Child sexual abuse occupies a dark part of our national psyche. Every parent’s worst nightmare is having someone hurt their child, but when vulnerable children are sexually abused we reserve a special kind of disgust and anger in our community response.
But when you become a parent it suddenly gets very real.
This keeps me up some nights, worrying who is lying in wait for our kids, online and on the streets and what can we do to stop them. My conversations with experts tell me that the only path is for us to band together as a society to prevent the secrecy that allows child abusers to offend, to teach the kids to trust their instincts, and to learn about the places and people that can do them harm.
What all parents need to know
What we read about pedophiles doesn’t give us the full picture. First we need the facts. Stories often can’t be reported to protect the children involved. So the data we have isn’t all encompassing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics keeps figures on sexual assaults reported to police around Australia. In 2016 7,537 children under the age of 14 were sexually abused. 5,641 – three quarters – were girls.
Sexual abuse of children represents one-third of total sexual assaults reported in 2016.
Last year, the number of sexual assault victims increased for the fifth consecutive year, up from 21,948 victims in 2015 to 23,052 victims, to reach their highest levels in seven years.
And of course, these are just the reported cases, the true tally is likely much higher. Children often don’t tell and some families are too frightened to report what happens in their midst.
We need to uncover more of the facts. The risks are not just posed by strangers, most sex abuse of children is perpetrated by someone they are related to or know well.
Girls are more likely to be victims of familial or incest abuse, while boys are more likely to be harmed by someone outside their family or close circle.
How do we know who to trust with our precious little child? How do you teach your child to be wary of people who are close to them? We want our children to be strong and informed not scared.
There are misconceptions about pedophiles and how to stop a tragedy before it happens. When we focus on our disgust and fury and not on how to prevent it we disempower ourselves as mothers (and fathers). Fear stops us from knowing how to protect our children and ourselves from this threat. We need to understand this fear and use it.
We need to know about the people who lure children. They aren’t just strangers. It’s the abuse of power that usually makes the conditions right for a child to be abused. It’s when a child isn’t able to challenge the relationship when something doesn’t feel quite right. When they are unable to extract themselves from uncomfortable environments, when they can’t tell someone, this is the fertile ground for the secrets that sew the abuse.
We need common sense too. I know fantastic dads and grandads who have felt very uncomfortable talking to a child at school pickup lest they get called creepy. Good men, teachers and coaches. It’s a terrible conundrum.
Listen: Chloe Shorten talks about her blended family with Mia Freedman. (post continues…)
A useful fear
Like many parents I remember when I heard of the beachy young girl snatched by a husband and wife in a Noosa park on her way home, when a baby was found on a toilet block roof. I remember the horror stories about boys lives’ ruined by people they trusted. I was fearful for a long time. I don’t want this fear for my three children.