Don't turn away from dire child abuse stats



I woke up, abluted, dressed, slithered off to work, turned on my computer and went for a coffee while the cyberhamster warmed up. With caffeine in my veins and hope in my heart I surfed for news of the world and Oz, that fair, magical kingdom of the fair go and 'she'll be right' attitude.

Child on wet footpathI've spent 25 years reporting bits and pieces of human misery, yet with increasing mass and social media reportage of child abuse and general awareness of the issues involved, especially around family and domestic violence, I am likely to be optimistic about the possible social change when it comes to how we care for children in this country.

Yet it was depressing, that morning in April, to read the findings of the federal government's Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), which put its CFCA (Child Family Community Australia) researchers on to a project that 'summarises Australian studies that have estimated the prevalence of different forms of abuse and neglect'. The news was not good. It weighs on me still.

The paper looked at percentage rates of Australian kids who suffer physical abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment, exposure to family violence, and sexual abuse. The results are gleaned from numerous studies and governed by a truckload of necessary caveats. It cites five ways Australians are inflicting pain and indifference on children: physically, materially, emotionally, environmentally, and sexually.

In Australia, prevalence rate estimates of physical abuse of children, in the majority of studies, range from 5-10 per cent. But that's only the start of this pentagon of pain. How do we do when it comes to straight out neglect of our kids? (Failing to meet basic needs such as 'adequate food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene, medical attention, safe living conditions, education or emotional development'.)

Prevalence estimates for Australian children 'ranged from 1.6 per cent to 4 per cent'. The paper noted that the studies with the lowest estimates 'used a single item measure of neglect ("I was neglected") that could have led to a conservative estimate'. Further, while the studies were 'reasonably representative', their samples 'slightly under-represented those most at risk ... people with a low socio-economic status'.

As for emotional abuse, while 'more research is needed to comprehensively measure the prevalence of emotional maltreatment in Australia', we are looking at a 'prevalence rate for emotional maltreatment in Australia ... between 9 per cent and 14 per cent'.

Between 4 and 23 per cent of Australian children — a widely disparate estimate — 'are exposed to family violence ... Prevalence estimates were from self-reported exposure [and the] most likely source of variation in estimates is the number of questions used to measure the exposure to family violence.' In other words, we don't know how bad the instances of such exposure are.


"According to some definitions, up to 45 per cent of girls experience sexual harassment. That's staggering to accept, as a father and a husband. It speaks to the patriarchy that many social commentators deny exists."


And what of the sexual abuse of our children — the most reported on and examined type of abuse included in this study? According to some definitions, up to 45 per cent of girls experience sexual harassment in this country. That's staggering to accept, as a father and a husband. It speaks to the patriarchy that many social commentators still deny exists.

It is estimated that from 1.4-7.5 per cent of boys in Australia experience 'penetrative abuse', and that from 5.2-12 per cent of boys experience 'non-penetrative abuse'. Compare and contrast with what Australian girls are subjected to: 4-12 per cent of girls are estimated to suffer penetrative abuse, and 14-26.8 per cent — more than a quarter of girls — experience non-penetrative abuse.

The study notes that there is 'limited data currently available in Australia' on these areas (hence the ranges of percentages), and that 'measuring the extent of child maltreatment is not an easy undertaking [and] definitions of abuse and neglect differ from study to study ... There are also considerable practical and ethical difficulties involved in the measurement of maltreatment, which can influence prevalence estimates.' We do need to take care 'when interpreting and discussing study findings'.

That said, kids are being bashed, raped, starved, scorned and otherwise treated with no dignity or kindness. The study states it is not simply a case of one-off abuse for children. It notes that 'research has demonstrated that maltreatment sub-types seldom occur in isolation (e.g. sexual abuse is often accompanied by psychological maltreatment or physical abuse)'. What's more, it is unequivocal in stating that 'all five types of child maltreatment occur at significant levels in the Australian community'.

That is difficult reading. It makes me sick to write it. But the CFCA paper should, in a just society, serve as a catalyst for a national conversation. What can you or I do, in the face of abuse on such as suggested scale? Some of us are parents, educators, social workers, clerics, relatives, friends of children and their parents. All of us are citizens, neighbours, onlookers or passers-by. We can't afford to look the other way.


Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for The Salvation Army.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, child abuse



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Existing comments

Your article makes sombre and sobering reading, Barry. The levels of neglect and abuse (emotional, physical and sexual) of children are a national disgrace. And every socio-economic level of society is represented. Anyone who works with children, either paid or voluntary, can not look the other way. If neglect or abuse is revealed or suspected it must be reported. Children are the most vulnerable and dependent members of our society and their wordlessness allows neglect and abuse to continue, unless it is stopped by others. We have to do better.
Pam | 24 May 2017

Every time I read of a child neglected or bashed to death, I am wracked by grief. Not for the death - a happy release in many cases - but for the sad, loveless, desperate and lonely life that preceded it. I'm wracked by grief for about five minutes. This is useless, and has to change.
joan seymour | 25 May 2017

"... those most at risk ... people with a low socio-economic status'." This is where Australian adults could all do something to help. We could vote for polical parties that have policies designed to help create a more just society. The Coalition seem intent on widening the gap between rich and poor and Labor also leave a lot to be desired in this area.
Grant Allen | 25 May 2017

Sadly, Eureka Street is not read by as many people as it should be, so many excellent articles, such as this, never reach the people they should most reach. People are also suspicious of anything on child abuse coming out of a religious, or religious affiliated magazine, whether that is with the Society of Jesus; the Salvation Army for who you work; or any similar due to the association in many people's minds of churches with child abuse in all its forms. Sad really. I think Australian society is far less 'patriarchal' than it used to be. Many men who are violent in families would, I suspect, feel 'threatened' (one wonders why, but there may be real psychological issues here including family example) and be acting under the influence of alcohol or other substances. This in no way excuses their behaviour but merely points out that most child abuse (in all forms) occurs within the family. The real concern now is getting to the places where abuse occurs and changing things. How to do this is often debated. My own feeling is that there are simple, practical initiatives which have been proven to be effective. They need resources. Aye, there's the rub. Will governments provide them?
Edward Fido | 26 May 2017

Thank you Barry and ES for taking the covers off what hardly anyone wants to face-up to. Thank you, especially for asking ES readers to respond. I hope your article is published by other, broad-circulation media, so that a wide range of responses can be heard. A very close friend of mine reports all the forms of abuse you mention, from the ages of about 2 to about 12, when they became strong enough and fast enough to escape to safety. Intervention by next-door neighbours who threatened to report the abusive parents to the police, was, according to this friend, what actually saved their life. IF WE SEE SOMETHING WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING! Also, another close friend reports on a situation where a seemingly lovely wife and mother systematically sexually abused her male and female children and inducted them into satanic ritual. She was reported to church authorities who categorically refused to even consider the matter. You didn't mention spiritual abuse but it seems to be becoming prevalent and often involves incest and entanglement in cruel and profane rituals. I'm personally convinced that re-evangelisation of Australia - including most parishes - with New Testament values, is the sovereign solution.
Dr Marty Rice | 05 June 2017

Speaking of emotional abuse, there's an institution which weekly tells children that they are very bad, very sinful, which of course can lead to feelings of worthlessness and undermine their self-confidence. Mind you, few children now go to that institution. The words used are: "...I have greatly sinned...through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault". Yes, it's the words of the atrocious appalling Olde/New English Mass translation. Words dug up from the 16th century to "bring holy words back into the Mass". Holy words my foot! It was a clumsy mis-translation imposed on English-speaking Catholics by Roman Curia members who could barely speak English, just so that they could impose their will on us, with no thought as to the consequences. This is just one of the many reasons to have this "translation" scrapped. I notice in my local church that half of the congregation don't do those obsequious words and the accompanying breast-beating. (In a nearby parish the PP glares at people who don't do it). Father Gerry O'Collins was right on when he referred to it as an ugly Mass translation (Eureka Street 08 February 2017, Vol 27 No. 2).
Bruce Stafford | 08 June 2017

Bruce Stafford’s call for better liturgical language should be heard. Holy Mass deserves contemporary, lively, faith-evoking, beautiful language. Kevin Hart mentioned how he and Mark Coleridge (in Melbourne) used to do the translations from Latin, some years ago. But is there any reason why lay people shouldn’t contribute suggestions for the next edition of the Daily and Sunday missals; many poets and literate lovers of the Mass are ‘out here’. Also, I’ve been hoping for an archbishop or bishop or other top teaching functionary to answer Bruce’s criticisms of the general confession and ‘mea culpa’. A week has passed and no one seems to be bothered. My perspective then is that our universe is held in existence (barely above annihilation by the full quantum vacuum) so as to enable us rebellious humans to encounter God’s spiritual perfection in Christ Jesus. Sin is not only a central reality of Christian understanding but of cosmology, too. The tortured Christ on the crucifix expresses perfectly our iniquity and God’s perfectly loving response Bruce, the ‘mea culpa’ is a highly appropriate means of expressing the harsh truth about ourselves and hence our desperate need for what Jesus has done and is doing for us.
Dr Marty Rice | 14 June 2017


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