It’s time to break the culture of silence around abuse

 Disturbing stories of women’s experiences of historical and current sexual abuse dominating the news headlines have led child protection expert Daryl Higgins to call for an urgent public health approach to addressing different forms of abuse.

Professor Higgins, director of ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies, said recent events had put the spotlight on issues of consent, coercion, child sexual abuse, and rape.

“There are many lessons to be learned from the responses to these stories that highlight policy failures, cultures of complicity or silence, the harm caused by inappropriate responses, lack of staff skills in safeguarding, unsafe physical environments, lack of education on consent and lack of procedural guidelines,” he said.

“These failures are also evident in places where children should be safe as there is still widespread failure to keep children safe and to protect them.”

Professor Higgins said government agencies, faith-based and other community organisations have introduced policies – that embed safety and wellbeing in leadership, governance, and culture - to inform children about their rights and enable them to participate in decisions affecting them.

“We all need to learn more about healthy and respectful relationships, consent and grooming. Collectively, we can build a culture that protects our vulnerable children from abuse by believing them, responding appropriately to allegations, and making institutions and families safe places.”

Empowering children and young people with the knowledge that they have the right to speak out, to know what acceptable behaviour is, and who they can turn to if they feel unsafe or have concerns is powerful.

“A culture of silence shaped the way organisations and individuals responded to child sexual abuse. Secrecy, denial, and shame became the tools to silence children and young people who had been abused,” he said.

“When someone discloses that they have been abused, we must listen. It can be very difficult for a victim to speak about their abuse and it takes an average of 23 years for survivors to tell someone about their abuse.”

Professor Higgins said children needed to feel safe to speak their truth and may prefer to seek help from a peer or a trusted adult.

Tips to help children feel safe and valued include:

  • Believing them when they report
  • Acknowledging their concerns rather than downplaying them
  • Helping them build their skills to respond to a situation (being careful not to give them sole responsibility for fending off unwanted behaviour)
  • Allowing another adult to step in and take control if a peer or other child/young person has made them feel unsafe.

Organisations can support safety for children and young people by:

  • Offering staff training about risks and appropriate responses
  • Understanding how grooming occurs so that someone can step in to stop it
  • Putting in place strategies to prevent or interrupt predatory behaviour
  • Modifying risky environments (including physical structures, policies, and supervision practices) to make it harder for perpetrators to groom children.

For more information, see ICPS Safeguarding Childrenpractice tools.

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