Recognising children as victims of crime in their own right
19 April 2021 at 3:48 pm
We need to invest in specialist child focused services that address the healing and recovery of children and young people who are victims of crime, writes Deb Tsorbaris, CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.
Children in Australia are frequently victims of violent crime. Of all the crimes reported to police in 2020, children accounted for almost nine per cent of victims (18,903). However, this is likely to be a significant underestimation as children are often unable or unlikely to report a crime directed against them.
The statutory child protection system has very clear definitions of abuse and neglect, with witnessing family violence being included under emotional abuse in Victoria. However, there is limited official data or research into the impact on children who are victims of often violent crime.
The range of crimes and their impact on children
Children as victims of crime is a wide-ranging concept. It includes filicide and children who have lost a parent through murder, as well as children who have experienced sexual abuse and assault.
Analysis by Guardian Australia shows that at least 24 people under the age of 25 lost their mother in an alleged domestic homicide in 2020. One child is killed by a parent almost every fortnight in Australia, while 11 per cent of women and five per cent of men in Australia report having been sexually abused before the age of 15 years.
However, many instances of violence against children occur within contexts where the incident may not be recognised as criminal. These can include child maltreatment or neglect, corporal punishment, family violence to which the child is a witness or which is directed at the child, family abduction, or bullying between peers. A child can also be a victim of crime through the criminal activity of a parent.
We know that experiencing violence as a child can have long-term cumulative impacts across a lifetime. We only need to reflect on the more than 8,000 individuals who appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to recognise the life shattering impact. These can include mental illness, unemployment, incarceration and poor health outcomes.
Current responses to support children
Victoria’s child protection system received more than 115,000 reports of children in need of protection from child abuse and neglect in 2017–2018. The Commonwealth government has adopted a public health approach in responding to child abuse and neglect in the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. The public health model allows capacity to deal with underlying issues associated with neglect, such as poverty, and it also favours an approach that is strengths-based and non-stigmatising of parents who may be experiencing a range of challenges affecting their ability to parent.
However, we know that many children do not come to the attention of child protection services, or that the intervention comes too late. A study into filicide in Australia by the Monash Deakin Filicide Research Hub has found that two thirds of filicide cases were not known to child protection.
For children who have been referred to child protection, the focus shifts from the violence they have experienced to their presenting behaviour. The Commission for Children and Young People Inquiry into the deaths by suicide of 35 children known to child protection over a 12-year period, Lost, not Forgotten, highlights the systemic failings of child protection and family services to respond to the trauma experienced by children as a result of exposure to violence and sexual abuse.
Why earlier identification and intervention is crucial
The long-term cumulative impacts and costs of unresolved trauma for individuals and society requires the earliest possible identification and intervention. While children who are under a child protection order should receive support to address behavioural concerns, often the underlying cause of the trauma is not addressed. We need an evidence informed response that recognises the cumulative symptoms of trauma. The developmental impacts or symptoms may not emerge until children start early education, school, reach adolescence or start reattaching to a trusted adult. This means we need to provide long-term and responsive support.
Our current child protection, and child and family service systems, are not set up to provide this long-term and ongoing support. We have a crisis-driven model that is based on short-term assessment, and targeted time-based interventions. It is even more difficult for children who are not engaged with child protection to access specialist services.
We have a shortage of specialist child-focused counselling and sexual abuse services in Victoria. There are long waiting lists to access mental health and psychiatric services across both metropolitan and regional Victoria. The recommendation by the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System to deliver 13 infant, child and youth area mental health and wellbeing services across the state will alleviate some of these service gaps.
Some children are eligible to access assistance through Victoria’s victims of crime services. This can include financial compensation and access to the victims assistance program. However, a recent review has found that for many service users the support offered was not sufficient to meet their needs. Many victims of crime who had experienced long-term offending in relation to childhood sexual abuse or family violence were not able to access support through relevant specialist or generalist victims of crime services.
We need to invest in specialist child-focused services that address the healing and recovery of children and young people who are victims of crime in Victoria. These services need to be available to all children and young people who need them, whether or not they are known to child protection or the victims of crime services system.