Sexual abuse by children against children is a growing and significant problem in out-of-home care, a royal commission has heard.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began hearings into the incidence of abuse against children in out-of-home care, which included care in government and non-government-run residential facilities, foster care and kinship care, where a child is cared for by relatives.
Nationwide the commission was told 43,000 children were in out-of-home care in June 2014, representing about eight children for every 1,000 between the ages of 0 and 17. Per capita the Northern Territory had the highest rate at 14.3 children per 1,000 in care and Victoria the lowest rate of 6.1 per 1,000.
The rate was much higher for Indigenous children. Nationally, more than 51 children for every 1,000 Indigenous children were in care in June 2014, including in residential facilities run by government or non-government organisations, or in the care of foster families or relatives.
Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission Gail Furness SC told Tuesday’s hearing it was impossible to collate accurate or consistent data on child sexual abuse in out-of-home care across the country because of the lack of data in some states, changes in policy and a difference in definitions of what constitutes different types of care and even what constitutes abuse.
But Ms Furness also told the hearing that sexual abuse by children against children was a growing and significant issue in out-of-home care.
“The major focus should be on efforts to prevent child-to-child sexual abuse rather than caregiver child sexual abuse since this type likely represents the vast majority of observed child sexual abuse in out-of-home care,” she said.
In June 2014 1.6 per cent of children in Queensland out-of-home care were the subject of substantiation, meaning allegations they had been victims of abuse – either physical, sexual or emotional – had been substantiated.
In Western Australia the figure was 1.3 per cent, South Australia 0.7 per cent, Tasmania 0.4 per cent and the Northern Territory 1.7 per cent.
Figures for NSW and Victoria were not available.
Despite growing number of children in care, only small number reported abuse
Despite the number of children in care across Australia, Ms Furness said only a small number have come forward to report instances of abuse.
In fact the average victim took 22 years to report such abuse, and men took longer than women.
However, she said of the more than 3,000 survivors of child sexual abuse who had already given private evidence to the royal commission since it began, out-of-home care accounted for more than 40 per cent of all cases.
Ms Furness recounted the story of one woman called Madison (not her real name) who had been placed in foster care at the age of five after her parents separated.
Her father was a violent drunk and her mother could not care for three children. Madison was placed with a family who had three sons of their own and five foster children.
She said the natural children were treated better than the foster children. At one point one of the family’s own sons tried to drown her.
Later, her foster father Ronan, (not his real name) repeatedly abused her by inviting her into his bedroom to lie down with him, and often intruding on her when she was having a bath.
“Madison stayed with the family for five years but can only remember being visited once by a case worker to check on her,” Ms Furness said.
At the age of 12 Madison left the family and was placed back with her father. He was still drinking and she spent a lot of time with him at bars and pubs.
But a few years later she was taken out of his care and put into another family, which lasted for about a year before she again returned to her father.
“As a result of her childhood Madison has trouble managing her anger and was abusive towards other people in the homes,” Ms Furness said.
“She went on to have problems with drugs and alcohol.
“Madison first spoke of her abuse in 2011. As she became more confident she made a claim under Freedom of Information Legislation and found that ‘Ronan’ had previously been charged with offences relating to child abuse against children.”
Witnesses will be asked about their views on the prevalence of child to child sexual abuse and more importantly what programs or measures they would recommend to reduce it.
The hearings are expected to continue for two weeks.
– Anne Barker