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6th National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Conference, Canberra, Thursday, 12 November 1998: address on the occasion of the opening.

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It is a great pleasure for me, as Patron-in-Chief of the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect to be with you this morning to officially open the 6th NAPCAN National Conference.

Over the past 10 years or so, NAPCAN has created an impressive record of educating the community to help prevent child abuse and neglect. Through your advocacy and public campaigning ... through programs such as Getting Together for Children, the Good Beginnings National Parenting Project of volunteer home visitations, the four pilot projects which you are managing ... through your involvement with key public bodies such as the recently formed National Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse, NAPCAN has earned the respect and support of governments, of the voluntary welfare sector, of concerned parents and of the community generally. As Governor-General of our country, I welcome this opportunity of acknowledging and thanking you for your commitment and invaluable contribution to the well-being of our children, to the prevention of their abuse and neglect and to the promotion of best possible practice in caring for the whole child.

While the ultimate objective must always be the achievement of “best practice”, the starting point is necessarily the ascertainment of the present facts and circumstances, including the existence and the extent of abuse and neglect of children in our community. That is easy to say. It is, however, far from easy to do.

Questions involving the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children - those most vulnerable members of society - go to the very heart of our civilised values. For surely, the ultimate test of our worth as a truly democratic nation is how we treat the most vulnerable members of our community. Yet, as we all know, the area of sexual and other abuse of children, particularly abuse within the family circle, is one in which the first reaction of many people is to ignore, or sometimes to seek to silence, the messenger. But the facts and problems relating to child abuse and neglect simply cannot be suppressed or

ignored. Nor can their importance be discounted. To the contrary, unless the facts, including the ugly facts where they exist, are publicly uncovered and addressed, there can be little prospect of identification, let alone resolution, of the underlying problems. And, unless and until the ugly facts are disclosed and acknowledged, concepts of “best practice” will sound hollow in so far as those children whose suffering remains concealed are concerned.


Since I became Governor-General some 2 and three-quarter years ago, Helen and I have visited a great many organisations and institutions serving the disadvantaged in all parts of the country. Inevitably, these visits have caused us to become acutely aware of the human dimensions of child abuse and neglect.

Some of the programs with which we have had, and continue to have, particularly close contact are those seeking to deal with what we see as probably the most difficult instances of disadvantaged young Australians: the homeless youth of the streets, who have fallen through the ordinary net of welfare support and who are existing on the outer limits of society. Most of those children and young adults have been involved in the drug scene. For almost all, self-esteem is in shreds. Commonly, they have reached the stage where real employment has become something about which they may talk but which they at least inwardly regard as unattainable or otherwise irrelevant. Almost invariably, they have, as children, been subjected to some form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, commonly at the hands of a family member to whom they should have been able to look for support or protection. In some of those cases, it can be absurd to speak of resolving the problem by seeking to reunite the child or young person with his or her family. For where the family was itself the source of past abuse, it may well represent the most potent threat to future safety. On the other hand, even when that is so, the rebuilding or preservation of some family ties, respect and affection is likely to be of critical importance to the rebuilding or preservation of some self-esteem and motivation at least in the case of early teenagers or young adults.

Even where matters have not reached such extremes of homelessness and despair, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the abuse and neglect of children, often concealed, are among the principal causes of other, more obvious, forms of disadvantage. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that, in the background of child abuse or neglect, there commonly lies some form of disadvantage suffered by the person responsible for the abuse or neglect. Clearly, as the United Nations Committee which considered Australia’s initial report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child has pointed out, there is a need for

further research into the socio-economic factors that give rise to, and result from, child abuse. Recent statistics would seem to make that need compellingly obvious.

I am aware that there are some difficulties with the 1996-97 figures because of incomplete data from two States. In the previous year, there were 91,734 notifications, of which almost one in three was found to have been substantiated. In fact, in the three years to 1995-96, there was a consistency in the substantiation figures showing that between 5.8 and 6.1 children per 1000 were found to have been abused or neglected. Although mandatory notification of child abuse is now law in all States other than Western Australia where referral protocols are in place, definitions and data collections vary. But I have little doubt that the abuse which is recognised, investigated and substantiated still tends in all areas of Australia to be the exposed tip of an otherwise concealed iceberg.

There are two particular matters to which I would like to make passing reference this morning. The first concerns the link between child abuse and domestic violence. Until recently the two were seen as related but separate family problems. Yet, as Dr Sue Packer has observed, there is much evidence that children living with domestic violence

are at great risk of developmental and emotional damage, even when not physically


harmed. And, in addition, there is a not surprising 15-fold increased likelihood of physical harm to a child living in an environment of domestic violence.

