Preventing Child Sexual Abuse
I rise today to speak to the motion that I have put forward in my name regarding better equipping parents and other primary caregivers both to prevent and, if necessary, to respond to child sexual abuse.
This is a most serious topic, and I feel a great weight of responsibility as I address it. This is especially the case as we have with us in the chamber today a mother and her child, both of whom have been deeply affected by this issue.
These two brave Canberrans are here today not by invitation but rather on their insistence. I wish not only to acknowledge their presence but to honour them for their courage, their resilience, and their desire to turn private tragedy into public good.
Madam Speaker, this motion has its genesis in intimate discussions with this mother. She has shared with me her personal story and the heartbreaking story of her child. Like many other Canberrans, she is highly educated and enjoys good employment. She is also a loving and devoted mother who has always sought to do what is best for her children.
But after unspeakable tragedy struck, this good mother set out to find answers. What had gone wrong? What could she have done differently? As she immersed herself in research, she came to find answers to these and other questions. She now realises that, if she had been better prepared, there were indeed warnings that she could have recognised and things that she should have done differently.
For many people, such a realisation would result in overwhelming despair. But not for this mother, and not for this child. Together they have forged an unstoppable commitment to helping protect other children and other families. Madam Speaker, this motion is designed to aid in doing just that.
Child sexual abuse is a scourge that has the capacity to reach into all families, regardless of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. According to the 2006 Personal Safety Survey, prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1,294,000 Australians reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 15. Seventy-four per cent of these were women; 26 per cent were men. This means, Madam Speaker, that child sexual abuse has reached at least 12 per cent of women and 4.5 per cent of men.
The impacts of child sexual abuse – often shortened to CSA in the literature – are enormous. I quote Professor Jill Astbury of Victoria University: ‘A significant body of research has demonstrated that the experience of CSA can exert long-lasting effects on brain development, psychological and social functioning, self-esteem, mental health, personality, sleep, health risk behaviours including substance use, self-harm and life expectancy’. These negative impacts often persist for years, sometimes for life.
The economic cost is also enormous. A 2008 study by the Australian Childhood Foundation found that the cost to the Australian community of all child abuse was between $10.7 billion and $30.1 billion. Even if sexual abuse forms only a small percentage of these figures, it is still a staggering sum.
I am confident that no one in this chamber needs to be persuaded that, for both of these reasons, we should do everything in our power to prevent the sexual abuse of children and, when required, to respond to it in the most appropriate ways. Numerous prevention and education initiatives have been designed and implemented over the past several decades. As noted this year by Griffith University Researcher Julia Rudolph and her colleagues, these efforts have overwhelmingly focussed ‘on enhancing children’s knowledge and behavioral skills to recognize, avoid, and report sexual victimization’.
Rudolph et al., however, have also discussed the limitations of educational efforts that target children and strongly recommend a more ‘diversified approach to CSA prevention’, with initiatives that target ‘multiple levels of a child’s ecology’. Out of all these, Madam Speaker, well-informed parents and other primary caregivers were identified as the most promising way forward. I quote: ‘CSA prevention researchers and advocates have long promoted the crucial role parents/caregivers can play in keeping children safe from CSA’.
As far back as 1986, Professor David Finkelhor – who has been called ‘probably the most prominent sociologist at work in the field [of child sexual abuse]’ – identified three advantages of prevention education for parents: first, the repetition of information from a trusted source can be more effective than the isolated classroom experience. Second, if parents learn to recognize the signs, they may more easily identify abuse when it occurs. Third, parents may learn to react in more helpful ways to discovery of abuse.
These points have been repeated and amplified by other experts, with Nathan Marriage from James Cook University noting last year that ‘parent-focussed CSA prevention efforts [have] been increasingly advocated in the literature’. I offer just a few examples.
In 2012, Georgia Babatsikos observed that most prevention programs place ‘the burden of responsibility for prevention on children while overlooking the critical population of parents’ and concluded that ‘there is a need for more prevention programs targeting parents’. The following year, Professor Russell Hawkins stated clearly that ‘Prevention programs which target parents are needed to supplement school-based programs that leave the onus on the child to prevent and report abuse’.
