Dealing With Sexual Abuse — Foreword by Professor Leah Bromfield

I don’t know, I really don’t know what to do. If I go to the police, it means that I’m very brave. But I don’t know if I can do it without resisting the urge to kill myself.

Front Cover of the book "Dealing With Sexual Abuse: A Young Australian's Insights"A teenager’s diaries reveal the depths of despair and horror she faced while being abused by a trusted family member – her own father. This is Hannah’s story, but sadly, the trauma and devastation she describes is all too common. An estimated 1 in 4 Australian children will experience abuse or neglect during their childhood.1 It is one of the most hidden, but significant challenges facing contemporary Australia.

The public conversation in recent years has seen increased acknowledgment of the significant amount of abuse which has occurred in Australian institutions. Also uncovered has been the often poor responses by professionals to abuse suspicions or disclosures, including counsellors, Police, child protection, teachers, judges, doctors and nurses. Monumental failures that have perpetuated rather than stopped harm and added to the trauma experienced by victims. We saw this play out in Hannah’s story, when, due to inadequate support following her initial disclosure and a lacklustre response from child protection authorities, she recanted her initial disclosure and refused to cooperate with authorities for several years. It is a tragic but unfortunately very common trajectory in such cases.

Sadly, while we focused our efforts on exposing the abuse and cover-ups within institutions, child protection agencies around the country have continued to be inundated with cases of children being neglected and abused where they should feel safest – in their own homes. Analysis of contemporary Police data show less than 5% of alleged incidents of child sexual abuse were in an institutional location.2 For the majority of children abused and neglected, the place they are least safe is in their homes. And for those children who experience abuse or neglect at home, their torment is endless. There is no break, and often for these kids, no sense of hope.

As we have learned through the many public testimonies of abuse survivors over recent years,3 the impacts of abuse and neglect are frequently profound and pervasive affecting survivors’ health, happiness, relationships and opportunities. Impacts that for many last a lifetime. As one abuse survivor shared with the Royal Commission: “As a victim, I can tell you the memories, sense of guilt, shame and anger live with you every day. It destroys your faith in people, your will to achieve, to love, and one’s ability to cope with normal everyday living. It has [been] and is an enormous struggle to stay on top of life.4

Children who are abused in their family are particularly at risk of experiencing chronic abuse, where the experience of abuse and the fear for when will be the next time are an enduring feature of their childhood. We see in Hannah’s story – due to the perpetrator’s ongoing and unquestioned access to the victim – the abuse went on for years. Research tells us that the longer abuse goes on, the greater the accumulation of adverse impacts and the harder it becomes for survivors to beat the odds, to recover and to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

Survivors also tell us that compounding the hurt from the abuse and neglect is the harm caused when other adults around them turn their backs, close their eyes, or deny the abuse occurred. Reading Hannah’s experiences of attempted disclosures, and the sense of crushing worthlessness she felt when the people around her ‘failed’ to recognise her calls for help, is eye opening and something we can all learn from. It is vital that as a community we do better to prevent children from being abused, and to intervene as early as possible to protect those we suspect are being harmed.

The disclosure of abuse or neglect is an incredibly difficult journey for a child. Often, it takes some time for the child to realise that the abuse is not normal.5 This is particularly the case when the abuser is a parent – the very people who teach children right from wrong and have unquestioned authority over all aspects of children’s lives. For a child to disclose, they have to find the words to describe something they may barely comprehend, something that they’ve been taught to be ashamed of and to hide at all costs – the barriers are immense.6 To speak up against a parent is an even more impossible task. Many abuse victims will never find the words during their childhood. Researchers report disclosures occurring 20-years after the period of abuse.7

The moment in which a child finds the words and the courage to tell their story and to ask for help is bittersweet. On the one hand, the courage of survivors who tell their story must be recognised for the achievement it is. In Hannah’s story, I recall vividly the hope I felt when she makes a trustworthy connection at Kids Helpline. On the other hand was the disappointment that, despite how far we’ve come in raising awareness of abuse and neglect, it was – again – a child victim and not one of the many adults within her life who ultimately took that life changing action.

