Act for Kids has been a Future Generation Australia social impact partner since inception. Can you give us a brief overview of what you do?
The purpose of Act for Kids is to help keep kids safe, heal from trauma and lead happy lives. All of our work is around children who’ve experienced trauma – either through abuse, neglect or domestic and family violence – or supporting families where kids are at risk of harm through emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, trauma, and domestic and family violence.
There was a significant – and well-documented – spike in domestic violence as a result of the COVID pandemic. Are you now seeing further increases due to cost-of-living pressures?
We certainly are. It’s always been a large part of our work, with a lot of the families and children referred to Act for Kids having experienced trauma through domestic and family violence. We saw that ramp up significantly during the pandemic, particularly in states where there were extensive lock downs and people were very distressed. Now that we’re experiencing economic hardship in the post-pandemic period, we’re noticing a lot more families reaching out to ask for help. They’re acknowledging they’re not doing the best for their kids because they’re stressed and unable to cope with their own emotions.
The work that Act for Kids does has always been critical, but there have been a couple of incidents in recent months that have really highlighted its importance. The first is the horrific case of the former childcare worker charged with 1623 offences against children. I know you can’t talk about the specifics of the case, but what more should we be doing to keep children safe?
That alleged abuse took place over 15 years and, in those 15 years, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve had the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and from that has come the National Child Safe Standards. There are 10 standards that any organisation involved with children in any way should be thinking about in order to make kids safe.
All the states and territories have signed up in principle to those national standards but, so far, only New South Wales and Victoria have started implementing them. So, the first thing that every state and territory needs to do is to make sure that the Child Safe Standards are mandatory. These standards include things like working with children clearance checks, which are different in every state. We need to harmonise these with a nationally consistent system, to prevent people from moving from one state to another to avoid detection.
Then, there are standards related to designing environments so that opportunistic child sexual offending cannot happen. What’s emerged out of research over the past 10 years is that a large percentage of child sexual abuse is opportunistic and happens because children are in an environment where there isn’t an adult to protect them. That feeds into design. For example, in childcare centres, children should always be visible, no matter where they are in the centre. It also feeds into regulations, such as having unisex public toilets where mums can take little boys or dads can take little girls. We don’t want kids to be in situations where there isn’t a protective adult to keep an eye on them.
We also need to empower both workers and children with the knowledge and skills to speak up when something doesn’t seem quite right. One of the things that paedophiles do is groom other adults, as well as children. Abusers are often well liked because they’ve made a real effort to get along and be good friends and trusted by the people who care for children. They’re never going to be the people that you’re worried about. They’re going to be the ones where you say, “Oh, no. That person would never do that.” That’s why we have rules, like not leaving kids alone with one adult and having environments where you can always see children. This protects us all from that grooming behaviour. That said, workers need to know that if someone’s behaviour is making them feel uncomfortable, then they should speak up and they should be supported by their organisation and its leadership.
The second thing that really highlighted the importance of your work was the Australian Child Maltreatment Study, carried out by the Queensland University of Technology, which looked at the prevalence of child abuse and neglect. It was the first study of its kind and the results sent shockwaves through the community. You’re at the coalface, so were you surprised by the findings?
Sadly, not at all. We’ve partnered with QUT and Professor Ben Mathews on different projects for more than 15 years. We talked about doing this study many years ago, so it’s great that Ben finally got the funding because we’ve never had a true picture in Australia of the prevalence of child maltreatment and its impact.
Now that we have this data, it really gives me hope. I feel like Act for Kids has been raising awareness about this problem to anyone who would listen for an awfully long time. Thankfully, there were philanthropists like Future Generation Australia, who have listened and supported us to do work that governments haven’t facilitated. The study now gives us the data to reaffirm the extremely negative impact of abuse on the mental health and wellbeing of survivors and victims and the absolute need for therapeutic intervention to heal the trauma. The study also highlighted the significant link between domestic and family violence and emotional and sexual abuse. The findings are scary, but they give us the leverage to really try to make a positive change for children and young people in Australia.