In 2015, Tamar Mendelson and Elizabeth Letourneau from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health advocated for child sexual abuse prevention efforts that specifically target the parents of young children. ‘Parents have been neglected as a focus of CSA preventions’, they wrote, noting the success of ‘family-focused interventions’ in reducing other forms of child mistreatment.
The aforementioned study by Marriage et al. likewise echoes the need for parents and other primary caregivers to be better informed as they, quote, ‘do not automatically develop the ability to identify abuse as a result of their close and regular interaction with children’.
The call to better inform and equip parents can be found in recent government reports as well. Victoria’s 2012 Report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry – also called the Cummins Inquiry – calls for ‘a wide-ranging education and information campaign for parents and caregivers of all school-aged children on the prevention of child sexual abuse’. And Recommendation 6.2 from the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse includes ‘prevention education for parents’ and clarifies that ‘The education should aim to increase knowledge of child sexual abuse and its impacts, and build skills to help reduce the risks of child sexual abuse’.
This unified call to provide better resources for parents acknowledges that many are insufficiently prepared to teach correct and appropriate information to children, to recognise the signs of child sexual abuse or to respond correctly to suspected abuse. Parents interviewed by Babatsikos as part of her PhD research expressed concern about what they should be teaching to their children and at what age.
The Australian Childhood Foundation’s 2010 survey of community attitudes found that ‘28% of respondents did not feel confident enough to recognise the signs of child abuse and neglect’, and ‘20% of respondents did not … know what to do if they suspected that a child was being abused’. Fully 90 per cent of respondents believed that the community needs to be better informed.
Rudolph et al. have suggested two specific mechanisms for informing the community: sending ‘home information packs at regular intervals in a child’s schooling and including CSA education in antenatal information packs given to expectant parents’. In light of the fact that, according to ABS data, 9.5 per cent of those who report sexual abuse before the age of 15 were under five years old when abuse first occurred, it seems wise to make sure that age-appropriate resources are provided to all first-time parents as early as possible. This has certainly been the urging, Madam Speaker, of the mother who is with us today. Inclusion in antenatal information packs may be suitable, but materials could also be included with other universal services as appropriate.
Regarding the production of suitable information packs for parents and other primary caregivers, the Cummins Inquiry notes in relation to its Recommendation 10 that ‘The range of existing expertise and resources already available through organisations like Child Wise and Bravehearts would enable this action to be implemented without delay’. For this reason, Madam Speaker, I call upon the government to work with nationally recognised and accredited organisations such as Bravehearts and Child Wise to make sure that such information packets contain correct and appropriate information and reflect best practice.
I here wish to acknowledge that sourcing appropriate materials will not come without a cost. I wish to address this matter succinctly. The public cost of child sexual abuse is enormous. Just this week, the ACT Government announced that it has signed up to a new national redress scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse, which will provide those eligible with counselling and psychological services as well as monetary payments of up to $150,000.
A total of 5,152 babies were born in the ACT in 2016. As an illustration rather than a specific recommendation, age-appropriate information packs for parents can be obtained from Bravehearts for $35 each. This means that if each birth in the territory in 2016 had been to first-time parents, information packs could have been provided to these parents for just over $180,000.
I submit, Madam Speaker, that if a single child can be kept from harm by the universal distribution of CSA information packs, the expense will have been well worth it. As the current National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children states, ‘a focus on early intervention and prevention is more cost-effective in the long-term than responding to crises, or treating the impacts of abuse and neglect’.
The case is clear, Madam Speaker. With one voice, experts in the field have emphasised the need to better inform parents and other primary caregivers so that they can more effectively prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Many parents have themselves requested access to such information, including the mother who is with us in the chamber today. To be effective, the distribution of information needs to be universal. The economic case is clear: prevention initiatives are worth every cent spent.
I therefore call upon the ACT Government to work with nationally recognised and accredited organisations to identify appropriate materials that reflect best practice, to source such materials through the normal procurement process, and to provide these materials to all first-time parents and other primary caregivers in the ACT. This is a wise course of action that will protect both children and parents.