We must continue to do better at recognising and responding to child victims. I am in awe of every survivor who comes forward be they 9 or 90, particularly in light of the vilification and scapegoating so many survivors experience following disclosure. In particular, for people disclosing abuse which has occurred within their own family, the effect can be like a bomb detonating. Families are often torn apart, special occasions and memories forever tarnished, sides taken, hearts shattered. It is not hard to understand why many abuse victims do not ever feel safe enough to disclose.

For this reason, it’s crucial when we suspect abuse or neglect that we don’t wait for children to find the right words. While children often struggle to say what is happening to them, they tell us in a multitude of other ways that they need help – through their behaviour, their physical presentation, their unexplained absences, injuries and infections.8 Despite their fears, children are inwardly screaming out for a caring adult to pick up on these signs. In her diaries, Hannah writes of her disappointment in a trusted teacher who fails to take action despite being aware of obvious signs of the abuse. When action is finally taken, Hannah’s relief is clear, as she writes: “Even though having it reported is so scary and I have no idea what’s going to happen, at least I know that Mrs Stanley does care about me.

As a community we are failing when we leave the protection of children to children. The responsibility belongs with adults to really see children and to be willing to ask them, are they okay? To be the ones to find the words, to let children know what we’ve noticed. We need to give children the message that we want to hear and stand by them, no matter what. As one young person who had been removed from their family due to abuse and neglect told researchers, “I think that even though adults are scared to talk about this stuff [with children] because it is uncomfortable, it has to be done if things are going to change.9 Disappointingly, when over 1000 Australian children in schools, sports and recreation clubs around Australia were asked about their safety most children did not believe that adults knew them well enough to identify when things weren’t OK.10 Of children assessing their schools for child safety characteristics, only 43% identified they had at least one adult in their school who they trusted some or all of the time. Many said they would be more likely to turn to a friend rather than an adult if they felt unsafe.

I thank Hannah for the courage, determination and generosity she has shown in sharing her story in order to help others. I hope reading this book challenges you to do more. Her childhood diaries offer a rare point of view of a child experiencing abuse and how she perceived the action – and inaction – of the adults around her. It is gut wrenching at times but this story needs to be told because there are countless other Hannahs out there who desperately need help. We must face this problem together. As you read this book, ask yourself, “Am I doing everything I can to be someone who sees, hears and stands for children?

Professor Leah Bromfield
Australian Centre for Child Protection
University of South Australia

 

1 Octoman, O., Arney, F. (2018). Identifying factors associated with families with repeat involvement with child protection; Lynch, J. BetterStart Child Health and Development Research Group, University of Adelaide.
2 Bromfield, L., Hirte, C., Octoman, O., Katz, I. (2017). Child Sexual Abuse in Australian Institutional Contexts: Findings from Administrative data. Sydney: Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.
3 Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (2017). Final Report. Sydney.
4 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (2017, p 23). Final Report Volume 3: Impacts. Sydney.
5 Allnock, D., & Miller, P. (2013). No one noticed, no one heard: A study of disclosures of childhood abuse. London: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
6 Esposito, C. (2015). Child sexual abuse and disclosure: What does the research tell us?. Sydney: NSW Government Department of Family and Community Services.
7 Esposito, C. (2015). Child sexual abuse and disclosure: What does the research tell us?. Sydney: NSW Government Department of Family and Community Services.; Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (2017). Final Report Volume 3: Impacts. Sydney.
8 Allnock, D., & Miller, P. (2013). No one noticed, no one heard: A study of disclosures of childhood abuse. London: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
9 Moore, T., McArthur, M., Roche, S., Death, J., & Tilbury, C. (2016). Safe and sound: Exploring the safety of young people in residential care. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney.
10 Moore, T., McArthur, M., Heerde, J., Roche, S., & O’Leary, P. (2016). Our safety counts: Children and young people’s perceptions of safety and institutional responses to their safety concerns, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney.