Child Abuse. Let’s get real and empower children.

You know it’s been a rough few weeks when your relying on Billy Corgan’s 90’s mood swings to pull you through.. So the Smashing Pumpkins; Drown, Zero and Disarm are on the playlist. I’ve accepted I’m someplace torn with anger and sadness.

There’s an approaching New Moon. I’m hormonal, it’s pouring with rain and I can’t sleep. I want you to read this to the very end. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.

Child Abuse. Topics I’m passionate about. My experience will not be in vain. The only way I can move forward is to share and learn. Like many stories and articles online, written by a mix of health professionals, educators, teachers, parents and survivors, I can’t go into details of cases. These are not my stories to tell. Confidentiality is respected for the children involved who have already been robbed. I’m approaching this piece as both a parent and professional of what’s missing in our services and curriculums in the hope that someone else will learn from my experiences. I want both parents and professionals in field working with children to unite in prevention and give children the confidence to share with a safe protective adult if anything ever does happen. I’m advocating for my children and your children. Knowledge alone isn’t enough, acting is empowerment for prevention and early disclosures.

I’m an empath, that means I feel your emotion. When I attempt to voice my stance, and someone bluntly cuts me off, I carry that emotion and if I’m on the last remaining 50% emotional charge for the day, I’m probably not going to have the energy to get my point across and have my voice heard.  This is my voice. If we have shared a conversation over the past fortnight. Again, No this article is not about you personally. I’ve rambled over 100 conversations with different agencies, organisations, services and professionals. Of those 100 conversations, five people truly got it. Five people could truly guide me, five were grateful that I too could see the problem.

I will say schools seem to have the prevention strategies and programs down pat in their curriculum. I just can’t understand why Early Childhood, children most at risk, aren’t given tools early. It seems that Child Abuse and Safety is still such a grey area not to be discussed openly. I’m listening to strong Early Childhood leaders, say oh we can’t, that isn’t age appropriate, there are cultural considerations, those resources are just for when there’s a situation.

It’s Saturday morning. My last weekend before I return from fifteen months of parental leave to my profession in Early Childhood. I planned some quality family time, frolicking on our back beaches. The world decided, ‘No Mumma, forget that. That’s a fairy tale.’ I was, in fact, moments away from questioning everything I’ve ever done as an educator, teacher, mentor and parent. Two days before I returned to work I questioned if I could do this anymore. Whilst I was quietly fighting for ‘my own’ I had to walk back through those doors. After fifteen months leave I needed to pretend to be on track and focused. I hoped it would be an easy transition. Nope think again. I was needed at home but needed more at work. How does that even weigh up?

We only ever seem to act, after the fact. If it’s not a first hand incident its irrelevant to us. I struggled to get anyone to listen or understand. At that moment, I realised my profession needed me more than ever. It was one of those higher ground moments. We all have them. It guts me to say that ‘Childhood Abuse’ has given me a second wind to stick around a bit longer.

My mood, I accepted as a mixed bag of emotions torn between sadness and anger. Overwhelmed. Overstimulated. Lost in translation. It’s anger that the industry you work in has failed not a child but children. An industry that boosts to advocate for children. You’re not angry with the services or people working in the services, you’re angry because you know the information is out there. But you also learn it is limited and vague for Early Childhood. It’s not cut clear. And if you want your service to be truly invested in Child Safety, your going to have to open your wallet. Sadness because you are genuinely devastated for the children involved. You’re not being respected for your experience, knowledge or being heard. Dismissed as the too hard basket, hearing a hundred reasons why we can’t do this or why it won’t work. You soon realise “Child Safety’ and ‘Child Abuse’ are a massive grey area for the industry. Leaders in the industry are lacking knowledge and confidence, whilst they are boasting the child comes first, they are not skilled in advocating or empowering children. It’s because they don’t feel comfortable with the topics and they don’t know how. Not trained and equipped with the knowledge needed to empower children. And if you want that knowledge someone needs to fund it.

