The Issue of Childhood Abuse and Neglect in Australia

      By  Karen Elzinga 9/03/2018

 The prevalence of child sexual abuse in Australia is of real social concern. A Personal Safety Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau Of Statistics (ABS) in 2005 that included the definition of any sexual act by an adult, revealed that before a child has turned 15 years old, 12 percent of girls and 4.5 percent of boys reported being sexually abused (ABS, 2005).

       In thanks to a document called the Convention on the Rights of the Child, laws and legal practices have changed considerably in Australia throughout the last century to reflect community values and beliefs, on the rights of the child. Our children need to and should be protected from any form of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse or neglect. Gone is the silence, and lifting slowly through education and legal reform is the shroud of secrecy and shame in reporting, and in its place is the desire and want for change. Investigated in this report will be historical to contemporary changes, demographics and key elements of legal reform, with reflection on the inside workings of the child protection service. The dynamics and consequences of out of home care, as well as potential victim profiling, to showcase the complete picture of this ever changing blight on Australian society. 

Historically speaking, child protection in Australia has changed enormously over the past 100 years, and significantly since Australia's signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC).  Although not a legally enforceable document as a whole, it provides countries affiliated with its inception in 1990, with a moral guide in dealing with issues pertaining to the health and wellbeing of children. Australia has issued a statement suggesting our laws are consistent with the CROC; however criticisms abound that Australia has only realistically added a limited amount of changes into domestic policy law (State Library New South Wales, n.d.).  These changes as described by Durrant (2006) were that the basic needs of the child are met, the child is protected from exploitation and violent acts, and finally that children have the opportunity to express themselves and influence decisions that affect them (Grace, Hodge, McMahon).

Article 19, within the convention states that governments and individual states will take suitable legislative, social, administrative and educational calculations, in order to protect the innocence of children. Governments must oversee that any environment where children are cared for, are safe from psychological, sexual, physical abuse, neglect, mistreatment or any other exploitive abuse by persons related to the child, or in care of the child.(Australian Human Rights Commission, 1990). 

Since the inception of the CROC'S 42 recommended articles, Australia's Governing body has completed many studies, including Royal Commissions into child protection and the safety of educational institutions and care environments (Grace, Hodge, McMahon).

        Notable document implementations include:

# The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (Protecting Children is Everyone's Business).

# Hague Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Cooperation in Respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children (State Library of New South Wales, n.d.).

# Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, Dec 1993(State Library of New South Wales, n.d.).

# National Quality standards, 2009 (Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority, 2017)

# Family Law- Child Protection Convention, 2003 (Australian Government).

Government states also have individual legislative powers to introduce their own law reforms, based on their own analysis of commissioned reports and statistical data; this allows individual states to utilize different reports to sanction policies, practices and procedures that best suit their individual needs (Australian Government, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2014).

In 2015-2016 a comprehensive report derived from National Child Protective Services data delivered annually on the protection of children, found demographics derived from State and Territory Child Protection agencies, to be as follows:

# One child in 33 received child protective services, 73% of those were client repeats.

# One child in three received out of home care and protection notices after being investigated.

# Indigenous Australian children and Torres Strait Islander children are seven times more prevalent to have had contact with services from child protection.

# Psychological and neglectful abuses were found as the most usual and co-occurring forms of abuse.

# Geographical location had a bearing on higher abuse substantiations, with a rate of four times more likely in remote locations, than if from larger major cities.

# 48% of children placed out of home were placed with grandparents.

# 52% of foster carers and 40% of relative/kinship carers received more than one child to care for during 2015-2016 (Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

Not only do governments have a moral obligation to protect children, they also bare the financial cost associated with it. According to a report from the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provisions 2017, recurrent government spending in this area was increased by $283.7 million in the 2014-2015 financial years, to reach a staggering $4 billion dollars spent in the child protection area in the 2015-2016 periods (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2017). 

It is the responsibility of the department of Child Protective Services to determine whether an environment is suitable for a child to reside. When it is discovered that children require a care and protection notice and can no longer reside in the family home due to child abuse or neglect, there are a range of out of home care options available (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2016).

       These include:

# Residential care settings: A building run by paid workers to care, nurture and provide life necessities for children.

# Family Group managed homes: Live-in carers are reimbursed and /or allocated subsidies for the care they provide to children. These homes are run by Government departments or agencies within the community.

# Home based settings: Carers receive reimbursement for child/ren's expenses. Care is within a home environment and is delivered under three areas, foster care being one, relative/kinship is the second and the final one being home based but out of home care.

# Independent living: for adolescents transitioning from child to adult. Includes dwellings where private board is paid and tenant agreements are in place and structured to teach young adults successful practices for living on their own.

# Other: these are arrangements that do not fall into any other category, boarding schools, motel or hotel living, hospital stays or defence forces for example (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2016).

Children placed into the foster care system face unique challenges; one such issue is the multiple
placements of children. Of a study containing 77 children who were in care, it was found that 40% had a minimum of two placements and a maximum of five. 14% had a range of six to 10 different placements, and 32% of the studied group had been moved 11 or more times (Australian Government, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2016).

In order for children to transition into adulthood effectively, having a stable home environment is
paramount, this means stable childhood security, education, health and well being. The benefits from stable and continuous placements are recognized as number 1 of the 13 National Standards of the document for The Protection of Children in Out of Home Care (2009-2020). It states that children are to experience a continuity of care and stability, including being appropriately matched to
carers based on their assessed short and long term needs in order to facilitate a reduction in the number of placements. (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs & National Framework Implementation Working Group. (2011).

