In the face of growing media attention on the sexual abuse of children, we have learned a lot about how to better protect children from harm. It is increasingly evident that when children are equipped with age-appropriate knowledge, they are more likely to speak up or tell someone when they feel unsafe. So how do we first spot the signs and what should we do?
Survivors of abuse are often too ashamed or afraid to share their experiences with others. This disempowerment is not confined to children; in both private and public spheres, people of all ages have trouble speaking up. Knowing how to recognise the signs of abuse – as well as how and where to report it – is absolutely vital for parents and communities so children can grow up safely.
But also helping children speak up when they feel unsafe, and making them aware of their rights and how to report abuse, means children are less likely to be targeted or abused.
1. Where do you start?
The complexities of our legal and child protection systems can be overwhelming and it’s hard for adults to know how to best respond when a child is at risk. Do you start with the state department? The police? Or the school?
Karen Flanagan, Save the Children’s expert in child protection, says a good starting point is taking personal responsibility for children’s safety, followed by a community-wide approach.
She urges people to focus more on the immediate safety of a child over the complexities of who is responsible to report.
“When searching for the right thing to do, it’s important to remember that, while certain professions are mandated (such as teachers, police and nurses), we are all responsible to take action if we suspect a child is being abused,” she says.
“Every person in the neighbourhood, from relatives to neighbours and local government, can play an essential part in protecting children from abuse.”
NAPCAN’s ‘How Can I Play my Part?’ fact sheets describe the many roles in a connected community that play a part: from parents modelling respectful relationships, to health practitioners supporting families showing signs of stress, and business-owners providing family friendly environments.
2. Spotting the possible signs of abuse
Some common physical, emotional and behavioural signs may point to abuse or neglect. But knowing if a child is affected by abuse requires some judgement, too. One of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse or neglect; other factors need to be considered, such as the circumstances of the child or their family.
General indicators of child abuse may include:
- Wariness and distrust of adults
- Rocking, sucking or biting excessively
- Demanding or aggressive behaviour
- Sleeping difficulties, often being tired and falling asleep
- Having broken bones or unexplained injuries in different stages of healing
- Being unable to explain an injury, or providing explanations that are inconsistent, vague or unbelievable
- Feeling suicidal or attempting suicide
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Being withdrawn or overly obedient
Also looking at any other factors that contribute to an increased risk of harm can help you make a judgement about a child’s situation. These risk factors could be social or geographic isolation, parents or carers with drug and alcohol abuse problems, or a family history of violence.
3. How to report suspected abuse
If you suspect a child is at risk of abuse, and you believe it isn’t an emergency, you should report it to Community Services in your state.
Karen acknowledges that for some, this may be off-putting.
“It’s very difficult for some people to make a report. You have to weigh all the contributing factors carefully. And systems and bureaucracies take time. It is also important to note that your identity is protected by law,” she says.
“It takes a lot of courage to report suspected child abuse. But if you believe a child needs help, you need to persist, and call again.”
What will Community Services do?
Your identity is kept anonymous, and you do not need solid proof to make that call. It may be useful to consider if another person looking at the same information would come to the same conclusions as you. Community Services staff will first ask questions to learn more about the risk of harm to the child involved. Depending on the information provided, a number of actions may occur:
- The matter might be closed as no risk of significant harm is indicated.
- A local Community Services Centre can make a further assessment.
- If the child is in danger, Community Services will visit the child immediately.
- Community Services will talk to other people (such as a teacher, childcare worker or relative) about the family’s circumstances.
- By law, Community Services can exchange information with agencies such as the police or the departments of Health or Education.
4. Preventing abuse before it starts
In responding to abuse as a community, we all must evolve from taking action when it does happen to also take a more holistic approach to child wellbeing. One broad approach is called ‘protective behaviour.’ This helps empower and educate parents to be comfortable to talk with their children about a full range of behaviours.
The ‘protective behaviour’ approach
“Parents can start very simply – teaching young children aged 3 or 4 about their bodies, then gradually over the years helping them communicate their needs to a teacher or trusted friend,” says Karen.
“This can range from speaking up about leaving your lunch at home, all the way through to knowing how to communicate with teachers about the school bully or sexual abuse.”
Unlike what many parents were raised to believe years ago, this is not about ‘stranger danger’.
“Evidence shows, unfortunately, that most children are abused by someone known or trusted in their family or community,” says Karen.
“So we don’t focus on stranger danger programs any more. We need to teach children to be confident to speak to anyone if they cannot get help in their immediate network when they are unsafe and in danger. It is important to rehearse with children who they would talk to if they felt unsafe, and ensure they have a range of people both inside and outside their family network.”
One of the protective behaviours strategies is where the five fingers of a hand represent the five people outside of a child’s immediate family they can talk to if they need help, such as a neighbour, a family friend or a friend’s mum.
“It helps children to consider their networks, plus rehearses the communication skills of speaking up if they ever have to,” explains Karen.
“If parents can do this effectively, then by the time children are teenagers they’ll have the skills to pick early warning signs of danger, and hopefully make safer choices in life.”
Resources for identifying and reporting child abuse
Every child has the right to grow up in a safe and supportive environment. If you suspect a child is at risk of harm, or would like to read more about the signs of abuse, see the following resources:
Karen Flanagan AM is Save the Children Australia’s Child Protection Advocate. She is a qualified social worker with 34 years of clinical, managerial, training and research experience in national and international child protection. As a member of Save the Children International – Child Protection Global Theme Steering Group, Karen helps determine child protection policy and practice direction across 120 countries
1 Signs of abuse and neglect webpage - Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services