Home is where the harm is
Some of you may be surprised to learn that only a small fraction of children are abused in places other than their home. Incest creates a shame that all of us feel and none of us are comfortable talking about. And to anyone victimized or witnessing this in their own family, this shame causes silence and more suffering. Join the Stop Abuse Campaign’s efforts in working to provide safe homes for children to grow up in.
It’s the institution in which the vast majority of child sexual abuse occurs but the victims won’t be able to tell their stories at the current Royal Commission. Children who are sexually abused by family members suffer the ultimate betrayal of trust, with nowhere else to go and no-one else to turn to. Sarah Dingle investigates their long search for justice.(Warning: some listeners and readers may find the accounts of child sexual abuse disturbing). Click here to listen to interview For many children, the family home is the last refuge if the playground or the classroom is causing them grief. But the home is failing many Australian children—like one girl we’ll call Clementine. ‘I remember it started to happen when I was around one year old,’ she says. ‘When I was around 11 or 12 I started to ask Dad why are you doing this, and he’d just say—it’s okay, it’s okay. Just forget it.’ Clementine was sexually abused by her biological father, who we’ll call John. ‘It started out of my continual use of porn through the internet,’ John says. ‘And eventually I got curious and one day I decided to experiment with my daughter.’ ‘[D]uring that first instance I did get a huge thrill. And subsequent abuses—it was from recalling the previous thrills I got and a desire, a selfish desire, to want to get those thrills again.’
This article represents part of a larger Background Briefing investigation. To hear Sarah Dingle’s full report tune in to RN, Sunday, 8.05 am, or use the podcast links above after broadcast.
John has been convicted on eight counts including three of sexual intercourse with a person under 10. He’s still on the child protection register but has completed all court orders for treatment. Research shows that up to 80 per cent of all child sexual abuse occurs within a familial relationship, not an institution like a church or a school. But the vast majority of these cases will not be examined by the Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse, which deliberately excludes abuse within families. Children sexually abused in the home like Clementine are also likely to be more harmed, with the offender having access 24 hours a day. Forty-one-year-old John is in many ways a typical child sex abuser. Criminologist and psychologist Professor Stephen Smallbone says the family home is by far the most common location for children to be sexually abused. Interfamilial adult offenders are overwhelmingly males, with the peak age of offending the 30s and 40s. The offenders are usually in some sort of authority role—like a father, a boyfriend, or a grandfather. ‘It’s not only that more sexual abuse occurs in homes than organisations but it’s also true that kids who are abused in homes tend to be more harmed than kids who are abused in other settings,’ Professor Smallbone says. And with interfamilial abuse, the non offending parent can also suffer guilt and trauma. John not only groomed his daughter Clementine, but also his ex-wife, who we’ll call Frances. ‘Stuff like a cup of coffee is a really good example,’ Frances says. ‘He’d call me up… “What time are you coming home? You know I just want to make sure dinner’s ready and I’ve got a nice cup of coffee ready for you”. And I had no idea that was grooming.’ John admits he put considerable effort into not getting caught. ‘All I thought was you know to ensure that I didn’t harm her physically, because that could leave evidence of some sort and I also believed or told myself she was such a young age she wouldn’t remember. And if she didn’t remember it wouldn’t hurt her in any way.’ Advocates for survivors of these kinds of crimes say interfamilial victims are extremely distressed that once again, they will not be heard. A spokesperson for the Attorney General told Background Briefing the Royal Commission has to be specific enough to ensure ‘concrete recommendations in a reasonable timeframe’. Vicki Dobrunz, the executive director of Heartfelt House, a counselling service for adult survivors of child sex abuse in northern New South Wales, says the Royal Commission has sent a message to all victims of child sex abuse that it’s time to come forward, and organisations like hers are bearing the brunt. ‘Enquiries here… from agencies have gone up 150 per cent and from survivors themselves have gone up 200 per cent—so it’s doubled. Our challenge now is to meet that need.’ She says 75 to 80 per cent of her clients have been abused within the family. ‘Familial abuse makes up a majority of the survivors that come through our doors here.’ ‘We actually get very few come through…that have been abused within an institution.’ The head of the Social Justice Research Centre at Edith Cowan University, Professor Caroline Taylor, says the Royal Commission’s focus has caused enormous distress. ‘I’ve had victims say to me… “Obviously it doesn’t mean much that I was abused in the family because the Royal Commission doesn’t want to hear about this”. And what we fail to understand also is that victims abused in a family setting are more likely to be abused for far longer periods of time because the offender has access 24/7.’ Professor Taylor says continual access can also lead to intergenerational abuse, as in the case of one family where a child reported sexual abuse by their grandfather. ‘The mother who was the daughter of the alleged offender contacted police…When police began to investigate and talk to other family members they then found that other sisters had been sex-abused by the father. [W]hen they spoke to the children, a number of their children had been sexually abused and also a number of nieces and nephews. So suddenly we had around 23 victims in the one family by an offender who had been a predator. And this is not the only time I’ve been aware of cases like this.’ South Australian child protection expert Professor Freda Briggs says the decision to exclude interfamilial abuse from the Royal Commission is short-sighted. ‘A lot of the people going to the Royal Commission have already been to the Wood Royal Commission and to the Mulligan Inquiry here in South Australia. That has given them the confidence to do it again. And it isn’t helpful really because… the institutions in which they were abused—they were often boys homes, children’s homes—they closed down long ago.’ ‘We should be looking at what’s happening here and now. So I can see if the Royal Commission can’t tackle the current setup I fear that there’ll be another Royal Commission in ten years’ time.’