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Future impact of serious and organised crime on Australian society

CHAIR —We are grateful to have Mr Salter joining us from the Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse. We are particularly grateful to you for fighting your way through the weather and getting here. Thank you for your submission, which is submission No. 18 to our inquiry. I remind you, Mr Salter, that this hearing is conducted under the auspices of the Federal Parliament, so parliamentary privilege applies. If there is anything you would like to say in confidence or if there is something particularly sensitive that you want to say, you can ask the committee to conduct part of the inquiry in camera. As I said, we have your submission, for which I again thank you. Perhaps you would like to make an opening statement or summarise some of the major points you made in your submission.

Mr Salter —The issue of organised abuse has often been framed by the debate over recovered memories and other community concerns about child abuse, remembering the law. There has been a broad failure to acknowledge that many children and women make contact with the police and with health and welfare professionals seeking to bring ongoing organised sexual exploitation to an end.

Case reviews of sexual assault and domestic violence services in Australia have found a surprisingly high incidence of children and women seeking protection from organised groups of perpetrators. Children in therapeutic settings speak of child pornography being manufactured on our shores, of their parents’ friends paying to have sex with them and sadomasochistic forms of sexual abuse that cross the line into torture. Women speak of a lifetime of servitude within families and extended networks where they are raped, tortured and prostituted, where their children are abused, where their movements are traced and attempts to flee are severely punished.

From these stories emerges a picture of organised groups that use family-based violence and coercion to maintain spaces of impunity for the sexual exploitation of women and children. Some abusive groups are loosely structured, short-lived and opportunistic. Others are well established and hierarchical. Their codes of governance, sociality and loyalty are meticulously observed and they operate, in effect, as parallel states outside the bounds of state regulation. Here we encounter forms of violence that are both intimate, in that they are inflicted by parents, caregivers and partners, and organised, in that they occur in the context of larger networks in which women and children are objects of ownership and exchange. I will read now the experiences of nine-year-old Sara:

I didn’t realise anything was wrong till I was about three years old. Then I did not want to be alive any more because of the terrible things that were happening. The person doing most of the rude things was my father. There were other people in this too. Some of them were women and some were men. There were other children who were having the same things done to them as me. The bad people took rude videos and photos of us. My brother was there too. Mummy was at home and did not know what was happening to us. The bad people dressed up and there were things done to animals. I tried to tell mummy when I was three, but I couldn’t. When I was six, I told mummy about the bad things that were happening. I thought she would smack me and tell me I was lying. I was so scared because the bad people said if I told anyone they would kill me. When I told the police, I felt a bit embarrassed. When I went to court, I felt even more embarrassed about telling so many people and also having my father there. Anyway, I told the court and he was sent to jail for a while, but got out. I do not think of it very much. Sometimes I do have bad dreams about it. I am still angry with all the bad people for doing those things. I feel safe now, because the bad people can’t find us where we live. But if they did find us they would probably do more bad things to us. You should never trust anyone, not even your own parents.

While she was ultimately successful, Sara’s difficulties in disclosing her experiences of organised abuse are not limited to children. Torture changes the ways that memories are laid down in the brain and the fragmentation that results can inhibit the capacity of a victim to construct the stable linear narratives of abuse required by police and the law. Furthermore, victims of organised abuse are viscerally aware of the life-threatening consequences of disobedience and disclosure, and many come to believe that the perpetrator group possesses far-reaching means of control and surveillance. A further compounding factor is that intimidation, torture, rape and murder are well recognised features of all forms of organised crime, except organised sexual abuse.

The community and policy makers in Australia have been reluctant to acknowledge the use of such tactics in organised sexual offences against children. For victims, the cumulative impact of all these factors is a mutually reinforcing sense of terror and isolation, often resulting in submission to the demands of the perpetrator group and conformity to its specific values, codes and rituals. This form of Stockholm syndrome is a major challenge facing professionals and others who provide care and support to survivors.