Child Abuse. What is it? It may be physical, emotional, neglect, exposure to family violence or sexual .

The impacts of Child Abuse. We all know abuse isn’t pretty. The impacts can be outstanding. Prolonged exposure can lead to toxic stress for a child. Behaviour changes, child disengagement, impulsive behaviour and brain wiring changes that can effect future relationships, learning and concentration.

Indicators of child abuse: You can freely search indicators on a number of government body site pages. Indictors differ depending on the type of abuse.

If you notice a change in behaviour, question it? I had warning signs for months and put it down to regression. Document it and look for patterns. Out of the blue bed wetting, nightmares and night terrors are signs a child is struggling to process. Suspicious injuries should be documented. Injuries on arrival should be documented. Don’t be offended as a parent when injuries on arrival are documented. This highlights a proactive service. Accidents happen, this is about the health, safety and well-being of all children. Not your ego.

Who are the Child Abusers? Alarmingly most children know their abuser. They can be anybody. Parents, siblings, family members, friends, babysitters, coaches, teachers and peers. In cases involving peers the behaviour won’t be labelled as child abuse. Minor’s are protected. Whilst the behaviour of these children is usually learnt, in most cases we find the child has been abused themselves. Acting out the abuse, to process the abuse.

The Child Safe Standards (The Standards). Introduced in January 2016 as a response to the recommendations of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Non-Government Organisations, which reported we must be doing more to prevent and respond to child abuse. The Standards apply to all organisations that provide services for children, including Early Childhood services. The aim of the standards is to build a stronger and more consistent approach to preventing and responding to child abuse. Ensuring all Victorian organisations are well prepared.

Every Early Childhood Service and School should be complying to the standards. It’s now mid 2018, there’s really no excuse. Primary Schools seem to be well in the game with programs already in the curriculum. My concern sits at Early Childhood Entry. Three different cases, I’ve lost count how many different organisations I’ve spoken with, not one a certified ‘Child Safe Organisation’ or able to articulate what that looks like. Do organisations need to be certified? I couldn’t work that part out. They most certainly should be on board and have at the very least developed an action plan.

A common confusion I’ve found between different agencies in the industry over the past fortnight. ‘The Standards’ are not just your obligations as a mandatory reporter. This is where the area is grey. There’s people working in the industry that believe mandatory reporting is their only obligation. There’s people working in agencies filtering down the wrong information. We need to be making people aware and accountable of ‘The Standards’.

Different juradistrictions in Australia seem to have different compliance. I do wonder if this is another part of where it is confusing for the industry. I work in Victoria. So I’m talking from a Victorian legistave and frameworks point of view. In Victoria the Department of Human Services is responsible for overseeing Child Protection. When a service is quality assessed by The Department of Education and Training, The Standards are assessed. So no doubt over the next few years we will see a benchmark improvement. Check State to State legislation for your state.

The Standards:

Standard 1: Strategies to embed an organisational culture of child safety, including through effective leadership arrangements

Standard 2: A child safe policy or statement of commitment to child safety

Standard 3: A code of conduct that establishes clear expectations for appropriate behaviour with children

Standard 4: Screening, supervision, training and other human resources practices that reduce the risk of child abuse by new and existing personnel

Standard 5: Processes for responding to and reporting suspected child abuse

Standard 6: Strategies to identify and reduce or remove risks of child abuse

Standard 7: Strategies to promote the participation and empowerment of children.

It’s standard 1, 5, 6 & 7 that the industry seem to be struggling with. I’m seeing policies written outlining a commitment but a lack of knowledge, unpinning these policies. I’ve heard down talking abuse avoiding difficult conversations. Some cases there may be family trauma and for whatever reason the reporting of suspicions is not being followed through. Documenting suspicions isn’t enough. If a family member has a mental health issue or other life circumstances it’s not an excuse to not report suspicions in fear you’ll add to the family trauma. We need to protect children. Advocate for them. In some instances the family will not even be aware of abuse or the impacts of abuse. Leaders are brushing suspicions under the rug, and quite frankly are leading with no knowledge of The Standards. When I’ve really pushed the topic the most I’ve been offered ‘we have a policy’. Great and….

