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Tuesday, 9 September 2003
Page: 14711

Senator SANTORO (8:49 PM) —Today, with a lot of colleagues, I celebrated National Child Protection Week in Federation Mall at the front of Parliament House. It was an occasion that quite properly sparked some serious thinking about what is, reprehensibly and regrettably, an epidemic of child abuse in our country. There are few crimes as heinous in my view as crimes of abuse against children, who are not only our future as a nation but who also are entitled to the strongest measures of protection that adult society can provide.

This is not partisan issue and it never can be. That is why I was pleased to join with Senator Linda Kirk to promote the concept of Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse among our colleagues. There were many of us there this morning, including coalition, Labor, Democrat, Green and Independent members of this parliament. Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse is a cross-party organisation formed to raise awareness, among parliamentarians and in the wider community, of child abuse and the surrounding issues. I pay tribute to Senator Kirk for her leadership and the organisational acumen she has brought to the organisation of this parliamentary group.

Child abuse is a national issue. It is an issue that transcends politics, is oblivious to borders and ignores the differences of wealth, standing, culture and every other demographic measure by which we make our complex country and society a governmental possibility. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs notes that, while child protection is a state and territory government matter to administer, it is important that the community recognises it is not an issue owned by governments—everyone has a responsibility to care for and protect children and young people. The size of the problem is truly daunting—but we cannot let it daunt us.

Latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that substantiations of child abuse and neglect rose from 24,732 in 1999-2000 to 30,473 in 2001-02. They show the number of children placed in out-of-home care increased from 14,078 to 18,880 over the same period. They show that 51 per cent of children in out-of-home care are in foster care. And they show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are overrepresented in the child protection system.

The Commonwealth's focus is on early intervention and prevention. This is a practical leadership position—and a proper one—that is designed to staunch the problem before it overwhelms state and territory governments' care and prevention systems. The federal government has allocated $19 billion in family assistance for 2003-04. It is consulting with the community on a national agenda for early childhood. The Prime Minister has announced a $10 million program to strengthen existing investment in early childhood as well as to test new approaches.

Today is also White Balloon Day. It is a day that was founded by Queenslander Hetty Johnston in Brisbane during Child Protection Week in September 1997. Hetty took this action in response to learning that a family member was a paedophile, a fact brought to light only by the brave action of a seven-year-old child. The white balloon was chosen as the symbol of Hetty's public campaign to end child abuse because the previous year, in Belgium, thousands of people had demonstrated with white balloons and white flowers in a show of public sympathy for the parents of young girls murdered or missing, presumed dead, at the hands of a previously convicted and released paedophile.

White Balloon Day is now an annual national event run by the organisation Hetty Johnston heads, Bravehearts. It is credited by Queensland police as the primary cause of a 514 per cent increase in child assault notifications to the Child and Sexual Assault Investigation Unit, based in Brisbane. One of the most important elements in combating crimes such as paedophilia is to make victims feel safe and comfortable about coming forward to tell their story.

Sexual abuse of children is abhorrent. It is a despicable and unforgivable breach of trust by an adult against a child. It is horrifically prevalent. In 1993 an Australian Institute of Criminology conference was told that one in three girls and one in six boys would be sexually abused in some way before they were 18. Girls and boys of all ages are sexually abused and the victims are sometimes toddlers, very young children and even babies.

The academic literature on child sexual abuse makes it clear that this aberrant behaviour spans all races, economic classes and ethnic groups. In Queensland alone in 1997 it was estimated that more than 150,000 children under the age of 17 had been sexually abused and an estimated 420,000 Queenslanders over the age of 18 had experienced such abuse while children.

According to a Queensland University of Technology study by Dr Christine Eastwood, a Bravehearts board member, Queensland police in 2000-01 recorded 2,635 sexual offences against victims aged from under one to 19. They involved 208 infants and toddlers aged from zero to four, 541 children aged from five to nine, 1,000 children aged from 10 to 14 and 886 children aged from 15 to 19. At a national level the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence estimates that 40,000 Australian children will be sexually abused in any 12-month period. We simply cannot ignore these grim statistics.

