Reducing harm for future generations – part 3

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 the third and final part in this series. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

In the absence of comparable information from New Zealanders, there is no doubt that the evidence, findings and reflections uncovered by the Australian Royal Commission should have a profound effect on thinking about child abuse here.

Its findings will be of much relevance, and it would be a tragedy if its findings were discounted here. I think we would be better prepared for this if we were able to distil the knowledge of those victimized in New Zealand, and believe that the value of this information to inform policies to protect New Zealand’s children now and in the future should not be underestimated when considering the issues of redress for past victims. The Final Report of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service reported on the impact of simply keeping children ignorant of their reason for being in care, and the consequences of not caring about their transition to normal adulthood on reaching age 17. Not learning from history condemns us to repeat it.

The Australian Royal Commission has already developed policy proposals for Australia that are relevant to the care and protection of Australian children today. These proposals might not have been as well designed, if done at all, had the Australian Royal Commission not taken place. If we do not obtain information from those affected in New Zealand, then we certainly must not ignore the relevance of the Australian evidence, given the similarity of our societies.

Offsetting the greater awareness of child abuse and the strengthened systems for child protection that we now have, one of the Australian studies1 triggered by the Australian Royal Commission noted that “a number of developments have potentially increased the risk to children, including:

  1. higher levels of family breakdown
  2. increased access to the internet, which contains easily sourced sexual material and provides a forum for online grooming, sexting and other forms of abuse
  3. sexualisation of children in advertising
  4. violence in the media and in computer games.”

Perpetrator behaviour needs to be better understood because we need to detect abusers earlier. An average reporting lag of 22 years leaves much undetected time and more damage to children that might otherwise have been prevented. Despite a spate of recent court cases, we could have reduced the propensity for perpetrator behaviour to go unnoticed in institutional settings, schools, sporting clubs and religious bodies. We know little about what drives people to bring about such horror to the lives of children. Their predatory behaviour may well appear in other guises, and clearly social media is one of these.

I hope that my reflections on the issue might provide you with a valuable perspective on an issue which I have no doubt will continue to be of deep concern and which defies easy resolution.

  1. Scoping study for research into the prevalence of child abuse in Australia – Prepared for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, September 2016

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