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Opinion piece in The West Australian - Child abuse focus misguided

I am totally disheartened by the recent calls for a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.   Child abuse is a very serious crime, and it has devastating impact – not just on children, but their families and communities. 

Child sexual abuse is not constrained to social status, cultural background, or social and economic indicators:  it happens to many children nationally and internationally every year.  To continue to raise this as an Aboriginal issue is not only making statements without fact, but also potentially leaving non-Aboriginal children at risk.

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study, released in April this year, revealed the majority of Australians (62%) have experienced at least one type of child abuse or neglect, with domestic violence, physical, emotional or sexual abuse the most common.  This was not a study of Aboriginal people.

In Australia, there have been more than twenty reports into child protection since 1997 – and yet, we still continue to revert to an inquiry process rather than taking significant action. 

The Federal Government, in 2007, commenced the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the intervention) in response to the “Little Children are Sacred Report”, which outlined then current allegations of widespread child abuse and family violence. 

Several research bodies attempted to evaluate the Intervention – however, it was discovered that impartial data was difficult to locate and there was complex and conflicting information. The intervention allocated $587 million of action including introducing new legislation; alcohol restrictions; education, employment and health, changes to welfare payments, restrictions on pornography and other messages.

However, Monash University found the intervention quicky shifted focus from protecting children from sexual abuse to economic and infrastructure development.  Perhaps this was due the fact that, four months after the intervention commenced, it was revealed that no sexual abuse referrals had been made from any of the five involved communities. In addition, no computers had been audited for pornography.  Six months in, it was a similar story with no new charges laid in connection with sexual abuse.

Twelve months after the commencement of the intervention it was found that referrals to child protection authorities were no different from any other year and the convictions for child sex abuse were only slightly higher than before the intervention. Two years later, it was found that convictions of child sexual abuse involving Aboriginal perpetrators had “barely changed”.

Disturbingly, Creative Spirits documented that that, after five years of the intervention, the rate of Aboriginal girls’ suicide increased significantly (40% of all Aboriginal suicides of children under 17 years) from 1980 when it was zero, and prior to the intervention it was significantly lower. 

Even more concerning perhaps was the level of hurt and distress; people feeling “no hope”, and poverty.

Rather than continuing to put forward the view that Aboriginal children are suffering extreme sexual abuse, perhaps those involved in this discussion could focus on reporting their allegations to the correct authorities.  It is not the role of the reporter to have the evidence, rather it is their responsibility to report their information so it can be investigated by those with the necessary expertise to do so.  If they have information regarding a child suffering abuse, it is their responsibility (and in most jurisdictions, legal responsibility) to report it rather than make news headlines.

Perhaps, instead of spending significant funds on a Royal Commission, those funds would be put to better use in providing the necessary funding and resourcing for the Safe and Supported:  the National Framework for Protection Australia’s Children 2021-2031.  The Framework has cross-jurisdictional support and the associated Action Plans which outline the actions and outcomes needed for lasting progress in reducing child abuse and neglect.  This includes standing up a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioner with the legislated power to investigate and make recommendations on issues impacting Aboriginal children, while also protecting their human rights.

Imagine the potential outcomes if the $587 million spent in 2007 had been directly allocated to child protection services and the non-Government and Aboriginal Community Controlled sectors, to undertake direct work with children and families

A focus on action rather than another review is required – for all Australia’s vulnerable children. 


Jacqueline McGowan-Jones is the Commissioner for Children and Young People WA.