The second matter is the very high rate of abuse or neglect shown in the statistical data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. These children are approximately 3% of the Australian population aged under 17, but represent 10% of the substantiated notifications of abuse and neglect: a rate of 18 per 1000. Sadly, as Dr Packer has also noted, this unacceptable over-representation of indigenous children continues with the

1996-97 data. The proportion of substantiated neglect at 38%, is almost double the national rate of 21%, although I hasten to add that the substantiated rate of sexual abuse of indigenous children of 11% was significantly lower than the national rate of 18%.

Clearly enough, these statistics are an indictment of the services, support and interventions available to indigenous communities. For as we all know, on virtually every measure of social and economic well-being - in health, housing, life expectancy, welfare, employment, education, income, imprisonment, access to basic services and so on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are, generally speaking, demonstrably worse off than non-indigenous Australians. And, of course, such disadvantage is a fertile environment for the alcohol and other drug abuse and the violence which provide the context of so much child neglect and abuse. These issues lie close to the heart of the reconciliation process which I firmly believe to be of critical importance to us all as we approach the second century of our nation.

As in so much else, the key to meeting the challenges posed by the overĀ­ representation of indigenous children in our child protection systems and child neglect and abuse statistics lies, first, in a true understanding and respect for cultural and social differences and, secondly, in ensuring that goals, policies and practices are formulated under the auspices, and pursued under the leadership, of the Aboriginal communities themselves. Progress along that path is difficult. It may at times seem to be almost inevitably too slow. But, in the long run, it is the most effective way.

I was pleased to leam that the particular needs of indigenous children have been recognised by the Queensland Government in its recently announced review of Child Protection legislation which will include Australia’s first Charter of Rights for Children in Care. And I have also been heartened by the approach adopted by NAPCAN in managing the pilot programs under the Good Beginnings National Parenting Project. At Katherine, in the Northern Territory, your co-ordinator is negotiating with workers from the local Aboriginal communities to determine the best ways by which Good Beginnings can meet their needs. And funding has recently been received from the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Foundation to employ an Aboriginal co-ordinator for a year at Marrickville, in western Sydney, to determine how Good Beginnings can most effectively help urban Aboriginal communities. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the assistance of the Viertel Foundation, of the Federal Government which is funding the pilot program, and also of the Lions Clubs which have adopted the Good Beginnings projects. Indeed, I understand that both Lions and Rotary, those two fine community service organisations, are looking at establishing a joint Foundation to further the development of parent support programs.

I have mentioned Good Beginnings in some detail because it seems to me to be the most significant of the recent initiatives taken to help prevent child abuse and neglect. There have, of course, been many others. In the context of this Conference let me refer to


the 18 “best practice” parenting education initiatives being conducted in all States and Territories. They include a program to develop material to help parents of adolescents, a men’s parenting project, strategies for parents with special needs and those from culturally diverse backgrounds. Submissions are currently being evaluated for a new series of initiatives under funding made available through the 1998-99 Commonwealth Budget. Then again, the National Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse has selected eight research projects for funding, which have a particular focus on the evaluation of intervention and preventative programs. And, as Australia was a signatory to the Declaration and Agenda for Action at the World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Stockholm in 1996, a National Plan of Action is being developed by the Commonwealth in conjunction with State, Territory and non-government representatives on the steering committee. As a first step, the Australian Institute of Criminology was engaged to analyse the legislation, policies, programs and data on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in this country.

In the context of initiatives such as those, it seems to me to be possible to say that, at last, we are, as a community, beginning to confront the appalling facts relating to child abuse. It seems to me to be possible also to say that, at last, we are making real progress along the road towards discharging our obligation to protect our country’s children from abuse and neglect. Indeed, this Conference, with its emphasis on the need for us all, as a nation, to get together for the future well being of our children, will itself constitute a significant step along that road. But notwithstanding the advances that have been made, we must remain conscious of special areas of concern where little or no progress would seem to have been made and of how much more remains to be done generally. And of the possible extent of the neglect and abuse of children which remains concealed. And of the pleas and cries which remain unheard, rejected or unanswered.

Let me conclude by again stressing the importance of NAPCAN’s work in highlighting those areas where much more needs to be done to disclose and prevent the scourge of child abuse and neglect in our society, and in helping to develop the appropriate responses and strategies. You know, I hope, how much I support your efforts and how much satisfaction I derive, as your Patron, from your achievements. I sincerely hope that this Conference fulfils all your expectations. And I wish you all every success in your

future work and endeavours for our nation’s children.

And now, with great pleasure, I declare the 6th NAPCAN National Conference, “Getting Together for Children” to be officially open.