The evidence is clear that child sexual abuse can lead to dysfunctional adults. That means—and let us not mince words about this—ruined and unproductive lives and in some cases criminality. A recent study of child sex abuse victims found that 32 per cent—almost one-third—had attempted suicide or thought about it. In Australia, suicide now kills more men per year than the national road toll. Figures for 2000 show that 1,860 men and 503 women committed suicide in this country.

Around 70 per cent of psychiatric patients have been sexually abused as children. Up to 85 per cent of women in Australian prisons have been victims of incest or other forms of sexual abuse. Of course there is also an economic cost. A recent Criminology Research Council funded study estimated the tangible cost to society of child sexual assault at more than $180,000 per child. On the basis of 40,000 sexually abused children a year—the figure I have already cited—that is $7.2 billion annually.

In Queensland the Forde inquiry by former State Governor Leneen Forde found that chronic underfunding and mismanagement of the state's efforts against child sexual abuse had rendered those efforts seriously deficient over a very long period of time. This week the Queensland government has put another $2.1 million into repairing the state's mechanism for dealing with abused children. This extra effort was announced on Sunday.

The announcement coincided with child protection workers being honoured in Queensland's child protection awards. The winners were Tania Major, an ATSIC regional commissioner; child protection officer Beverly Patterson; Children's Services Tribunal President, Beverly Fitzgerald; author Cynthia Morton; Goodna child health nurse Wendy Engler; and the AARDVARC children's program developed by the North Queensland Domestic Violence Resource Centre. I congratulate all the winners. They demonstrate by their effort and commitment just what can be achieved in this crucial area and are the strongest possible argument for the Queensland government to fully live up to its responsibilities.

The new measures announced by the Queensland government on Sunday will put five more quality assurance staff into the works, pay for nine more senior practitioners and fund a review of record keeping—the latter being a key area of grave concern. It follows, by only three weeks, the announcement of an extra $2 million to pay for 25 new suspected child abuse and neglect coordinators. So over the past three weeks the Queensland government has put $4.1 million worth of new money into the effort to combat child abuse.

That is good but it in no way removes the requirement that the state government take the findings of the current CMC inquiry very seriously indeed when they emerge. And it in no way removes the obvious necessity for a full inquiry—including, if necessary, as I have stated in this place before, a royal commission—into what has gone so horribly wrong with Queensland's child abuse management and detection for a very long time. Those people in Queensland who are still pushing the state government to do what it knows must be done continue to have my full support in this place.

I will continue on from some remarks I made earlier in the evening in relation to the Arts West School of Creative Arts. Australians living outside big cities—and we should never forget that that is one in three of us—have long known that if you want something done in your community the best place to start is with your own two hands. Initiating a venture such as the School of Creative Arts was an achievement in itself and typical of the spirit that has always animated regional Australia. Keeping such an enterprise going for 35 years is a far greater achievement. It does not depend on the enthusiasm and hard work of a faithful few; it depends on the dedication of whole communities.

Arts West has helped to give Queensland's Central West a unique cultural identity. Through ventures such as Artesian Arts it has given local artists a commercial showcase for their work. Honourable senators who are interested might like to visit the virtual art gallery at I record in this place my pleasure at having had the opportunity to attend the 2003 farewell dinner at the School of Creative Arts and I thank the minister, whose schedule fortunately made it possible for me to do so.

Arts West is funded through Arts Queensland, a state body. Unfortunately, I am informed that its contributions have been static for five years, causing difficulty in providing continuing core services and cutting out new and innovative activities. The support and development of regional arts is also a federal matter, and on that score I have written to the Minister for the Arts and Sport, Senator Kemp, and to the President of the federal Regional Arts Australia organisation, Mrs Nicola Downer, reporting on the financial situation of Arts West. This appears to be yet another case where the Queensland Labor government talks up a storm but delivers only a dribble—if it does not deliver a drought. Obviously the issue is one principally for Arts Queensland and the Queensland government. They should reflect that in the state's inland, with its small and widely dispersed population, developing an arts and crafts based element of local economies can provide substantial benefits.

Senate adjourned at 8.59 p.m.