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Cultural change needed to ensure no tolerance for violence against children -

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ELIZABETH JACKSON: The Advocate for Children and Young People in New South Wales says cultural change is needed so that violence against children is no longer tolerated in Australian society.

After spending almost 18 months in the job - and against a backdrop of a Royal Commission into institutional responses to sexual child abuse - Andrew Johnson says violence against children needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

ANDREW JOHNSON: I think sometimes we get comfortable with the fact that that may be being dealt with. And I think sometimes it's so difficult to understand; it's so difficult to accept that that's happening all over the world. But all over the world means it's happening here in Australia.

And I think it's a notion that has to go back that we see children as rights-holders; and that they have the right to be free from violence.

We're making much better steps in this country about violence against women and that's long, long overdue - millennia overdue, I'm sure - but having worked on the issue of violence against children, you see sometimes that they need to be seen in and of themselves, alone, as victims.

Sometimes we talk about them as witnesses of violence, but in fact we always knew that, as a victim of violence as a child, that there would be long-term impacts psychologically.

But what the new evidence is starting to show is being witnesses of violence has an impact on brain development - let alone, being the victim of the actual violence.

So I think this is one of these areas that it's eternal vigilance and that we all need to take into account that our most vulnerable members of our community, by definition, by size, by the fact they can't vote, means that they are vulnerable, which is why it's incredibly important that, when we're talking about children and young people - and safety was one of their major issues - was that it's a community response; that we all need to say violence against children is not acceptable.

And we often get stuck in a smacking debate when this is often raised. But what you're really talking about when children are the objects of violence - or they are the victims of violence, rather - that you're seeing them being: let's call it what it is. It's children being bashed. It's children being sexually assaulted.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Do we need a cultural shift on this? Because the Prime Minister just yesterday in a speech was saying that he believes we've seen a cultural shift take place in terms of domestic violence; that it's not just a private, at-home problem anymore. It's accepted that it's a community problem.

Does the same need to happen for children?

ANDREW JOHNSON: I think they run alongside one another. I mean, I think that the two issues are so intertwined.

But there's differences when you're talking about children and young people - but particularly children.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Do you think violence against children is more common in Australia than we think?

ANDREW JOHNSON: I think it's more common in every community than we think.

You're seeing young people that are not just subject to physical violence, not just subject to sexual violence, but people talk about: well, there's emotional violence. Well, you know, we need to name what that is. And sometimes that's emotional torture.

These are kids who are being put down time and time again - and we know that's happening to many women around the country as well. But I think we need to start naming it: what these children are coming from.

So when we see negative stories about, "Gee, this generation doesn't want to do anything and they're lazy and things aren't happening to them" - so even the kids that get written up as doing the bad thing, I think we need to look at what they are the product of. What have they sustained?

So these are ordinary kids responding to exceptional circumstances of quite violent environments.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Just how destructive is it for a child to grow up in a home where there's violence, whether it's sexual or otherwise?

ANDREW JOHNSON: What does it feel like when you never feel safe? I think a lot of people can understand that.

For example, about if everyone's had the awful experience of being robbed. And then you have that sense of not feeling safe when you come home. It lasts for a while; for some people it lasts much longer.

But imagine if that was your experience from the moment that you could have a sense of awakening. And that sense of realising or being cognitive about what was happening to you.

And that's why the issue of safety, which was what young are saying to us, is so important. And that's, you know, being safe on transport; that's being safe in schools; that's being safe at home.

Just that alone has psychological, physical - but the long-term effects is that opportunities actually pass them by - and opportunities they're not able to grasp and some opportunities they don't even get.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: That's Andrew Johnson, the New South Wales Advocate for Children and Young People.