Standard 7 is missing in action, within children’s curriculums. It’s being addressed only after an incident. And after seeking advice from an outside agency.

The Standards don’t directly address how to empower children beyond involving them in discussions on what makes them feel safe. There’s plenty of evidence and advice The Standards are a minimum bench mark. Most of the information is written for children 4 years and older. Children most vulnerable are those younger who cannot communicate. Alarmingly there’s no government body advice on empowering children under 4. But there’s information if you have funds from fee based organisations.

So how do we Empower children?

Sexuality expert Deanne Carson recently started a controversial conversation to promote a culture of consent from birth. The consent at question: Nappy Consent

I watched on as my social media circle bashed the concept. People are always quick to judge and mock what they don’t understand. I’ll admit at first I thought how ridiculous how’s a baby going to consent? And what about those older children who will just say, ‘No’? I’ve seen a video posted by a dad mocking consent and that’s when the penny dropped. Early Childhood professionals model consent day in day out. consent isn’t always verbal, respect is telling a baby or toddler you have noticed that they are wet or dirty, asking them if they are ready to be changed, giving toddlers more time if they are busy or engaged in play, their work. Talking to babies and toddlers during a nappy change by explaining what you are doing throughout the process, observing their body language for signs of discomfort or impatience and when required acknowledging their discomfort and giving reassurance . Consent isn’t waiting for a baby to say yes. It isn’t giving a child a distraction. It’s about active engagement in the process. It’s about being in the moment with that baby or toddler. We need to be empowering children as early as possible. Consent is the core foundation of respect and building reciprocal relationships. Its teaching children the word ‘No’ is acceptable and acknowledged by adults. This isn’t saying children have no limits, it isn’t leaving a child in a solid nappy. It’s saying we talk with children about expectations. Does nappy consent still sound so far fetched and left winged?

Discussing Private private body parts.

Make it clear they are private. Name them use the correct anatomical terms. No baby names; doodle and wee wee are gone. You’ll need to normalise using the word ‘penis’.

Both sexes: Bottom, anus and mouth.

Boys: Penis and testiciles.

Girls: Breast, nipples and vulva (vagina is an inside body part).

No exceptions. I don’t care if it makes you feel squirmish. Deal with it.

If you’re an educator or teacher, your going to have to explain to parents why your covering these topics in your curriculum. Your going to have a least one parent that won’t be comfortable. It may be for cultural reasons, or they may just find it irrelevant. Your going to need to get these parent on board. Start by introducing parents to The Standards and explain your services commitment, why you are teaching body safety. This isn’t asking parents to consent to sex education in early childhood. It’s body awareness and safety. Practice and strategies to assist in strengthening self protective skills. A whole community approach, a culture embedded into curriculums. We all know the saying ‘It takes a village’

We can empower parents from birth to teach consent, I’ve read on numerous body safe education pages, Children as young as three can be taught and understand body safety. This teaches children the foundations of consent. I know someone is going to say, ‘What if my child just says no? You can’t leave them in a solid nappy.’ Your looking for failure before you’ve even attempted to teach consent. Don’t our children deserve more? We are advocating here to help protect and minimise abuse.

The body rules.

1. There are no private part secrets. Adults and children are not allowed to ask you to keep private body parts secrets.

Make it clear nobody is allowed to ask to see your private parts. Adults or children.

2. You don’t show anyone your private parts. Adults or children. That’s why we wear clothes to cover them up.

3. Private places. bathrooms are private places, toilets are private places. (Exceptions are obviously mummy & daddy helping you in the bath, get dressed & Doctors)

4. Nobody is allowed to touch your private parts. Not adults or children. It’s your body.

5. You are not allowed to touch the private parts of someone else.

If the body rules are broken?

