Child abuse prolific in wealthy nations

Reporter: Anna Hipsley, ABC News

Wednesday, 3 December , 2008 

MARK COLVIN: Is child abuse the great under-reported crime of our time? A series of articles in a leading medical journal claims that one child in ten in wealthy nations, including Australia, suffers from some kind of abuse or neglect. But the authorities investigate just 10 per cent of cases.

Experts say removing children at risk of abuse is not the answer, neither is throwing more money at the problem. Instead, more resources should go into teaching parents how to bring up their kids.

Anna Hipsley reports.

ANNA HIPSLEY: The catalogue of cases is shocking in detail and frequency.

In NSW, a nine year old girl starved to death; a two year old boy whose body was found in a suitcase that had been thrown into a lake.

In the UK, a 17 month old baby suffering from more than 40 separate injuries killed, despite receiving 60 visits from welfare professionals.

But while cases of this severity are uncommon, a series of articles on child abuse, published in the Lancet medical journal, has found 10 per cent of children from wealthy nations experience some kind of abuse.

Report co-author David Fergusson:

DAVID FERGUSSON: Really what all the figures say is that is the rates of exposure of kids to abuse in developed countries are high and cannot and should not be disregarded.

ANNA HIPSLEY: Up to 16 per cent of children are physically abused: anything from hitting and punching to beating and burning.

Ten per cent suffer emotional abuse, persistently made to feel worthless or unwanted. Up to 15 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys are sexually abused.

But Bernadette McMenaman from Childwise, a leading child protection charity, thinks the figure is even higher.

BERNADETTE MCMENAMAN: One is 10 is definitely I would believe in our experience, a very low figure.

ANNA HIPSLEY: Either way, David Fergusson says only a tiny per centage of cases are reported to authorities.

DAVID FERGUSSON: Probably only about one tenth or less of the children who are exposed to abuse, who actually get to any form of official attention.

ANNA HIPSLEY: Why is that figure so low?

DAVID FERGUSSON: Firstly, families are often quite adept at concealing these behaviours. Secondly, I think when people are aware of them, they're often reluctant to refer people to the services because of the interpersonal difficulties that may be caused, and thirdly of course, there's only a relatively small amount of service available and if the services were to confront the large number of child abuse cases, they would be completely overwhelmed.

ANNA HIPSLEY: Authorities have been scrambling to deal with the problem.

Child protection services in the UK have been stepped up following the death of Baby P: the toddler who died despite evidence of repeated abuse.

The Wood Report into the New South Wales Department of Community Services last month recommended only that children at "serious risk of harm" be reported, to reduce case loads.

But even then David Fergusson says it's just not possible for welfare workers to act on every case that comes across their desk.

DAVID FERGUSSON: You go to the agencies and say how many children like Baby P or whatever have you got on your books, you'd probably find four or 500 families like that. Most of them don't kill their kids. If the families were to act on all of the cases on their book there would be very large numbers of children being removed from families and into care.

And that causes a lot of difficulty both legally and in fact practically. Where would they go?

ANNA HIPSLEY: Report co-author David Fergusson argues we need to find the best strategy for preventing child abuse before we come up with any solutions.

DAVID FERGUSSON: And why we are behind in this area is that too much money has been spent on services and service provision and far too little on working out what works and what is effective. If we'd done that 10 or 15 years ago, we would probably be far better ahead than we are now.

ANNA HIPSLEY: Research shows identifying at risk families and implementing parenting programmes can help reduce rates of abuse.

DAVID FERGUSSON: I think if you identify families at risk of abuse, good home visitation and well designed home visitation and support and mentorship, can minimise risk.

But Bernadette McMenamen from Childwise says that's a simplistic solution:

BERNDADETTE MCMENAMEN: I would really question that. I think, you know, parental education campaign is a bit of a feel good strategy. That if we teach parents better how to manage their children and how to better look after their children, you know then they'll be safer. That is one small strategy. I mean, basically we need a holistic approach, we need a community approach.

You know, it's a cliche that child abuse is everyone's responsibility so parental education is a very small part of a really big problem.

MARK COLVIN: Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of Childwise, ending Anna Hipsley's report.

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