The long-term effects of child abuse and how to prevent it

Over the past two years in Victoria, there have been almost 2,700 reports of children being harmed by workers, volunteers, religious leaders, and others trusted to care for them. That’s according to the latest report from the state’s Commission for Children and Young People.

The allegations have been made under a “reportable conduct scheme”, introduced in Victoria in 2017. Requiring harm or abuse against children be reported to the commission, the scheme is designed to eliminate hidden incidences of child maltreatment.

Where is this abuse happening?

Alarmingly, these allegations have come from a range of different ‘safe’ places for children including schools, out-of-home care, religious groups, disability care, and other organisations – 41% related to incidences of physical abuse against a child and 17% accounted for reports of sexual misconduct.

During 2017 and 2018, religious bodies reported 24 allegations of abuse. Out-of-home care, where children are placed if living with their own parents isn’t possible, accounted for 29 cases of sexual abuse and 282 reports of physical violence. Schools also reported 135 cases of sexual abuse or misconduct, and 147 reports of physical violence.

Child abuse has long term effects

The reality of child abuse is that the damage extends far beyond the physical injuries a child sustains during the period of maltreatment. Abuse and neglect have been linked to physical, psychological, and behavioural issues in an abused child’s adulthood, even stretching beyond to subsequent generations.

According to ABS statistics, approximately 2.5 million Australian adults (13% of society) have experienced abuse during their childhood, including 1.6 million adults (8.5%) who experienced childhood physical abuse and 1.4 million adults (7.7%) who experienced childhood sexual abuse.

Having been abused as children, these people are twice as likely to be victims of violence as an adult compared to those who did not experience abuse. They’re also more likely to have a psychological or physical disability, have greater financial stress, poorer health and tend to have lower levels of education, income, and life satisfaction.

The maltreatment of children has been linked to a wide range of behavioural and social consequences in adulthood. Years after the abuse has ended, adult victims are often more promiscuous (leading to transactional sex or the chance of contracting an STD). They’re more likely to turn to criminality and develop substance dependencies.

Also, while the majority of children who experience abuse and neglect do not become abusers themselves, they are statistically more likely to maltreat their own children compared to those who weren’t abused as children.

What employers can do to reduce the risks to children in their care

Vetting people who work with children is not only a good idea, it’s mandatory.

In New Zealand the Children’s Act 2014 has demanded the entire state-funded workforce – both the core and non-core children’s workforce – complete a Children’s Worker Safety Check. This check covers identity verification, police vetting, employment verification, and reference checks. As part of the process, the candidate’s qualification and membership with professional registration bodies and licensing authorities also get verified, and authorities conduct interviews to do a proper risk assessment to establish whether the individual could pose any safety risk to children.

All future employees and contractors in state-funded organisations must also undergo the same safety screening, and then be periodically re-screened every three years.

In Australia, any employer, organisation or education provider is legally required to get a Working with Children Check (WWCC) from a potential employee or volunteer working in a child-related capacity.

But a Working with Children Check has its limitations – it only covers convictions relating to crimes against children or violent crimes such as manslaughter or murder. It does not tick off other offences such as fraud or stealing. Plus, WWCCs only tell the employer if the check has been granted or not – the reasons why (either way) are not provided.

Ideally, anyone working with, or alongside, children should be required to obtain a National Police Check (NPC). This check is broader than a WWCC and includes theft and fraud among other offences. It also provides the employer more detail about the candidate’s background, such as what the person was convicted of and when.

Finally, it’s not just pre-employment screening that ensures the safety of children within organisations and businesses. While all states and territories in Australia have background check requirements that need to be met for any child-related employment, having a documented procedure of systematic re-screening of staff will help ensure the ongoing welfare of children in your business’s care.

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