Having stable care arrangements allows children to establish lasting friendships, to be effective members at school and participate in wider community events, and to harness trusting relationships with service care providers and those in support roles.On the flip side multiple placements can lead to poorer education levels, low employment, trust issues, psychological, emotional and social issues (Australian Government, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2016).

Sexual abuse of children causes a plethora of debilitating after effects (Zwi et al, 2007). Documented evidence suggests that victims can suffer with a multitude of ailments including antisocial and depressive behaviours, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, eating disorders, postpartum depression, sexual dysfunction, difficulties in parenting, post traumatic stress disorder and distrust in relationships (Richards, 2011). This trauma also breeds intergenerational trauma that can affect how parents raise children due to mental, physical, emotional and social short comings, and thus can achieve dais-straights for children and grandchildren well into future generations (Australians Together, n.d.). This is evidential particularly the case for Aboriginals who suffered shocking abuse and neglect throughout Australia's period of the 'Stolen Generation', where children were forcibly removed from their parents and placed within institutions to grow up (Atkinson, 2002). 

The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 aims to ensure a series of action plans spanning 3 years each. These aim to deliver adequate legislative changes, early intervention, protection and measurable decreases over time of abusive and neglectful actions. This framework is a collaborative action across Australia by the Commonwealth, all states and territory collectives both governmental, non-governmental and numerous community based entities committed to the well being and safety of children (Protecting Children is Everyone's Business, 2009).

       The action plans hope to achieve these objectives:

# Children are able to reside with families and communities that are safe and supported.

# Adequate support is available to families and children for early intervention.

# Neglectful actions and child abuses are adequately addressed, to ensure that abused or neglected children receive the necessary help and supportive services for ongoing future care.

# Aboriginal/ Indigenous children are safely supported in their communities and family dynamic.

# Survivors of abuse and neglectful actions receive help and support and the exploitation and sexual abuse of children is prevented (Protecting Children is Everyone's Business. (2009).

Researchers from Australia and internationally in this field have suggested a Public Health Model be incorporated to better aid services directed at children's protection. Since 2000, numerous reforms have been enacted including, The Children and Community Services Act 2004. Other changes include the addition of advisory groups formed from various community sectors, a commissioner for children and youth was appointed by the state government, and policies for interviewing and assessment into alleged allegations were implemented for enhanced quality and assurance (Protecting Children is Everyone's Business, 2009).

Above average indicators for child abuse and neglect sadly come from children of families with indigenous heritage or single parent families who have a female lead. The statistical data shows that substantiated reports highlight risk factors associated with these key indicators, however are not directly caused by these family dynamics alone. It is clear that a mixture of elements is responsible for a heightened risk of abuse and neglect; these include factors related to the carer, the child, the family as a whole and especially when community and social support networks fail to counteract negative influencers (Grace, Hodge, McMahon). 

Precursors for emotional, physical and neglectful abuse at the carer level are attributed to alcohol and drug abuse, ill mental health and wellbeing, lack of parental skills, low self concept and self esteem, and prior history being a victim of abuse. Precursors for the child and raising their vulnerability to abuse include the healthiness of the child, developmental impairment, disability, and behavioural conditions. Younger children are more susceptible to abuse and neglect than older children. Older children are more susceptible to physical abuse than their pre-adolescent counterparts (Grace, Hodge, McMahon). 

       Child abuse and neglect are categorized under 4 banners, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, physical abuse and neglect. Emotional Abuse leads as the form of abuse most apparent in Australia with 45%. A breakdown of what constitutes each form of abuse is as follows:

Emotional Abuse- Is framed as any act by a person responsible for the child's care, that causes the child considerable emotional or traumatic deprivation.

Sexual Abuse- Is any act by a person responsible for the child's care, that exposes or involves the child in acts of a sexual nature that are unacceptable to community standards, and is not understood by the child.

Physical Abuse- Is any physical act directed towards a child of a deliberate nature by any person responsible for the child's care.

Neglect- Is any act deemed of a serious nature that goes outside of cultural and traditional boundaries, and constitutes a loss of physical and psychological health and development.

The community's expectation of government is to protect children, and with that comes real responsibility to act, and to critically respond in times of crisis. Australian society is super vigilant at demanding higher levels of child protection, and is scathing of child protective services when a child falls through the cracks and dies from an abusive or neglectful act. The media will often report on deaths of children from abuse or neglect in an effort to highlight and raise the profile. This increased televised focus to the plight of the abused or neglected, often produces a period of increased reporting (Grace, Hodge, McMahon).

Mandatory reporting is another element that has led to more frequent reporting now than in the past. Division 2: Mandatory reporting by particular person section 13E-J of the Child Protection Act 1999 states: The people, professions and service industries that are bound to the laws of reporting any suspicious behaviour linked to child abuse or neglect must do so to the relevant authorities. It also provides guidelines for: who to converse with the child, confidentiality matters, how to report and what a person's obligations are (Queensland Government, Queensland Legislation).

In conclusion it is clear that Australia is progressing forward in its responsibilities in Child Health, Safety and Protection.  A directed level of action is taking place in all states and territory but it is also clear that children continue to fall through the cracks (Protecting Children is Everyone's Business, 2009). Whilst mandatory reporting, and increased changes to how Government and Community services and institutions in the care of children comply and protect children's rights have been incorporated into law, continued research into this area needs to happen to reduce the numbers of reports being substantiated by child services. It is hoped that all 85 key recommendations included in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse see positive future changes occurring. Two of its recommendations include that all church clergy are held legally responsible for mandatory reporting even if reports are heard in confessionals, and that sentencing of the accused be accurate with community standards in current time, and not by the time that the offence occurred (Tran, 2017). If Australia continues in its strong stance and commitment to change, then changes will happen for the positive and future benefit of our most vulnerable.


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