For as long as these complex issues remain unacknowledged and unaddressed, they pose clear obstacles to intervention by the police and the law. Of particular concern to Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse is the marginality of familial abuse and the abuse of girls. In the policing definitions of paedophilia and organised paedophilia, this biomedical model has excised the private sphere from the purview of strategic law enforcement bodies such as the Australian Crime Commission. Yet the evidence suggests that the family and the home is the primary site for the organisation of serious sexual offences against children and women in this country.

Organised abuse does not respect our neat categories. It crosses the boundaries between the public and the private, between intimate and organised, between family and gang, between incest and prostitution, and between abuse and torture. While instances of organised abuse in Australia are extreme and horrifying, they are not extraordinary. Their internal dynamics mirror those of other forms of abuse: most offenders are male, most are known or related to the victim, most victims are girls and women, and while abuse occurs in a variety of contexts, fathers, husbands and the boyfriends are primarily responsible.

This is uncomfortable ground and the material raises unpleasant questions about the vulnerability of children and women in our country, their marginalisation within the official discourses of policy and law and the adequacy of institutions such as the police. The evidence to hand suggests that organised abuse is an ongoing source of harm to the Australian community and our inability to generate a policy response is only further contributing to that harm. Australia needs federally coordinated, multi-agency working protocols and interdisciplinary specialist assessment teams for complex child abuse cases. We need to breach the chasm between the policing of public and private crimes by improving coordination and information sharing between police, health, welfare and child protection professionals.

At a broader level, we need to avoid simplistic explanations for child abuse such as those proffered by the outdated paedophile typologies currently entrenched in Australian policing. We cannot avoid the sad fact that organised abuse in Australia is embedded within society where sexual, physical and emotional abuse of women and children is already endemic.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for that. I would like a bit more information about your organisation. I see that it is an NGO founded in 1995. Do you operate Australia wide?

Mr Salter —Yes, we do. We support between 600 and 800 members—it fluctuates—across Australia who are survivors of all forms of child abuse. ASCA is designed to provide a peer-support model for people who otherwise cannot access mental health services, whether because they cannot afford them or they prefer not to.

CHAIR —Are you funded by government in some way?

Mr Salter —We are self-funded.

CHAIR —Without going into the details, what do you do—sell raffle tickets?

Mr Salter —Sometimes it gets to that point, but our members pay dues and we also receive philanthropic donations.

CHAIR —Do you have a full-time staff?

Mr Salter —Yes, we do. We have a national office in Kirribilli and we have three full-time staff members.

CHAIR —Are you one of them?

Mr Salter —No, I am not. I am on the board of directors.

CHAIR —Are your three full-time staff trained social workers, lawyers or anything?

Mr Salter —They mainly act in an administrative capacity and coordinate the groups around Australia. We have state-based councils that do most of the administrative work. But we have at any point about 50 to 60 different self-help groups meeting around Australia every week.

CHAIR —Are the people who do the counselling—that may be too strong a word—or who give support to victims trained counsellors, or have they been in the same situation and coped with the same problems?

Mr Salter —The people who facilitate the groups go through a training program. ASCA runs essentially as an empowerment model for survivors. It is designed to educate survivors and enable them to provide support to other survivors. But we have a number of counsellors and therapists involved in the support network as well.

CHAIR —Have you ever sought funding from governments, or do you choose not to?

Mr Salter —We would love funding from governments actually. But we have probably been seeking that proactively for only the last two or three years.

CHAIR —This is all a bit outside our terms of reference. I am just curious about your organisation. As you are aware, we are looking at the future impact of crime on Australian society. Does your organisation have a view on whether this problem is increasing, decreasing, or static?

Mr Salter —One of the problems with measuring instances of any form of child abuse is that the only official figures we have to go on are reported instances of child abuse. Particularly when it comes to organised forms of sexual abuse, these rarely constitute notifications in and of themselves, if that makes sense. They tend to be reported within existing categories, which do not take into account connections between offenders. That is also true in courts of law. We are not in a position to quantify whether organised child sex abuse is getting better or worse. However, we can say that it looks unlikely to go away given that there are no significant moves at either a state or federal level towards any more surveillance or regulation.

CHAIR —I think most Australians would be shocked and amazed at what you say in your submission about the extent of organised, and very often family- and friends-organised paedophilia. Does your understanding of that come from evidence given in courts, or is it picked up from children perhaps much later in life reporting to you that this happened when they were young?