Did the rest of us have our heads in the sand when it came to child abuse in this country?
Unfortunately, we live and breathe this topic and that is not the case for the general public. That doesn’t mean we’re desensitised to it though. I am optimistic that we can make a change, but you can’t make that change until you have the baseline data. We have the evidence now and I’m hopeful that people will understand the urgency to act. The Australian Child Maltreatment Study showed that if children experience trauma in their childhood – particularly if it’s multi type, ongoing abuse without any intervention, the result can be lifelong mental health issues, poor socio-economic outcomes, suicidality, and so on. But, if you intervene, then the probability of those poor outcomes is greatly reduced.
And, presumably, if there are no interventions, the effect is compounded from generation to generation?
Absolutely. That’s actually where I was going with this. What we need to do now is to look at the problem from a generational approach. Short-term government funding as a knee jerk reaction to the Australian Child Maltreatment Study isn’t what we need. What we need is long-term funding commitments, of the type that Future Generation Australia provides, to integrated therapy services like ours. These are multidisciplinary therapy interventions for children who have experienced trauma, which aim to help them heal from that trauma, equip them with the skills to cope and thrive, keep them engaged at school, and go on to lead happy lives. Governments don’t do that. They do things like short-term funding of a new mental health programme. We’ve got the third iteration of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, and the National Office for Child Safety. We need to be looking forward to the next generation and beyond.
Why is it that governments don’t seem able to grasp the complexity of the problem – and hence the complexity of effective solutions?
I think governments sometimes focus heavily on short-term outcomes and crisis responses rather than thinking about investing in long term preventative solutions. It is a valid response to remove a child from an unsafe situation, but how do you prevent harm from happening in the first place? How do you help a child recover from trauma and harm? That is where we see a significant funding gap and where organisations like Future Generation Australia play a crucial role in allowing us to provide therapeutic support to children, so they have the opportunity to heal from their trauma.
Wraparound therapy services for a child who’s been extremely traumatised through multiple forms of abuse is not a short-term fix. Depending on the age of the child, it can take a long time, particularly when there are significant developmental delays. That’s why we have speech pathologists, occupational therapists and psychologists to assess and help with all their developmental needs.
Often, when children are referred to us, they cannot communicate, or they have seriously delayed speech. So, that might be the first thing we address. They can’t begin to process their trauma if they can’t put into words what happened to them or their feelings around it. A lot of children also have gross and fine motor skill and sensory integration problems because their brain development is delayed as a result of trauma. That’s the kind of work we facilitate – and it takes a long time with no quick fixes. We don’t often see governments investing in this kind of therapeutic work as it is expensive. But someone should calculate the long-term cost savings of these kinds of therapies. If you don’t intervene and provide the appropriate therapeutic support the result is often that kids end up in residential care, which can cost between $400,000 and $600,000 per annum per child. Then there are the lifetime financial costs associated with poor health and mental health, unemployment etc that are often a result of childhood trauma. You could save millions of dollars with these interventions over the life of a child – and that’s just the financial cost. We haven’t even started talking about the social and moral costs.
How important is early intervention – both in the sense of early in a child’s life and early on after something bad has happened to a child?
Very important. And at Act for Kids, we do both types of early intervention.
We have an early childhood charter, where we have specific activities that we do when we have children aged 0-8 referred to us. These activities are really focused on the child’s all-round development. We know that trauma has a profound negative impact on children’s brain development, so you need to assist them to develop and grow as they would normally do.
Secondly, from an early intervention perspective, we would hope that children are referred quite quickly after maltreatment has occurred. That way, we can intervene early, and the long-term impact of that maltreatment can be significantly mitigated. We also do early interventions with families when things aren’t going well and there is the potential for children to be harmed. We work to help families function better.
