National Child Protection Week

The week beginning 4 September 2011 marks the start of National Child Protection Week. The Australian Government’s National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020 acknowledges that child abuse and neglect rates have ‘more than doubled over the past 10 years and the number of children subject to child abuse and neglect remains unacceptably high’. Globally, child protection issues are complex and the consequences for the world’s children of abuse, exploitation and neglect are immense.

The scale of the problem globally

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 300 million children are subjected to abuse and that violence may affect as many as 1.5 billion children worldwide. Some are forced to work as child soldiers or forced into child marriages; others are forced into child labour or the sex trade. In November 2009, UNICEF produced a special edition of its State of the world’s children report to celebrate 20 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report noted the difficulties in measuring and monitoring child protection around the world and pointed out that a wide variety of violations remain hidden, due to the difficulties of defining, collecting and analysing appropriate indicators:
In addition, given that the perpetrators of many abuses against children often go to great lengths to hide their deeds, and the shame and stigma attached to violations that foster under-reporting in all societies, it is hard to accurately assess the scale of child protection violations.
The report also noted that child protection violations are not restricted to the developing world with an estimated 4 per cent of children in industrialised countries physically abused each year:
Violence, child labour and trafficking are also of particular concern in industrialized countries. A recent review of studies on child maltreatment published in The Lancet reveals that at least 4 per cent of children in industrialized countries are physically abused each year, and 1 in every 10 is neglected or psychologically abused. It is estimated that 5–10 per cent of girls and up to 5 per cent of boys suffer penetrative sexual abuse over the course of their childhood; the percentage of children experiencing any form of sexual abuse could be as much as three times higher.

Children who are abused are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues, low educational outcomes, substance abuse, relationship problems and becoming perpetrators of violence themselves later in life. Children of illegal migrants are also at greater risk of exploitation according to the report.

Child protection in Australia

For some time the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has been reporting that although many Australian children are faring well, many others, particularly indigenous children, experience considerably worse outcomes nationally. The latest AIHW report on child wellbeing in Australia, Headline indicators for children's health, development and wellbeing 2011, notes that 7 in every 1000 (25 200) children aged 0–12 years were the subject of a substantiated report of abuse or neglect in 2009–10 and that indigenous children were over-represented at 8 times the rate of other children.

In a recent resource sheet, Effects of child abuse and neglect for children and adolescents (2011), the National Child Protection Clearinghouse (NCPC) documents the many complex and long term effects of child abuse. Another resource sheet, The economic costs of child abuse and neglect (2010), shows that the economic costs are considerable, with approximately $2.5 billion spent on child protection and out-of-home care services nationally in 2009–10.

The Government’s National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020, acknowledges that child abuse and neglect has ‘become an issue of national concern’ with ‘state and territory child protection systems struggling under the load’. The National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) agrees and in a submission to a recent Senate inquiry expressed its concern that at present there is no national body ‘dedicated to ensuring a comprehensive approach to protecting children’s rights across Australia or to advocating for the rights of children who fall through the gaps, such as children in detention centres’.

A recent report published by UNICEF Australia, Listen to children: 2011 child rights NGO report, commended the Government in its development of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, but recommended that it be ‘integrated and refined to apply a human rights approach both in their further development and implementation’.

Early prevention

Many researchers, including Gerry Redmond (UNSW) and Brian W. Head (UQ) in Making prevention work in human services for children and youth, 2011, argue that the negative outcomes of child abuse could be significantly reduced through early prevention programs that anticipate the problems and assist individuals and families to avoid the negative outcomes in the first place. The Government agrees and states in its National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020 that:
Australia needs to move from seeing ‘protecting children’ merely as a response to abuse and neglect to one of promoting the safety and wellbeing of children. Leading researchers and practitioners – both in Australia and overseas – have suggested that applying a public health model to care and protection will deliver better outcomes for our children and young people and their families ... Under a public health model, priority is placed on having universal supports available for all families (for example, health and education). More intensive (secondary) prevention interventions are provided to those families that need additional assistance with a focus on early intervention. Tertiary child protection services are a last resort, and the least desirable option for families and governments.
Some, such as NCPC, maintain that although there are children’s commissioners or guardians in all states and territories, until an independent commissioner for children is established to oversee children’s welfare, protection and care nationally; significant disparities in the treatment of children will remain.

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