Mr Salter —In terms of the evidence base for organised abuse, there are three key sources. Obviously the one we are most familiar with and the one that has received the most public attention would be adults alleging quite serious forms of abuse in childhood. ASCA has provided support over the past 10 to 12 years for people whose children are actually going through the court process alleging this form of abuse. Like Sara’s case, those cases were successful. The third source of evidence—it is probably the firmest—is research evidence, particularly social and criminological research, most of which has been undertaken overseas, regarding the experiences of healthcare workers and counsellors and domestic violence centres encountering this form of abuse. But recent surveys have been undertaken in South Australia and in Melbourne regarding healthcare workers and how often they encounter this type of abuse, and it is surprisingly high.

Mr HAYES —Do you have any view about the extent of organisation outside the family involved in this activity in this country?

Mr Salter —By ‘extent’ do you mean numbers or the seriousness?

Mr HAYES —I am just trying gauge a view. I take on board what you said about most of it being arranged within the family. But is there a wider network? Is there any anecdotal evidence about that?

Mr Salter —I would say yes. We have certainly come across people who have made successive attempts to escape from abuse that has continued from childhood in adulthood. Their attempts to flee that abuse may involve moving interstate, yet that has often been ineffective in protecting them from what has been going on. We also see an amount of cross-over between organised forms of child sexual abuse and then subcultures of sexual violence with bikie gangs and similar organisations where women then present to domestic violence services with very complex histories of child sexual abuse and then domestic violence, and their children have become involved. It becomes very complicated. There seems to be a continuum of sexual violence in this regard. I would certainly move away from a Mafia-style notion of organised crime. There is a lot of fluidity in terms of people moving across different contexts of abuse that involve pornography, prostitution and organised sexual abuse.

Mr HAYES —Has the police response been changing of late? I know most police jurisdictions now have child abuse units. Is that starting to have some impact on the way police are handling this as an issue?

Mr Salter —I am not in a position to comment; I really have not come across that. I guess the key stumbling block in engaging with the police is that the court system deals very poorly with sexual offences whether they involve children or women. When people are making contact with healthcare workers, domestic violence centres or rape crisis centres they are generally being advised not to go to the police because the likelihood is that if they do they will actually be exposed to further harm in the court system and they are unlikely to get a good result.

Mr HAYES —Material was released publicly last week, I think, that indicated that the vast majority—in the vicinity of 90 per cent—of rape cases are not reported, of those that are reported only about 10 per cent get to court and of them only 1 per cent are successful prosecutions.

Mr Salter —The attrition rates for child sexual abuse in the legal system are really concerning.

Mr HAYES —What rates did you say?

Mr Salter —The attrition rates for child sexual abuse. A minority of cases are reported to the police and then a minority of those go forward to committal and then a minority of those cases in Australia—bar Western Australia, which does quite well—result in convictions. Some research has been done with kids who have taken the stand against an abuser and got a conviction. Even amongst kids who have got a conviction, the majority have said that would not report sexual abuse again in the future because their experience of the court system was so traumatic.

Mr HAYES —Is there scope for improving our system of apprehended violence orders, for instance?

Mr Salter —I talk about this in the submission. One of the problems for survivors of organised abuse—whether they are children or women—is that they have often grown up in an enormously different world from the one that we understand. They can become very loyal to an abuser or a network of abusers and they often resist police intervention, to be honest. The more sadistic the abuse, the more terrified they are of getting the perpetrator into trouble, because they believe that there will be repercussions down the line.

Attempts to circumvent law enforcement are often built into the abuse. We see that in particular with the very strategic use of police uniforms among some groups of sexual abusers. They will present to children as police officers; they will wear police uniforms during assaults. We have seen adult victims with deeply ingrained phobias of the police as a result. Simply seeing a police officer is enough to bring on a panic attack. These are people who are fundamentally disenfranchised from law enforcement.

CHAIR —Do you think there are better ways of discovering instances of abuse, for example, through better reporting or systems in emergency and general health situations, or perhaps at schools? Is there any way that we can encourage victims to report these incidents at an earlier stage and perhaps lessen the abuse?

