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Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Page: 42

Senator MURRAY (5:32 PM) —We have heard much lately about the commendable nationwide police operation which resulted in more than 200 men being charged with keeping and using child pornography, with more arrests to come. Although some of the images are apparently home grown, the children used to produce this vile material are reported to be largely from countries where poverty and exploitation flourish. On the other hand, those First World Australians charged as users of child pornography include tradesmen, teachers, public servants, businessmen, scout leaders, child-care workers, policemen and the clergy. The latter deserve special comment. Members of the clergy that sexually assault and abuse children are notorious because of the huge moral gulf between what they say and what they do. Not surprisingly, this evil has featured heavily in the media, but the media's concentration on just the offenders concerns me. What efforts are the Australian authorities making to stop the continuing exploitation of these children in the child pornography scandal?

There has been little, if any, reporting of the victims—the children corruptly and criminally used—and the damaging long-term effects of their being exploited in this way. There is now extensive research and a number of reports that document the lifelong consequences for victims of child sexual assault—not least being the two Senate reports, Lost innocents: righting the record, in 2001, and ForgottenAustralians, in 2004—but this material has not been drawn on by the media. Sadly, this tends to be the general proclivity of reporters when writing of the sexual assaults perpetrated on children or child abuse in general. The reporters often focus on the criminal and the crime, rather than on the many victims that a single child abuser creates. When charges are laid, they seldom cover all the offences. The reporting is far from the reality.

While no meaningful attempt has yet been made to quantify the numbers of victims, child abusers and paedophiles in Australia, we could be talking—and I hope we are not—about hundreds of thousands of victims. I base this guesstimate on a trilogy of inquiries that reveal that more than 500,000 people were raised in care last century. Those three inquiries are the two Senate inquiries I referred to earlier and the Aboriginal stolen generation inquiry. The evidence provided includes many descriptions of extremely graphic and disturbing sexual assaults and molestations of girls and boys by a wide range of perpetrators, across government and non-government institutions and between religious care and foster care. Organised violence against children was systemic and sexual assault far too common. Also far too common—all over the world, including Australia—has been the concealment of these crimes, and the conspiratorial accomplices go all the way to the top of the church hierarchies—something for strong Christians in the political world to bear in mind. Christian values are one thing; Clayton's Christians are another.

If we add to the number of those in care those legions assaulted within the private sphere of families, it can be reasonably argued that the number of victims in Australia could reach into the hundreds of thousands. Again, I hope not, but sufficient work has not been done to work out the numbers concerned. It is the case that many of these victims—or survivors—do not recover. One female respondent to the children in institutional care inquiry wrote:

The incident left me with a real fear of men and problems having sex, even with my husband ... This barrier is still with me to this day.

One male victim wrote:

I have undergone counselling for much of my adult life just so I could cope ... I cannot hold a job for long; I cannot form friendships and have been unable to complete several educational courses I have started ... I am currently in such a state that I rarely leave the house ...

These quotes typify the suffering victims endure as adults. They all too often live marginal lives characterised by antisocial behaviour. For instance, documented studies show that prisons are full of men and women sexually assaulted as children. Also, problems of substance abuse, unemployment, welfare dependency, homelessness, mental health problems and suicide are all too common. Another respondent to the inquiry wrote:

No person can come out of these experiences unscathed ... many ... have had horrible lives. I saw more than one as street walkers and was told about attempts at suicide and destructive relationships. Others have learned to rely on alcohol and more recently other drugs. None have had `normal' relationships where they realised their potential both emotionally and intellectually.

Unfortunately, it is also the case that if these survivors have their own families they in turn can have a series of consequential problems with their own children because of the way in which they have experienced problems and the way in which they transfer those problems onto their children and adopt what would be known as inappropriate parenting models.

One has only to read chapter 6 of Forgotten Australians, the first report of the Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into children in institutional care tabled on 30 August this year—and what an emotional tabling that was. Another sobering read is the recently released Child Wise report, Speaking for themselves. This report documents the life experiences of a sample of young people involved in prostitution in inner-city Melbourne—right as we speak. Almost without exception, all the participants came from difficult backgrounds, with over half entering state care due to domestic violence, including being sexually assaulted as children.

I cannot stress enough that it is absolutely crucial that those of us who can make a difference—and I am talking about those of us who are politicians who can make a difference—recognise that the long-term problems of the sexual assault of children or of child abuse are not only individual or family ones. They do impact on society at large and they do comprise an enormous economic cost. This is revealed in a historic national report released earlier this year that has—I think conservatively—estimated that child abuse and neglect costs Australian taxpayers almost $5 billion a year. That report was commissioned by the Kids First Foundation and the Abused Child Trust. They thought that the greatest single impost was the cost of the long-term social and human problems. For instance, they said that about $1 billion annually was associated with the human cost of those abused, including outlays associated with suicide, medical treatments and psychological trauma, and that a further $2 billion was associated with the long-term social cost, which included the costs of crime committed by juveniles and adults whose childhood abuse was considered a significant factor in their offending.

I strongly believe, as do many others, that the maltreatment and abuse of children—of which sexual assault, although it is certainly the most appalling, is part but not all of it—is a very significant public health problem in Australia. I cannot think of a better investment for the future of Australia than to do something about these problems. The knowledge we now have of current and past child sexual assault and abuse does reveal a problem of significant proportions, one that the Commonwealth has to concern itself with and not just leave to the states.

Currently there are eight different and mostly crisis-ridden child protection systems that are facing a disturbing escalation in child abuse notifications and substantiations. There are over 200 pieces of legislation dealing with children's interests across the states and territories, many of which are narrowly framed and outdated. For instance, in Victoria, the Child Wise report notes that a major overhaul of the care system is required for there to be:

... long term effective change to enhance the positive, holistic development of young people in government care.

Additionally, there is little in the way of services for those leaving care. Arguably, they comprise one of the most vulnerable and underprivileged groups in society. Sadly, though, most past governments regard leaving care in economic and budgetary terms rather than as a broader social and human rights concern. This reality is poignantly explained by Cherie, one of the participants in the Child Wise report. Having suffered sexual assaults by a number of social workers while in state care, she stated:

When I was 18 they gave me the flick. I had nowhere to go. I went out [sex working] because I thought I had to get used to it. Thought I may as well get paid for it.

The best interests of the child must be the primary consideration in all decisions that affect them. This is a basic principle of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia became a signatory in 1990. If the Commonwealth were to give legislative effect to this convention using the external affairs power under section 51 of the Constitution, it would be able to take a far stronger role in children's matters than it presently does. Australia's children deserve nothing less than to live in a protected environment, free from violence, abuse and exploitation.