Concerning misuse of child abuse data feeds misinformation

  • Community Awareness

Why calls for a Royal Commission are a distraction.

by Professor Andrea de Silva and Dr Amanda Robertson

This week has seen the circulation of misinformation used in support of Peter Dutton’s calls for a Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of Indigenous Australian children. In one instance, Senator Birmingham incorrectly reported child protection data, which the AAP later fact checked and deemed misleading.

In another, the National Centre became aware of an online article in a publication that misrepresented the same child protection data and—based on their own calculations and interpretation—alleged an incorrect rate at which Indigenous children are sexually abused.

Even more concerning, the author led with a photo of a young, naked Indigenous child that fully exposed their genitalia. While professing to be extremely concerned about the rate at which Indigenous children are sexually harmed in this country.

The image was available on the surface web for easy access, use, and distribution as child abuse material by those motivated to do so.

Despite their claims, the author clearly does not understand nor heed the risk of child sexual abuse when they contribute to the circulation of this image. No consideration was afforded to that child’s privacy, perpetuating repeated harm against them, their family, and community

The National Centre filed a complaint about the article with the Australian Press Council and contacted the publication directly to request the immediate removal of the image, followed by correct citing and interpretation of the data. Thankfully the Editor retracted the entire article in a timely manner.

These two examples are indicative of how poor judgement, misinterpretation of data, and political arguments can detract from the concerted efforts needed to address one of Australia’s current and pressing challenges.

Relying on child protection data to support calls for a Royal Commission is problematic. This data refer only to cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by parent-like caregivers that have come to the attention of, and been substantiated (i.e., proven) by statutory child protection agencies. The statistics exclude child sexual abuse perpetrated by others or abuse that is not yet known or substantiated.  It is not an accurate measure of the extent of the broader societal problem, given its narrow definition.

What can be understood from the child protection data is that Indigenous children are over-represented in cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by a parent-like caregiver substantiated by child protection authorities. That Indigenous children are over-represented in child protection systems is not new knowledge and is something that must be addressed.

In terms of harms experienced by children in the child protection system, the data shows that sexual abuse was the least common type of primary harm to be substantiated for Indigenous children.  Emotional abuse, neglect, and physical abuse were all more common.

Moreover—and crucial to the argument against the need for a Royal Commission—Indigenous children were less likely to be the subject of substantiated child sexual abuse cases than non-Indigenous children.

So we question the underlying reasons some are for calling for another Royal Commission targeting Indigenous communities.

Without looking at the right data, we are at risk of believing child sexual abuse happens to other people in other places in other circumstances rather than recognising it happens to people we know, and that we have an active role to play in alleviating the problem.

The recent Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) found that almost 1 in 3 Australians across the country have experienced child sexual abuse. This data shows that child sexual abuse is an endemic societal problem and not confined to Indigenous populations or remote communities.

Leading experts including Professor Helen Milroy highlighted in the National Centre’s recent In Conversation webinar, that the sexual abuse of children is everyone’s problem.  It is an Australia-wide problem that requires a national focus.

There have already been inquiries into the exact proposed issue and we released a media statement rejecting Peter Dutton’s call for another Royal Commission.  Instead, we urge action on the many findings and recommendations from previous inquiries into child sexual abuse.

Comprehensive, coordinated and well-funded action across Australia is needed, and will benefit all children in Australia, including indigenous children.

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Understanding child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Response to child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
Effect of multi-agency deliberation on perceptions of risk in responses to child abuse and neglect
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Reshaping the Conversation: Development of a shared language and preferred definitions guide endorsed by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
Child safe practices using contextual safeguarding strategies
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future
Delivering trauma-informed support for child sexual abuse victims in Victoria: mapping the knowledge gaps and training needs of the specialist sectors
Online child sexual victimisation and associated mental health outcomes
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Needs of victims and survivors

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Evaluation of the Multi-Agency Investigation & Support Team
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Building trauma-responsive sexual health and relationship education
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Amplifying the voices of victim-survivors: Advancing the harmful sexual behaviour evidence base – the Ava project
The dignity by design project: survivor-led system redesign
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley
Enhancing the capacity of rural and regional respectful relationship educators
Creating safer futures: raising public awareness of child sexual abuse among young adults through digital storytelling
Survivor perspectives on institutional use of child sexual abuse material
The more I talk, the stronger I get: unlocking our past to free our future

Prevention of child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
Preventing repeat child exploitation material offending: An international evaluation of the CEM-COPE Program
Conceptualising and Estimating the Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation (Phase One of Australian Study into Economic Costs of Child Sexual Exploitation)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
CHANGE – curtailing harm and navigating growth: evidence for change pathways of young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Building a knowledge frame for responding to the needs of children and young people who have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour
Australian Child Maltreatment Study
Strengthening relationships and connections for young people in therapeutic residential care
Differentiating adverse childhood experience profiles of male youths who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours

Identification of child sexual abuse

The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Evaluating a harmful sexual behaviour education program in a residential care setting
Developing and implementing a framework for abuse prevention through culture change and organisational development
Children and Young People’s Safety Project
The safeguarding capability of adults in Catholic Church ministries: a global perspective

Disclosure of child sexual abuse

Ngagagee Ngulu Murrup Durra (‘The Ngagagee project’)
The Australian child sexual abuse attitudes, knowledge and response study
An environmental scan of Child Sexual Abuse related workforce training offerings in Australia
Enhancing the capability of Australia’s Primary Health Workforce to respond to child sexual abuse
Improving legal, policy and practice responses to the intersection of domestic violence perpetration and child sexual abuse offending
Into the war zone: disclosure and disbelief in the Family Court
Understanding the experiences of child sexual abuse disclosure in Australia in the wake of the Royal Commission
Learning from victims and survivors about what helps disclosure and responses to child sexual abuse
Supporting continuous quality improvement in safeguarding at Hockey Australia and other national sporting organisations
Community as experts: investigating the context, needs and help-seeking pathways for child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters in the NSW Bega Valley