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Wednesday, 28 June 2000
Page: 18527

Mrs VALE (7:45 PM) —I wish to acknowledge my parliamentary colleague the member for Rankin on the other side of the House and join with him and our other colleagues here in promoting Purple Ribbon Day and Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse. This is such an important issue, and I believe the rest of the nation will give its approval to our combined efforts in seeking to break the barrier of silence on child abuse. There can be no greater cause on which parliamentarians can unite than the prevention of child abuse amongst Australian children. The number of children reported as being abused or neglected in Australia has virtually doubled in the last decade. In 1991 there were 49,721 cases of child abuse and neglect reported, but by 1998 this had grown to an alarming 98,568. The purple ribbon project was started through the good work of Jan Watson on the Gold Coast back in 1994, but it has struck a real chord in the wider Australian community. Today there are many councils and community organisations promoting the wearing of purple in the month of July. As this parliament will be in recess during July, we have decided—and we are grateful for the support of the whips, the Speaker and the President of the Senate—to uphold Purple Ribbon Day today.

Earlier this year, on 16 March, I spoke of the horror of child sexual abuse and the excellent work of the Sutherland Shire branch of the Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse in my electorate. Tonight I would like to focus on a study recently released by the Australian Institute of Criminology. The campaign to raise the level of awareness of child abuse within our communities was never more relevant than this week with the launch of the study of homicide in Australia from 1989 to 1999, entitled Homicidal encounters. This report is a comprehensive study of homicide in Australia during the last decade. What I found particularly disturbing in this report was that it found that the group for which there was the highest level of danger of dying as a result of murder was babies under 12 months of age. More disturbing still is that, despite the effective campaigns by schools to raise the level of `stranger danger', it is people the children know who are more likely to pose a danger to them. According to the statistics—and this will probably shock many ordinary Australians—distressed mothers are the main perpetrators of deaths of babies. The next group capable of inflicting death, injury, or sexual or physical abuse on little children is de facto partners. This report says that children are very rarely killed or abused by a stranger.

In the period covered by this report, from 1 July 1989 to 30 June 1999, a total of 316 children were murdered. This figure represents 8.6 per cent of all homicides in Australia. The high vulnerability of children to violent abuse by adults is cited as having been a crucial factor in the deaths of these children, as the use of firearms, knives or other weapons is infrequent. Regrettably, the report says that children under the age of five are more likely to be beaten to death, while younger children are more likely to be suffocated, violently shaken or thrown. There are also cases of children dying due to criminal neglect. This study cites two common scenarios which emerge from the data as being circumstances which contributed to the death of children: family disputes and fatal abuse. In many cases involving the deaths of children, it is difficult to determine whether a killing was the act of an angry or frustrated response or a result of a series of continuous abuses of the child. Certainly there were case studies which suggested a long history of child abuse before the child was eventually murdered.

The major question for each and every one of us then is: what can we do as a government to protect our children and babies from violence and abuse by adults? What can we do to reach out to help the mothers who are obviously stressed beyond endurance? We all instinctively know that prevention is 10 times better than cure, and the best prevention is support for parents from the time young babies are brought home from hospital. Once upon a time, this support was freely and easily available from extended family members, especially the female relatives of the mother: her own mother, the grandmothers, aunties and sisters. However, with many women in the work force today, young mothers are often left alone at a very crucial time, with no-one from whom they can seek advice, support or companionship. While education has a very important role to play in the prevention of child abuse, the emotional support of the young family, especially the mother, is vital during the crucial period of the baby's first year.

This is a real community problem and its solutions will come from the community. In my electorate, an innovative program under the auspices of Rotary's Hope for the Children—Sutherland Family Network—has undertaken the task of supporting families in distress. The network arranges for trained volunteers to visit young mothers who are having difficulty coping with the demands of their family. This corps of volunteer grandmothers and mothers do not act as babysitters; they visit the families in their homes and actually mother the mothers. They give emotional support to the mothers and assist with friendship and advice on child care. The gratitude of many of the mothers because of the value they place on the presence of a volunteer in their home is one measure only of the success of important intervention; the other is the safety and welfare of the children. (Time expired)