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Working Together to Protect Children and Young People From Sexual Harm

by PeakCare Qld on 19th November 2015

Home -> Articles -> 2015 -> November -> Working Together to Protect Children and Young People From Sexual Harm

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Child sexual assault is arguably one of the most complex and divisive issues in society. Bravehearts has made a firm commitment to ensure this issue is publicly acknowledged and that those with the power and capacity to make a difference are on board, willing and able to enact change to ensure that children and young people in Queensland and across our nation are heard, valued and supported when they speak out about such harm.

Child sexual assault includes:

  • Kissing, fondling, penetration, child prostitution, oral sex
  • Talking in a sexually explicit manner, making obscene phone calls or remarks to a child
  • Persistently intruding, showing pornographic films, magazines or photographs to a child, forcing a child to watch a sexual act and having a child pose in a sexual manner

The statistics alone with regard to child sexual abuse are sobering and force us to take pause and reflect on the need to work together to prevent such abuse. 1 in 5 children have been sexually harmed in some way before they turn 18. Of those:

  • 1 in 3 are young girls, and
  • I in 6 or 7 are young boys

With regard to those who do speak out and form the above statistics, Carol Ronken asserts that most of these children and young people are not involved in the child protection system. This is due to them having a protective parent in their lives.

Most consider these figures to be conservative, particularly when considering the sexual abuse of young boys. It is noted that for young boys it is incredibly difficult to speak out against a male who has perpetrated the abuse for fear of their sexuality being questioned. It can also be difficult to speak out against abuse perpetrated by females given perceptions that a societal attitude is held by their peers and others that they should be celebrating such behaviour. As such it is believed that the figures pertaining to boys being victims of sexual abuse are understated.

It is incredibly difficult to ascertain the true numbers of both genders who experience child sexual abuse. This difficulty is in the main due to the silence around child sexual abuse.

There are many reasons why children and young people stay silent about sexual abuse. Shame, silence and secrecy keep children and young people from speaking out about their abuse. According to Carol Ronken, children feel immense guilt about what has happened to them. In the most perverse of realities they often can’t say ‘no’ to the abuse they’re experiencing because the person abusing them is in a position of trust with power over them, yet they feel responsible for the abuse. Furthermore, offenders make threats to scare them about their own safety and well-being and the safety of their loved ones. Such manipulations are terrifying for children and young people. As such it often takes vast amounts of time for children and young people to speak out about their horrific experiences.

When children do speak out they rarely make clear and direct disclosures. Carol states:

“More often than not it is an ongoing process. They are more likely to attempt to alert adults they trust through their behaviour or by making seemingly ambiguous statements, perhaps by just saying that they don’t like spending time with a certain person or asking you if you like that person. Our responses as adults in children’s lives is so crucial, that first response can be a defining moment. The most important things we can do as adults is listen and not ask direct questions - which can have the unintended outcome of frightening a child or impacting on a future criminal matter”.

Bravehearts suggest that:

  • If you suspect child sexual assault, but no disclosure has been made, always remain aware of the emotional distress the child may be experiencing. Approach the child in a caring and sensitive manner by assuring them that you are there to listen, and that you will help if there is a problem.
  • If a child discloses to you or if you have some concerns, it is important that you do not ask any direct questions about what happened (the who, how or where questions) as these may taint any future investigations.
  • Use open ended questions that allow the child to express how they are feeling and let the child know you will believe and support them.

Carol believes that with the improved awareness and education currently taking place, together with the important work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the capacity and agency of those who have been abused to speak out will improve over time. She notes that many victims of abuse endeavour to speak out and ‘test the waters’. As such it is important for those close to pay attention to children and young people when they speak out. It’s also necessary that those who care for children and young people understand the behaviour of those who perpetrate sexual abuse.

How do those who abuse gain access to their victims?

Those intent on abusing children go to significant lengths to make sure the children or young people they are planning to harm and those in their lives are primed prior to such abuses. Ms Ronken points out that there is a difference between child abuse in the main and child sexual abuse. Most notably the difference is that physical and emotional abuse isn’t often premeditated and planned. Child sexual abuse is. Those who perpetrate sexual abuse against a child or young person most commonly plan it. In doing so they groom both the child and those close to them. They build trust and offer incentives.

So who are these people who offend against children and young people?

Carol Ronken asserts that they are difficult to detect and their reasons for sexually abusing are many and varied. Some have a predisposition that includes sexual attraction to children. Such offenders are paedophiles. They may not always offend given that some paedophiles act on their desires and other do not. Conversely, many who do commit acts of sexual offending against children are not paedophiliac by nature but are opportunistic. They are able to engage in long term relationships with adult partners whilst also abusing children. Children are not their primary sexual attraction but they sexually abuse them for other complex reasons.

Carol notes that the types of risk factors identified as being involved in any kind of problematic antisocial behaviour can be said to fall into four broad categories:

  1. Historical factors or static risk factors, such as adverse developmental events and prior history of crime and violence
  2. Dispositional factors or dynamic risk factors, such as impulsivity, general level of anti-sociality
  3. Contextual antecedents to violence such as criminogenic needs (risk factors for criminal behaviour), deviant social networks, and lack of positive social supports
  4. Clinical factors, such as emotional problems and social difficulties

Furthermore in being aware of those who may pose a risk of sexual harm to children and young people, the ‘red flags’ to note are those who are:

  • Paying particular interest to a child or young person; often has a ‘special’ child/young person friend
  • Isolating a child or young person from other children, family members or adults
  • Engaging in close inappropriate contact with children and young people, missing or ignoring cues about personal boundaries
  • Demonstrating more interest in young people than adults; spending most of their spare time with young people and showing little interest in spending time with someone their own age
  • Engaging in suspicious behaviour in relation to young people such as watching or following them, taking photos or offering gifts
  • Encouraging silence and secrets
  • Describing young people with sexual words or talking about sexual activity involving children or young people
  • Seemingly unclear about what is appropriate
  • Viewing or downloading child exploitation material

In combatting child sexual abuse in our communities, Bravehearts advocates for the 3 Piers to Prevention: Educate, Empower, Protect. This includes taking a holistic approach to addressing this crime in our communities. As central to this mantra is the belief that in order to truly break the silence the engagement with and the voices of the following groups is necessary:

  • Survivors
  • Individuals
  • Communities
  • Organisations
  • Governments

Hence working together to protect children and young people from sexual harm is essential. The more we collectively understand the issue, the greater our capacity to join together in combatting child sexual abuse. It is a complex issue and one we need to be aware of. Then we need to come together in unison through our determination to collectively learn more about sexual abuse in order to play our respective roles in alleviating this harm for children and young people in our families and communities.