Mr Salter —The one model that comes to mind is Britain. Its response is not perfect, but for 20 years now it has had multi-agency working teams in which the police and forensic investigators work alongside social workers and medical professionals. They respond very quickly to notifications of abuse that include some sort of organised aspect. They have also had increased modes of communication between social workers, healthcare workers and the police.

If there were to be a response in Australia, I think the best way to kick start it would be to have a round-table discussion between the police and a number of local experts in the field of extreme trauma. Over the past 15 or so years a number of specialist agencies and academics have specialised in work within this particular client group. Because sexual abuse is dealt with very poorly in the justice system, in a sense the discourse has shifted to health. That is predominantly where cases of organised abuse are now being dealt with; they are being dealt with as a health issue. There are specialist social workers across the country who would be able to impart some insights to the police and I am sure it would be vice versa.

CHAIR —You are dealing in an area that is quite horrific and repugnant to nearly all Australians. Is there any way that you can stop this? Has your organisation come up with any strategies—I certainly cannot think of anything off the top of my head—that might lessen the incidence? Or do we just say that we know this will happen and all you as a group can do is to be there to help them recover after the event?

Mr Salter —It is really difficult because we see spaces like the home being used. They are private spaces and traditionally they are afforded some protection from systems of regulation, surveillance and legal intervention. They are being used in these very difficult ways. Of course, they provide protection from all sorts of abuse of children. This is a minority case, but it is quite an extreme one. When we look at Britain, we see a set of prosecutions that we do not see in Australia. In a number of cases in Britain organised networks have been identified and shut down. At least three or four come to mind over the past year. Those are the kinds of prosecutions we never see in Australia. I think it is a stretch of the imagination to say that we have different sorts of offenders in Australia, particularly when ASCA and other community-based organisations are hearing these stories from people. It has to be about an adequate policy response and an educational approach, so that when people go to the police or healthcare workers, or they come to the attention of child protection professionals, that information has somewhere to go. We certainly come across counsellors and therapists who have dealt with a number of clients over 10 years who have made corroborating disclosures about organised and really severe forms of abuse. They have nowhere to take that information; they have nothing that they can do with it. That is quite concerning.

CHAIR —Do you have any statistics on this? When you read about convictions of child molesters, you usually find the defence counsel trying to mitigate the penalty by saying this abuser was himself or herself abused as a child. Is that statistically recognisable or is that simply a convenient excuse for the guilty?

Mr Salter —Probably a bit of both. What we do not see is that kind of pattern of abuse amongst women—girls endure the majority of sexual abuse in the West and they do not go on to become sexual abusers. There is a statistically significant proportion of men who have abused who have also been abused, but it is not the majority of offenders. Notions around paedophilia as a mental illness are a doubled-edged sword because they end up providing a kind of excuse for child sexual abuse. They claim that they were mentally ill. When we look at community-based studies and comparisons between sexual abusers and non-abusers, there is very little difference between men who sexually abuse children and men who do not.

CHAIR —Would better counselling of victims have any impact in 20 years time with regard to abuse? From what you say, I guess the answer is no, because the proportion is very small.

Mr Salter —One of the problems that we come across is that survivors of organised abuse are usually extremely debilitated. Often they cannot work, they have difficulties eating and they cannot sleep. It is actually very distressing to be close to a survivor of organised abuse because their lives are actually extremely difficult. They fundamentally very quickly overwhelm the capacity of mental health professionals or the health system to provide them with the care and support that they need. That absence of support leaves them vulnerable to revictimisation. I do not think there is any question about that. That can be revictimisation by the original group, and some of these groups seem to have a continuity of abuse that certainly surprised me. It would surprise everyone in this room to think that a group could sustain itself for 15 or 20 years. But, victims often do not have anywhere else to go.

CHAIR —This is a very serious subject and I certainly do not want to make light of it, but I happen for the first time ever to be watching Boston Legal the other night. I have never watched it before and I thought it was serious show, but apparently it is a comedy. One of the instances involved an older teenager who had been subjected to some sort of abuse. Estranged parents were fighting over whether the victim should be given a drug that would wipe all memory of the abuse. I am not sure whether that was just part of the story and made up or whether a drug like that is available. Is that sort of drug available?

Mr Salter —Sadly, no. I know of some pharmacological interventions now being formulated for post-traumatic stress disorder. But that is mainly for use by soldiers in combat zones so that they do not sustain trauma during battle. Pharmacotherapy with this population has very poor outcomes, but they are a heavily self-medicating population anyway. So, sadly, no.

CHAIR —Does it work with troops? Perhaps you are not an expert in this area.

Mr Salter —It is a technology in development; it has not come to the point of human trials yet. But, sadly, no, there are no pills you can take to make it go away.

CHAIR —Perhaps if there were I could take some after a day in parliament to try to obliterate all memory of things going badly for us. The secretary is pointing out to me that your submission is urging the Australian Crime Commission to consider organised child abuse as a source of serious and ongoing harm to children and to the Australian community as a whole. We take that on board. Are you aware of the commission’s reference from the Ministerial Council conducting an investigation in to paedophilia in Indigenous communities? There has been some question of why the Crime Commission, which deals with serious and organised crime, should be doing that and the suggestion is that there may be some organised criminality or systems. Are you familiar—obviously from newspapers only—with the work that the commission is doing with Indigenous communities?

Mr Salter —I was not aware that the ACC was involved, but I have been following the allegations of paedophile rings in outback communities.

CHAIR —I do not think the crime commission has said anything public yet. It certainly has not finished its investigations and they are, as is the nature of these investigations, relatively secret and the crime commission does have additional powers that ordinary police forces do not have. There might be something for someone in your organisation to keep and eye on as it comes forward and then to extrapolate whatever conclusions it comes to—if it does come to a conclusion—to the wider community. However, for the moment, we certainly note your urgings. As I said, that has occurred in this one instance for indigenous children.

Mr Salter —One of the questions that it raises for us—and there are broader questions than the ACC—is the willingness of policy makers to recognise organised sexual abuse when it arises in indigenous communities, but when the same allegations are made in white and urban communities they are rarely heard and taken seriously. We have seen a number of allegations come out of indigenous communities over the past two or three years that have been taken very seriously. It has been a real struggle over the past 10 to 15 years to have the same crimes taken seriously in white and urban communities.

It raises broader questions about the recognition that has occurred in black communities in Britain. Certain types of abuse will not be acknowledged in white communities and even more broadly in developing nations where our policy makers are very happy to apply terms like trafficking and child slavery to other places. However, when we see some parallels in Australia for children born in Australia, it is very rare that those kinds of disclosures are taken as seriously. I think there is a racial differential here about what we think white urban people will do versus what we think the black and rural people do.

CHAIR —Until I read your submission, I would not have heard of that. Even having read your submission and accepting that it is truthful, I still find it difficult to accept that the sort of things you are talking about actually occur, and I suspect most Australians are in the same situation. Perhaps you are right and there is an overtone that we know it happens out there but it does not happen in a lovely city like Sydney.

Mr Salter —These crimes occur in a very specific subcultural strata in which violence, abuse and neglect are fairly normative. That is not instantly transparent for those of us who do not come from places like that.

CHAIR —From the examples you have from your members you cannot say this happens predominantly in bikie gangs, particular ethnic groups or with people over 40 earning more than $150,000 a year. There is no statistic.

Mr Salter —I would say no, but I would also say that, like all forms of child abuse, we would see more notifications from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, but simply because those families are more likely to come to the attention of child protection officers and social workers in general. Child protection notifications are very difficult data upon which to base policies.

Mr HAYES —With the people who come to your support group years hence it would be very hard to put the them into the category of just coming from lower socioeconomic positions.

Mr Salter —That is true. I do not think we would be able to make a generalisation based on class or race in particular.

Mr HAYES —I certainly take on board your comments to this inquiry.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for giving us your time and the evidence. All the best with your group. You are obviously providing much-needed support in the community. Well done. With that, I declare this session of our inquiry closed and adjourn to Canberra on a date that we know about.

Committee adjourned at 1.27 pm