Identify your safe adults:

Having five is best. They could be anyone you believe your child can trust. Mum, Dad, Grandma, a teacher or educator. This list will change as your child grows. It’s important we continue to have safe body discussions with our children regularly.

The three step rule:

1. Stop it, your not allowed to (say the behaviour)- firm voice hand making stop sign

2. I’m going to tell (insert name of safe adult)

3. Go tell a safe adult immediately. (Tell them until they listen, say this is really important, if they don’t hear you or are distracted. The sad reality is that many adults respond with, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about’ or worse still, wilfully ignoring the child because it’s too much for them to deal with.)

Children can practice these steps in everyday peer interactions when they disagree with others in play.

What to do is fundamental. Firstly, services are going to hate me for this, parents need to step up and ask if their child’s centre is ‘child safe certified’ ask them what they are doing? And what it looks in action. I was given a tip sheet to use when inquiring for potential services, it can be found on the Commission’s page. Professionals, you need to start asking your leaders, how are we tackling The Standards? Action: you need to take action. A review and an action plan of identified weak areas.

Safe places. So you send your most prized possession off to childcare because you need to earn an income. Or perhaps it’s to socialise because they need something more before Kindergarten or School. Maybe you have a babysitter. That baby sitter could be a stranger. That babysitter could be family. Or maybe your child’s already in the school system. Or your child’s enrolled in dancing or Auskick. You can expect to have indifference to care and education at some point, different values and life experiences. We are all human, all built differently. We all have good days and bad days where indifference is hard to process. As a parent, you are wired from the moment you confirm a pregnancy to worry. You worry about your unborn baby, you worry about the birth, then you hold that precious bundle and worry everyday after. The world can, at times, seem full of sickness. You warn your children about stranger danger. Gosh, I’ve been at that point with our five year old. The social butterfly with no filter; our free spirit who’s inviting strangers over for a bbq or sometimes a sleepover. I’ve been put in the position where I’ve had to tell him stories of William Tyrell. The little boy in the Spider-Man suit who went missing from his own front yard. I’ve told my son he was snatched by a ‘crazy, sick’ person and taken away, yes kidnaped from his family when he was out of his family sight. I’ve been desperate to get through to him in large public crowds (that I still fear). But what you don’t warn your children about is people they know. It could be family, a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunty, cousins, siblings, teachers, coaches, babysitters or other children, maybe even their peers as predators.

You need to be having these difficult conversations now, not in a years time. Abuse does happen in ‘safe places’ you need to understand there is no ‘safe place’. Child abuse happens at home, childcare, kindergarten, football clubs, at scouts, ballet and school. It’s not just the local creep hanging out at the park. In most abuse cases, the child knows the abuser.

A note on Childhood Sexual Abuse:

Believe it or not, children are born sexual beings. But there’s a line between age appropriate sexual behaviour and problem behaviour. Problem behaviour is usually learnt behaviour. If a child is displaying these behaviours you need to look for other signs, take action and report.

Notify caregiver, coaches, educators, and teachers. They must notify parents. They must fill out a serious incident report and they must report it to the Department. Child First is an advice line for when in doubt or when your unsure. This mandatory report stuff they talk about. They must report it, even if your not sure. You’re not saving anyone’s face here your advocating for children. What if your wrong? Who have you saved? A predator. I don’t care if you think you might offend an adult in the process.

This is about protecting children. Advocating for children. With clear, open preventive measures with a zero tolerance to child abuse embedded in all practices. What you choose is your voice. But I stress the importance. Bad stuff happens to the best of us. It’s life. Let’s give our children the best chance at life and heaven forbid they ever have a bad day they have skills to confine in a safe adult were they are heard.

For more information:

Government Agencies:

State of Victoria (commission for young children and young people)

State of Victoria Department of Education and Training

Not for profit organisations:

Childwise

Fee for service organisations:

Hush education

Body Safety Australia

References:

https://ccyp.vic.gov.au/child-safety/

http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx

https://www.childwise.org.au

https://aifs.gov.au

https://services.dhhs.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/You-and-your-child.docx

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