that—but we both realise and acknowledge that this is an issue that overrides party politics. The ultimate outcome would be to end all abuse and neglect, but in the meantime we need to bring this issue to the fore so that people have a conversation about it. In that way we help to make people more knowledgeable about it. So I do thank you for your participation in the Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect group.

The first thing I would like to talk about today is Bravehearts Inc. This organisation was founded by Hetty Johnston in 1997. The purpose of the Bravehearts organisation is to provide therapy, support and advocacy services to survivors of child sexual assault and to increase prevention by raising awareness in the community through education. On 7 September it was the Bravehearts 14th annual White Balloon Day, which is held to raise awareness of child sexual abuse and to raise money to fund activities that help raise that awareness. White Balloon Day was created in response to a devastating revelation by a seven-year-old that a family member was sexually abusing them. We all know that abuse is horrific at any time, but to me it is made even worse when the perpetrator is someone the victim should have been able to trust. Sadly, it is common in child sexual abuse cases for the victim to know their abuser. In this case it was revealed that this seven-year-old was not the first victim of the perpetrator, who had in fact been abusing children for 40 years.

White Balloon Day is proudly sponsored by the federal government’s National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children under the parenting appropriation. It is held during National Child Protection Week, which is run by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, known as NAPCAN. National Child Protection Week was held between 5 and 12 September this year. In the lead-up to that week, NAPCAN announced the results of a survey they conducted in 2009. More than 22,000 people participated in the online survey, which is the largest of its type conducted in Australia.

The results of the survey were both interesting and somewhat alarming. Ninety-two per cent of participants stated that they believed that child abuse and neglect is a serious problem in Australia, but only 47 per cent thought more recognition of the problem was needed. When asked who was mainly responsible for ensuring the child welfare, 98 per cent of participants nominated parents, 54 per cent nominated other relatives, 51 per cent nominated schools and 48 per cent nominated child protection authorities. Alarmingly, some respondents stated that business, the media and neighbours were not at all responsible for children’s wellbeing and safety: 31 per cent thought business was not at all responsible, 17 per cent thought the media was not at all responsible and 11 per cent thought neighbours were not at all responsible.

If confronted with a clear-cut case of child abuse or neglect, less than 50 per cent of participants in the survey stated that they would take formal action to protect the child. In the case of sexual abuse, only 34 per cent of respondents would definitely call the police. People reported a variety of reasons that would stop them from reporting their concerns to authorities: 48 per cent said they were worried they might be wrong, 44 per cent said they were worried about what would happen to them, 42 per cent did not think it was any of their business, 38 per cent did not know what to do, 33 per cent did not want to cause problems for the child, 30 per cent did not want to upset the parents and 22 per cent did not want to admit that things like that happened.

It is clear from the survey responses that those concerns are widely held. Most people would appreciate the anxiety that people feel about reporting suspected child sexual abuse. However, it is important to put the child first and concerns about being wrong or being verbally abused for interfering last. Failure to speak up will result in the abuse continuing, and further emotional and physical harm is most likely to occur. I believe that as a society we need to ensure that people are aware of the signs of abuse so they can take action if necessary.

The survey also found that bullying was of great concern to respondents when they were asked about the issue in relation to young children—that is, children in the nought to 12 years age group. Seventy-four per cent of respondents worried about bullying in younger children, compared to only 36 per cent for the 13 to 17 years age category. People were also less worried about how the older children dealt with matters such as fitting in at school and parents fighting or separating than they were when asked the same questions about the younger group of children. It is probably not surprising to most people that respondents were more likely to worry about the older child when it came to issues such as depression, drugs, alcohol and sexuality.

Respondents were asked to state what factors they considered contributed to abuse and neglect by rating various categories between 1, not at all; and 5, a lot. The top four categories that were given a rating of 5 were: parents’ abuse of drugs and alcohol, 73 per cent; domestic violence between parents, 58 per cent; parents who were abused and neglected themselves, 51 per cent; and mental illness, 37 per cent. Only seven per cent of people rated ‘not enough local activities for children’ as a 5 on the scale—that is, a lot—while 11 per cent rated ‘not enough affordable child care’ as a 5.

The perceptions of survey participants roughly correspond with data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Child protection Australia 2008-09. The study was completed in 2010. It identified that, on average, emotional abuse accounted for 38 per cent of abuse, neglect for 31 per cent, physical abuse for 22 per cent and sexual abuse for nine per cent of all abuse.

It is relevant to note that, despite the figures of both the type of abuse occurring and the perceptions about that abuse, sexual abuse represents a significant proportion of calls from children to the Kids Helpline. In 2008, 37 per cent of calls to the helpline related to sexual abuse. Physical abuse accounted for 46 per cent and emotional abuse for 13 per cent, while neglect accounted for four per cent of calls.

As part of the survey, respondents were also asked to rate the most effective intervention strategies, with a rating of 1 meaning not effective and 5 meaning very effective. Support for parents with substance abuse and mental illness were considered to be very effective strategies, rated as a 5 on this scale, by 66 and 65 per cent of respondents respectively. The two strategies that received the fewest 5 ratings by the respondents were: removing children permanently from families, 13 per cent; and changing the law to ban any physical punishment of children, 17 per cent. Generally, respondents felt that strategies aimed at families where children were at risk of being abused or where abuse was already occurring were more effective than a more broad approach to the population as a whole.

I would like to thank both NAPCAN and Bravehearts for the effort they put into bringing these issues to the fore. I would also like to thank NAPCAN for organising the survey, and those experts who developed it. And I would like to thank the people who took the time to complete the survey. It is the beginning of our getting, as a society, as a community, more information on people’s attitudes and helping to try and change those attitudes in regard to this horrific issue. To those people who did complete the survey, I would just like to say: although the effort might seem small, the answers that you provided will allow welfare experts to gain a better understanding of society’s views on this issue and, as I said, what needs to be done to help improve the situation.

I believe, as I know you do, Acting Deputy President Kroger, that we all have a role to play in protecting children. We all need to remember that one day it might be one of our children or grandchildren, or another young child we know or love, who is actually the one who is suffering the abuse. So I do believe it is important that everyone plays their part in preventing that from happening.

In regard to this issue, I would just like to mention to the chamber that in a couple of weeks I am hosting a display of art, upstairs in the open area. That display is of extracts from the Eric Cunningham Dax collection of artwork that people who have been abused have done to try and help ease their trauma. That will be a most interesting display, and I would urge everybody to have a look at it.

I have stated on many previous occasions in this place, and I reiterated earlier, that this is not a nice subject. It is not a nice topic, but it is a topic that I think we really need to be pushing both within this chamber and outside it. We all have a responsibility to make sure these discussions are held and that abuse is not swept under the carpet but is brought to the fore, and that we do all we can, no matter what political party we belong to, to alleviate the fairly horrific numbers of children suffering abuse. It is an issue that affects people for the whole of their lives in a number of different ways, and I would urge everybody to play their role in trying to change that. I will certainly continue to do my utmost to make sure that the issue gets the awareness that it needs. I would once again ask senators and members, and members of the broader community, to think about the issue about what they could and would do if faced with an issue or were aware of an issue of abuse and to talk to people about it.