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Stronger communities the key to keeping children safe

The sexual abuse allegations against a number of people from Roebourne illustrate a simple truth – children and young people will always be at risk when they are not actively supported to speak up if they are scared or concerned about their safety.

Most WA children and young people have supportive networks of parents, other family members and adults in the community who they trust and know they can speak to when they have concerns.

While we must remain vigilant and ensure all our organisations establish strong child-safe processes, thankfully most children and young people are very safe and well supported.

Of course, there are other WA children and young people who do not have these support networks, and as a result they are extremely vulnerable.

The scale of the sexual abuse allegedly committed against Roebourne children shocks me and raises a number of issues.

Considering the State government review of services being provided to Roebourne found there were over 60 different government and non-government agencies in this town, it is very concerning to me that this alleged abuse was not detected earlier.

How was it that no child reached out about their concerns to the multitude of professionals working with these 60 agencies, or if they did, why was nothing done sooner?

The fact is that the children and young people allegedly subject to this horrible abuse were able to reach out and have their voices heard as soon as the appropriate resources and systems were put in place for them to do so.

Despite the current focus on institutional abuse of children, the reality is that much abuse against children occurs in private homes or is perpetrated by family members or adults known to them.

Improving the safety of vulnerable children and young people requires a complete and unyielding focus on establishing a commitment and culture of safety among service providers, families and community members themselves, just as many institutions have now realised is necessary.

From my perspective it is unfortunate that debate following the situation in Roebourne has been distracted from the real issues at hand.

Firstly, all WA children and young people must know who they can confidently approach when they are scared or worried about their safety. This requires government and non-government service providers already working in these communities to share information and take action. Often, the complete picture is not known until all agencies discuss what they know and what has been disclosed to each.

Secondly, strong community leaders must be supported to lead change. Issues will remain in Roebourne and other communities until a community-led response commences, but the response is unlikely to emerge without external support.

There are models which show us how this can occur. Since the mid-90s, June Oscar and other women in Fitzroy Crossing have fought to protect children and young people from the effects of alcohol abuse and the breakdown of cultural supports.

They faced great adversity and criticism from many but by maintaining their absolute focus on the health and welfare of Fitzroy Crossing children and young people, great advances have been made in this community, while acknowledging much is still to be achieved.

Thirdly, families need to be better supported to help children prosper. Current machinery of government reforms must find better ways of working with individual families to resolve the complex issues they are experiencing.

Finally, we must stop considering each of the outcomes of disadvantage experienced by children and young people separately, particularly for Aboriginal children and young people, as this is stalling meaningful change.

The current Inquiry being conducted into Kimberley suicides, the issues around Banksia Hill, the over-representation of Aboriginal young people in youth justice, the increasing numbers of children in child protection, and the historical sexual abuse of children in Roebourne and other places all have as their genesis very similar issues – intergenerational trauma, disadvantage and family dysfunction.

Children and young people have told me the same thing in consultations my office has coordinated – the underlying issues are consistent and we know what they are.

To stop this terrible abuse from occurring again change must emerge from the communities themselves.

There are people in every community who can drive this change, and it is vital that we start providing the supports that enable these people to emulate the work of June Oscar and other strong community leaders.

Colin Pettit

Commissioner for Children and Young People WA