Reducing harm for future generations – part 2

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 2 of 3. You can read part 1 here.

Child abuse has long been a hidden issue which has affected our ability to respond.

For my generation of New Zealanders, family violence and child abuse were considered distant phenomena unless they were experienced personally. Consequently, those in the midst of abuse would have had few, if any, recognised places to go to either report abuse or seek help.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Australian Royal Commission) found that children who had been abused took, on average, 22 years to come forward and report it. Perpetrators remain able to become serial offenders when we are insufficiently aware of the scope that delayed reporting brings for accumulating harm.

The Australian evidence suggests that many took what was happening as their lot. This explains perhaps the long lag between abuse and reporting, and why increased awareness has affected the willingness to talk about things long past: there was no earlier opportunity. The Australian Royal Commission found a range of reasons why girls delayed reporting, which were different for boys, and both boys and girls were strongly represented.

Understanding the reasons why people might delay reporting enables policy to be developed to facilitate trustworthy means of safe reporting, and the Australian Royal Commission has a strong policy focus for this. A 2012 study of secondary students in New Zealand found that of the boys and girls who reported that they had experienced sexual abuse in the previous 12 months, 71 per cent of the boys and 53 per cent of the girls had not told anyone.

We need better knowledge of how to provide whatever rehabilitation would help those who have been abused. We also need to find ways of seeing if there are signs of change in the level of child abuse or the nature of its impact. For example, we appear to be beginning to see higher rates of violent behaviour among women who experienced child abuse than we have experienced before.

It is likely that the implications of our still limited knowledge about the likely prevalence among men and women of sexual abuse as children constrains what we do to facilitate its reporting and, most importantly, the obligations on those who are made aware and who can do something about it.

If we are to address this issue successfully we need to learn from past experience.

In situations where we have very poor information regularly available, unexpected events provide us with very rich knowledge that we might never otherwise obtain. Learning from the past abuse of children in state run and other institutions is one such opportunity. Because sexual abuse continues to be a serious issue in New Zealand, then those who experience it now should expect to have better ways of telling people closer to the time of incidents, and the wider community should have a greater understanding and be willing to respond when they are able to help.

With a deeper understanding of the full impact of child abuse on the lives of children, we should be better equipped to handle the issues that are difficult to resolve. We need to move beyond having ad hoc pragmatic solutions.

These difficult issues include:

  • determining when a child’s parents are not fit to bring them up, and deciding what are the alternative caring arrangements that should be put in place
  • when the state takes the place of parents in full or in part, determining the accountability arrangements that are necessary to protect the children in such care from potential forms of abuse
  • determining the appropriate balance between the rights of paedophiles who have served a sentence properly and have rights with obligations to return to their community, and the rights of the young to live and play freely in their community without risk of molestation
  • determining the obligations that the state has taken on when it places children (including asylum seekers and refugees) in any sort of state custody, and how it can be held to account for fulfilling those obligations
  • understanding the opportunity cost of leaving harms untreated when the means to remedy or mitigate them exist
  • learning quickly about emerging forms of predator behaviour, and those most likely to be influenced by it.

In part 3 Len looks at understanding perpetrator behaviour and what Australia’s Royal Commission can teach us.

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