8. Child Protection
Very little appears to have been reported around the impact or progress to date on funding to recruit additional child protection staff and programs designed to reduce the incidence and prevalence of child sexual abuse. The Review Panel will therefore need to determine the impact of these investments on addressing child sexual abuse. The Review Panel also needs to assess the progress in reducing other forms of child abuse (neglect, physical and emotional abuse), including the impacts of other programs that impact on child safety, such as those supporting families with children at risk or parents with AOD and/or mental health problems.
Some issues warrant particular comment in terms of their impacts on the effectiveness of child protection measures associated with the NTER.
Firstly, it must be noted that despite the dire warnings of the high prevalence of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities that preceded and accompanied the announcement of the NTER, little evidence of actual child sexual abuse has been uncovered. As mentioned earlier in this submission, the CHCs are not designed to identify child sexual abuse. However, other measures, such as an increased police presence, have also not uncovered significant evidence, suggesting that the problem may not be as widespread as thought.
Secondly, it is evident that those planning the NTER did not have a clear understanding of the context of sexual activity amongst young people in Aboriginal communities, particularly the high levels of consensual sexual behaviour.33 Adolescent to adolescent sexual behaviour is also an increasing issue in non-Indigenous communities, where it is reported that up to a third of young people are having their first sexual experience before the age of 16. Although warranting response from communities and governments, it needs to be clearly distinguished from sexual abuse and responded to accordingly. The LCAS report recommended
"...that education is a starting point. Communities also need to be supported to be able to establish and enforce norms relating to sexual behaviour." 34
It is clear that the approach recommended in the LCAS Report has not been adopted by the NTER.
Thirdly, it needs to be noted that in justifying its emergency response, the Australian Government along with many commentators, encouraged a public perception that all Aboriginal men were abusing their children or other young people. AMSANT's member services have reported that Aboriginal men are feeling shamed in public because they feel regarded as child abusers. As mentioned above, this is not simply a matter of righting misinformed and hurtful attitudes – it goes to the heart of reversing the erosion of the self-esteem and authority of Aboriginal men that is one of the factors hindering the emergence of community-led solutions to the issues surrounding child sexual abuse and neglect. It is also a health issue for Aboriginal men as research has established a link between racism and poor health.35
Other forms of substantiated child protection notifications (neglect, physical and emotional abuse) are all more common than substantiated notifications of sexual abuse in the NT.36 There is good evidence to indicate that preventative and early intervention approaches in PHC can reduce child abuse.37 AMSANT recently conducted a survey of our members on gaps in core services. Nearly all our members identified services to families of vulnerable children as a key gap in service delivery. Phase 2 did not address these needs; and very few children were referred to social workers or other forms of social support. There needs to be attention to both the social and physical needs of children, families and communities if sustainable improvements in health are to occur. This should include development of family support services in PHC.
A further child protection-related concern expressed to AMSANT is the failure of the child protection system in the NT to increase capacity, especially in remote areas, and the lack of engagement of the child protection system with PHC practitioners when working with abused or at-risk children. The lack of communication and collaboration between child protection authorities and PHC was noted as requiring attention at both a policy and service level in the Little Children are Sacred Report. However, AMSANT is not aware of any increased collaboration between FACS and PHC practitioners.
AMSANT also expresses concern about the failure of the NT and Australian Governments to support the establishment of an agency to assist with the placement of Aboriginal children based on the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle. This is an ongoing concern that has been heightened due to the focus that the NTER has brought on the prospect of the increased removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
The Little Children are Sacred Report identified a need for orientation and training of PHC clinicians in recognising and managing sexual abuse. They found that many clinicians had not received formal training and were ambivalent about the benefits of notifications for children and families in some cases. The Report also identified the need for ongoing training, including incorporation of training into induction/orientation procedures. AMSANT supports this recommendation and believes the training should be broadened to include all forms of abuse. Services also need support to incorporate child abuse training into orientation and induction procedures. Support for training needs to be ongoing given the high staff turnover in remote services.
Finally, it is relevant here to note the general slowness in uptake of the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report, particularly those dealing with child protection.
These recommendations remain central to the specific aims of the NTER, yet very few have been acted on to date.
AMSANT urges the Review Panel to recommend that the Australian Government:
- In light of the speculative and damaging generalisations used to justify the NTER, seeks to establish and clarify the prevalence and context of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities;
- Adjusts its responses to include appropriate evidence-based measures to address the issue of consensual sexual behaviour between adolescents;
- Fosters a balanced view of the roles and responsibilities of Aboriginal men;
- Strengthens the capacity of PHC to offer family support services to all families with a particular focus on families of vulnerable children;
- Improves the social determinants which are related to high rates of abuse including poverty, alcohol and other drug abuse, poor education and unemployment;
- Addresses the issue of the appropriate placement of Aboriginal children removed from their families through supporting the establishment of an Aboriginal Child Placement Authority; and,
- Acts on the recommendations of the Little Children are Sacred report in relation to child protection needs. [See Recommendation 11]
33. This appears to be despite the issue being raised in the LCAS report, eg pp 65-68.
34. LCAS Report, p67.
35. Yin Paradies, Ricci Harris & Ian Anderson (2008), The Impact of Racism on Indigenous Health in Australian and Aotearoa: Towards a Research Agenda, Discussion Paper Series No 4, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health.
36. AIHW (2008): Child Protection 2006-2007. Accessed at http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/cws/cpa06-07/cpa06-07-20080229.pdf
37. Prue J. Holzer, Jenny R. Higgins, Leah M. Bromfield, Nick Richardson and Daryl J. Higgins (2006), ‘The effectiveness of parent education and home visiting child maltreatment prevention programs', in Child Abuse Prevention Issues, No 24 Autumn 2006.