Reducing harm for future generations – part 1

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released its report. Here, Families Commissioner Len Cook explains what we could learn from a similar inquiry. This is part 1 of 3.

Child abuse is a significant issue in New Zealand with long-term impacts.

I leave it to others to judge how far an independent inquiry into the issue of the known past institutional abuse of children will provide redress for those affected. I wish to explain why we need to recognise more strongly the value of the information we could glean from understanding the past experience of those harmed by abuse as children. Such information would increase the opportunities we could have to reduce harms that future generations seem most likely to face otherwise.

We have no substantive evidence about how the incidence of child abuse has changed over the past 50 years, but there are indications of a rise in the propensity to report, which may or may not come with increased levels. Indeed, we would be most unwise to assume that a rise in reporting rates explain all of the increase we see.

New Zealand children’s mortality rates from intentional injury almost doubled over the 1980s, and have improved little since then1. We know that an international survey found that one in four New Zealand girls is sexually abused before the age of 15, the highest rate of any country examined. In the Final Report of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, it is stated: “As many boys as girls were sexually abused. About 57 per cent of the men we saw had been sexually abused and 57 per cent of the women.” Suicide rates among the young in New Zealand are not seen elsewhere.

We have discovered quite belatedly that there have been many more times in the past when people experienced sexual abuse, and that abuse occurred repeatedly in institutional settings as well as schools, sporting clubs, religious and community institutions. We know that a significant share of child abuse occurs in families and whānau.

The experiences of the people involved who are willing to talk even now about what happened in the past can provide knowledge that is otherwise very difficult to obtain, as will the experiences of people now. That such a large share of children who were placed away from their families in government-run institutions were Maori has had a disproportionate impact on the amount of child sexual abuse experienced in the past by several generations of Maori.

Child abuse has significant long-term impacts. The Christchurch longitudinal study has been a critical source of New Zealand knowledge about the link between childhood sexual and physical abuse and adult mental health. It found sexual abuse was associated with increased risk of mental health problems in adulthood, although the link between mental health problems and abuse was less clear and consistent for childhood physical abuse.2

  1. Craig & et al, 2011, p. 59; 2012, p. 56
  2. Fergusson, Boden, & Horwood, 2008

In part 2, Len looks at some of the findings of Australia’s Royal Commission and what we could potentially learn from a similar inquiry.

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