Given child maltreatment is such a “hot” topic at the moment, have you noticed an increase in interest or in funding from philanthropists or governments?
No, not really. There’s certainly been a lot more interest from the media and the general public. We’ve increased our advocacy activities and we’ve also been partnering with other organisations to highlight the Australian Child Maltreatment Study data. So, there’s an opportunity to increase awareness and we hope potentially funding in the future.
How much of these problems would you attribute to the breakdown of the ‘village’?
I think society has changed quite rapidly over a very short time span. Families used to be far more extended and supported. Forty years ago, mums tended to be at home with their kids and the kids’ development would happen in a broader family context. These days, children’s development happens in childcare centres – out of necessity because both parents, or single parents, have to work. By and large, our childcare centres are great places for kids. But it’s still been a rapid change and I don’t think that we’ve caught up yet in our thinking about how best to support families. It’s quite stressful for parents to have full-time, big jobs and be dropping kids off and picking them up and planning days ahead. It creates a lot of stress on families and can be isolating. We are also seeing the effects of housing and economic challenges on the families we are supporting through our various therapy programs.
We’ve got Child Protection Week in the first week of September. What should our priorities be?
It’s an opportunity to think about children that we come into contact with and to realise that we, as a community, need to play our part in keeping them safe. Child protection is everybody’s business. So, if you see something happening, it’s your responsibility to do something – even if it’s just offering a helping hand to a mum who’s struggling in the supermarket and screaming at her kids, or popping in on a neighbour who’s going through a hard time.
At Act for Kids, we always have a Child Protection Week advocacy campaign. Last year it was about consent and body education and teaching children about being safe. This year, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 14- to 17-year-olds to find out why children and young people have been so anxious and distressed since the pandemic. We asked them what they were worried about; if they had a close adult they could speak to when they were worried; and how much time they would like to spend with that person. Only 36% of young people said they felt like their close adult always listened to them, which is scary, and the majority of kids said that they would like to spend 1-2 hours per day with their close adult.
Our campaign this year is called “Get comfy switching on by switching off”. We’re asking adults to put down their devices and be present to just listen to their kids. We’re not expecting them to put aside an hour or two to sit face-to-face with their kids and grill them about their day. We’re just suggesting that when they’re driving or making dinner, they make sure they’re actually tuning in and listening to their children.
A lot of our shareholders are parents or grandparents, so what can they do to help keep their children safe?
One simple thing parents and grandparents can do is teach kids about consent – and you can start doing this with really little kids – by using the anatomically correct names for body parts. Just build it into everyday conversations from when they’re little so that they can see you’re comfortable calling a vagina a vagina and a penis a penis, without any shame. When adults are uncomfortable talking about genitalia or private body parts, kids start to see them as something shameful that they shouldn’t talk about. So just be open and talk about them in the same way as you would a nose or a toe. Answer any questions they have about sex or bodies openly and honestly, in an age-appropriate way. The minute you start to dodge their questions or lie to them, you make it seem shameful. They will stop talking to you and you’ll have shut down the opportunity for open dialogue.
At the same time, you need to teach kids about public and private body parts. Make it clear to them that the only people who can touch their private parts are themselves. Explain that sometimes, they’ll need Mummy and Daddy to help wash them or sometimes doctors will need to look, but nobody else should touch them.
You also need to teach them about secrets – and how we should never keep secrets. Make a distinction between secrets and surprises. A surprise is something that’s going to come out and that you can get excited about, such as a surprise party for someone’s birthday. That is different from a secret, they are things that someone hopes will never come out and these are bad. Encourage children to tell and tell again if they are worried about something, until someone listens and helps. There’s an awful statistic that something like 67% of adults, even trained child protection workers, don’t believe a child the first time they are told about abuse. At Act for Kids, we believe children, no matter what. A tiny, tiny percentage might make stories up, but the majority don’t and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
For more information, visit Act for Kids’ website.