Early in 2008 the Australian Government embarked on the task of creating a national framework for protecting Australia’s children resulting in a discussion paper entitled Australia’s Children Safe and Well, which was released in May. This followed public outrage over the growing number of child abuse cases including: the rape of a four-year-old girl in Perth by a babysitter, a father who was accused of drowning his children by driving them into a dam in Victoria, and numerous accusations of sexual abuse carried out against students in religious schools by clergy across Australia, some resulting in convictions.
Teachers in states schools have also been prosecuted for sexual misconduct. Then there was the case of a two-year-old girl found to have a sexually transmitted infection as reported by the ABC on July 17, 2008.
This is not even the tip of the iceberg. Almost every week the media seem to report another horrific case of child abuse, murder or neglect. It is impossible to accurately pinpoint the number of child abuse cases in Australia. Moreover, what is generally considered to be child abuse is sometimes culturally bound and viewed as normal behaviour.
The only information about the incidence or prevalence of child abuse in Australia is usually collected via a large survey of the population. “Prevalence” refers to the total number of children who have experienced abuse or neglect at some point in their childhood. “Incidence” refers to the total number of children who experienced abuse or neglect during a specified time period.
In Australia, the most accurate indicators of child abuse and neglect are said to be those statistics compiled by the Institute of Health and Welfare. These refer to the number of reports of suspected child abuse and neglect that are made to the statutory Child Protection Departments.
In the past five years, these figures have risen by an estimated 50 per cent from 198,355 in 2002-03 to 309,517 in the period 2006-07. Of these only 58,563 reported cases were deemed serious enough to warrant statutory intervention. The staggering difference between reports to Child Protection and action from Child Protection has raised a number of questions.
From a community perspective, what appears so shocking is the increasing number of cases where children die and the fact that Child Protection agencies around Australia have been forced to acknowledge that they knew abuse was happening but had not acted to remove the children.
The public, understandably, want to know why. What is Child Protection doing? The Howard government acted to intervene in the lives of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory but they failed to call white families who abused their children to account. Is this meant to infer that white people do not abuse children? Or is the abuse simply to be treated as acceptable? Do white people have rights over their children that Aboriginal people are not entitled to?
Family unity and family law
Child abuse issues are complex. Accusations and definitions of child abuse take place in a climate of uncertainty. When claims of child abuse are made, assessments and decisions seem to straddle a wide and varying system of values. Against this backdrop many people feel that a conservative backlash has left their children vulnerable. Conservative politics prioritise family unity regardless of whether there is parental conflict or how this conflict might affect children.
This view is underscored by the Family Court decision to order dual residency for children when their parents divorce. Whether dual residency is aimed at giving both parents equal access to their children or whether it is a way of minimising the welfare budget is open to question; but it does appear to have brought distress to a number of children, especially when there is ongoing disagreement between parents.
One American psychiatrist puts it this way:
Up until recently, custody of a child was determined by a legal doctrine which made its key issue the "best interests of the child”. However, since the advent of joint custody statutes, courts have been forced to award "custody" jointly to both parents in divorces. These joint custody statutes came about as divorced fathers began agitating to have a say in their children's lives, to fight their children's being cut out of their lives by ex-wives.
Unfortunately, these statutes did not fit reality very well: children still remained mostly in the home of one or another parent. So family courts began recognising "physical" and "legal" custody. Unfortunately, there is a legal parallel for this. It's called real estate law.
In real estate one can have a legal title to a piece of property while someone else has a legal right to use the property. Examples include landlords who may not evict tenants as long as the tenants are paying rent and banks who (sic) may not foreclose while the home-"owner" is keeping the mortgage paid up. Persons are said to have "legal title" (it's technically their property) or "equitable title" (they have a right to use the property). In family law, there is "legal custody" and "physical custody".
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