Protecting the vulnerable

In 1994 the federal government amended the Crimes Act so Australia could prosecute ‘sex
tourists’ when they came home from pleasure trips to developing nations where they had happily rented or raped the children of the poor. This law has not been much used: just 16 formal investigations and 12 convictions. A government spokesman reported in The Age on 15 September said this was OK because the law was meant to encourage prosecutions in the country where the offences occurred. That, of course, is bulldust.

We prosecute Australian paedophiles because we have more skills and resources. Australian police have supposedly better specialist skills at interviewing child victims. Poor people in Thailand or Cambodia or East Timor tend not to trust people in uniform, or what children say. Australian courts, prosecutors and lawyers are allegedly better at ‘hearing’ child witnesses.

Yet after 20 years of special laws, witness and courtroom processes and education and media revelations about serial, systemic sex abuse by adults with authority over children, the rate of successful prosecutions is actually dropping.

The best way to protect children from sexual exploitation is to prevent it. Since you can’t pick a paedophile—their success depends on being ‘nice’ to children (and their folks)—then raising and encouraging children not to be victims is the only other choice. If children can solve problems, if they have access to people they trust, and if they have the confidence to tell secrets because they have experienced being taken seriously, they can use that little bit of power they have: to say no, and tell someone.

Nineteen years ago I learned about a simple new program designed to give children these skills. The Protective Behaviours program is based on a couple of solid principles: letting children know they have a right to feel safe, and that nothing is so awful that they can’t tell someone about it. It teaches basic skills: how to recognise the physical signs of fear and danger, and how to act on them, through their personal networks of safe adults to go to.

Professor Freda Briggs has been saying for a very long time that this is not enough and reiterated this view at the National Protective Behaviours conference in WA in October 2003. The evidence tells us some unpalatable truths, said this former London police officer/social worker/teacher who is now the underappreciated grande dame of child protection based in South Australia. According to her work with imprisoned paedophiles, we are neither preventing paedophiles from operating, nor ‘proofing’ children against them.

‘Protective’ programs devised in the 1970s have not worked—I am summarising Professor Briggs—because their creators made several fundamental mistakes, in ‘teaching’ what children needed to know without checking what they could understand. The programs were either too vague (because adults don’t like ‘sex’ or the human body mentioned) or too scary (Rape! Sodomy! Pain!). It was also wrongly assumed that adult rape and child sexual assault victims have the same kinds of experience. They don’t. Rape involves violence and fear, but child sexual abuse may be cultivated over time out of natural sexual curiosity, patient ‘grooming’, meeting children’s needs for affection/approval/love and attachment, creating dependence and exploiting adult authority.

We know this, just as we know that it is not true that girls are the only victims and men are the only abusers. The evidence shows that one in four or five male (self-reported) victims becomes an abuser. Most first sexual experiences are assumed to be ‘good’. Of 198 male victims and imprisoned sex offenders in Australian jails interviewed by Briggs, 78.5 per cent of males who had been victims thought the abuse was ‘normal’ and 43 per cent liked receiving oral sex and genital stimulation. When abuse became painful and violent, they found they were trapped by threats, secrecy and the instilled belief that they were ‘gay’.

To be effective, Protective Behaviours depends on children identifying and reporting unsafe feelings. Very young children don’t understand what ‘safe’ or unsafe means. Their concepts of safety are acquired from authoritative adults. Briggs’ investigations have shown that South Australian paedophiles now use the program to their own advantage, assuring victims that they are safe, twisting both protective and sex education concepts to advance their plans.

We cannot ‘teach’ protective behaviours to children unless we teach them problem-solving skills, not just obedience. We cannot expect children to identify  sex offences if we do not tell them, simply and clearly, what constitutes reportable behaviour. Children need parents who understand that ‘protection’ means skills and self-confidence; parents who don’t insist that ‘family’ secrets are sacred; who don’t teach that being ‘good’ means doing what adults tell you; and who, when kids try out assertiveness and say ‘no’ at the wrong time (i.e. bedtime) don’t hit them.

Children know that adults can’t handle their ‘dirty’ talk or ‘rude’ behaviour. Children know that’s naughty, that ‘naughty’ means it’s their fault, that they will be punished, not loved, and feel guilty.

We need to do something nationally, consistently, about ‘protective behaviours’ education for parents. We need to do some basic education about child development too, and particularly with lawyers. A 19-year-old textbook on evidence, from which most lawyers learned, said this:

… children sometimes behave in a way evil beyond their years. They may consent to sexual offences against themselves and then deny consent. They may completely invent sexual offences.

Some children know that the adult world regards such matters in a serious and peculiar way, and they enjoy investigating this mystery or revenging themselves by making false accusations.

If even in enlightened Australia the law considered that children can ‘consent’ to acts that are serious crimes, yet not speak and be believed, what chance do the children of our struggling neighbours have?

Nothing less than a major rethink of the time, care and respect we give to all of our children will bring forth something better. Unless children know from experience that adults will listen to them and take them seriously, they will stay silent. We need competent children able to protect themselves from this blight on their lives today, and our future.     

Moira Rayner is a barrister and Senior Fellow at the Law School, University of WA.



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