Child Abuse in Australia: A Community Responsibility
Australia. The lucky country, right? That is unless you’re one of the 174,000 children who needed child protection services last year.
In 2019–20, one in every 32 Australian children aged 0-17 required some form of intervention for abuse or neglect. Regardless of race, age, ethnicity, or economic status, child abuse doesn’t discriminate.
Many individuals think of child neglect and abuse as happening in some other family, somewhere far away. But, in reality, some form of neglect or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse occurs to a child in every neighbourhood, in every community across the country.
It is a confronting truth that in an affluent and developed country such as Australia, some children are not afforded the basic rights of a safe, caring and supportive environment.
The deeply embedded societal attitudes about children in both institutions and the wider community plays a pivotal role in the prevalence of child abuse in Australia. Although an uncomfortable topic for many adults to broach, Valuing Children Initiative (VCI) Development Executive, Maddie McLeod, said it is something that needs to be spoken about more openly.
“Talking about child abuse and neglect isn’t easy because it’s a topic that is inherently upsetting,” Ms McLeod said. “However, it’s crucial that we do talk about it because too many people are unaware of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect in our society; we must raise awareness to keep kids safe.”
“Most people don’t know that 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 9 boys have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15, but that is the reality in Australia. If we are to reduce these alarming numbers, we need more people to understand that most children are abused by people they know and trust; we need people to recognise signs of abuse in children and to teach protective behaviours from infancy.”
While some children who report abuse are supported, many children who speak up are often no match for the deeply embedded culture of protecting institutions and adults over believing the word of a child.
Mental health advocate, Ming Johanson, endured 17 years of domestic violence and child abuse at the hands of her father. Ms Johanson recalls such a culture that she believes failed her as a child. “Kids that I grew up with who are now adults, who knew what was going on for me even when I didn’t know what was going on for me, went to the teachers of the school at the time and the teachers told them to mind their own business,” she said. “Even when other kids were going in and reporting … nothing was done. What do these kids learn, who are now adults? That nothing will be done. Best to just leave it alone.”
In 2016, VCI research into adult attitudes towards children revealed that 63 percent of respondents said a child’s word is less likely to be believed than that of an adult. “In the context of child protection this is a very concerning finding,” Ms McLeod said.
“There are many historical examples of children not being believed when they disclosed abuse and neglect and this is unacceptable.”
“I think organisations working with children today are more likely to believe children when they speak up and there are better policies and processes in place to protect children now. However, many children are still not believed when they speak up, or they don’t speak up at all because they fear they won’t be believed.”
Australia is a wealthy country with the capacity to ensure that all children have the support and opportunities they need to reach their full potential. However, children cannot develop coping skills and be emotionally healthy in abusive or neglectful environments.
“Child safety is a community responsibility, not just the responsibility of parents,” Ms McLeod said. “This means raising awareness by having public conversations about an uncomfortable topic, by listening to the voices of children and young people, by supporting families, by collaborating with others working to keep children safe, by developing and distributing free resources for children, parents and teachers related to child safety and by contributing to policy and research related to child safety and wellbeing.”
An attitudinal shift that sees more adults considering what they can do to keep not only their own children but all children safe, has the potential to help to prevent future child abuse and neglect.
Director of Centrecare and Co-Founder of the VCI Adjunct. Professor, Tony Pietropiccolo, concedes it is a long road but believes this attitudinal shift – combined with institutional change – will have long-lasting benefits in creating a culture where all children thrive. “Generally, people are understandably concerned for their own children. They believe that there are societal structures to keep the children of others safe,” he said. “However, the reality is that Australian children will only experience a safe and supportive community when we see the wellbeing of all children as our collective responsibility.”
“When we commit ourselves to creating a society where all children thrive, then children will not only be safer but able to maximise their potential. A society that values children is invariably a successful one.”
The Valuing Children Initiative is an organisation driven by a passion for children’s wellbeing. They work to ensure that all children in Australia experience the caring, safe, and supported childhood they deserve. To see how you can help, visit their website: valuingchildreninitiative.com.au
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Summer 2023