I admit it. I don’t understand…

… child abuse.

I understand frustration, annoyance, exhaustion, exasperation, fear … but I do not understand it when children are intentionally harmed or intentionally placed in danger.  Nor do I understand how sometimes people stand by and let it happen – KNOWING that there is something wrong.  Having just a few months ago completed a series of interviews with adult survivors of child abuse, I can assure you my world is somewhat changed.  I knew it happened.  I had no idea how often, or to how many.  Female and male.  The letters are still arriving at work from those who want to share their story.

I’m still reeling from watching this interview between Mia Freedman and Caroline Overington – two women whose work I love and whilst I don’t know them personally, I suspect I’d like them a great deal.  I’ll call them friends, because in the virtual world, they most certainly are.

I love Twitter. Some of the most interesting conversations I have with people are in 140 characters or less.  OK, maybe groups of 140 characters or 140 characters that include links to other amazing things.  I have a true and deep love of learning, so I love that Twitter gives me something new each and every day.  Several times a day.  My world is a richer place for the things others choose to share with me.  Smart, funny, intelligent, stupid, wicked, naughty, outrageous, heartbreaking, inspiring … the whole shebang!

One of my ‘tweeps’ – someone with whom I have a 140conversation on Twitter – is @redundantmother.  She’s relatively new to Twitter (aren’t we all!) … but she has a fine way with those 140 characters and I love her stuff.  She gives me all of the above.  Sometimes all at the same time.

But this week, she wrote the piece that follows.  And I, in turn, share it with you.  Thanks @redundantmother – you are anything but that.  Thank you for asking me to share your words with my friends.

Every child should be this lucky.

A Heartfelt Plea

I’ve worked in child protection for 15 years.  I thought that I had seen everything there was to see.  I thought that I had seen every horror that children can experience at the hands of their parents (mostly) but also strangers and other people in their extended family. I thought wrong.

I thought that I was “hardened”, that the years working with these children and their families had inoculated me against being shocked about the extent of child abuse in our community, in our families.  I thought wrong.

I’ve always held a very strong conviction that when working in child protection, when you stop being affected by the horrors that children are faced with on a daily basis, when you stop wanting to cry for these kids, you know it’s time to find another line of work.  I’ve never stopped crying for these kids.

Last night I watched a short film by Ian Darling called Polly and me on ABC1.  Did it shock me? No.  I’m very well aware that everything that was depicted on Polly and me happens and unfortunately, the little girl’s story, as shocking and confronting as it was, is not at the worst end of the scale of child abuse and neglect.  I wasn’t shocked so much about the content; what gripped me and what held my insides like a vice was the fact that I was actually seeing it play out in front of me.

As a child protection worker you are often left to respond to child abuse after it happens, after you have received a report, after somebody has seen something, after a child has been injured, after a neighbour has heard something going on.  It’s almost always after the event.  When you do preventative work with families it’s almost always because abuse or neglect has occurred in the past and you try to put supports in place to prevent it from re-occurring.  At the end of the day, the real horror stories are the ones where you work with the children and families after the abuse or neglect has occurred.

Polly and me was like all of those stories about the children that I have in my heart and in my mind from the last 15 years.  The difference was, it was unfolding before me.  I knew it was a film, I knew that the little girl was an actor, (and a brilliant actor at that), I knew that the mother too was an actor, as was the guy who gave the mother drugs and her up and who sexually abused the little girl was an actor…but it wanted to stop it.  I knew what was coming, I knew as the scenes were unfolding, what would happen. It’s like the script of child protection reports of 15 years past.

People think that experiences they have are unique and that nobody experiences them in the same way that they do, and that may be so, but the experience of this child unfortunately is not unique.  This child’s story is an unfolding mess of what happens to children every day in this state, this country and across the globe.

I desperately wanted to get in there and take her out.  I wanted to get in there and remove her from that and let her play in the park on the swings and clean her up and give her some food that she didn’t have to scavenge from a can. I wanted to give her a real bed, give her lots of Polly’s, I wanted to allow her the freedom to play with Polly and not experience her mother being beaten up or watching her injecting herself intravenously with drugs and pass out.  I wanted her to not see her mother bringing men home and then listen to her having sex with them…I wanted to stop her being sexually abused, I wanted to take her away from that.  I wanted to be back in child protection.

I didn’t leave child protection because the work was too hard, or because I’d had enough or I thought I’d done enough.  I left child protection because sometimes the bureaucracy and the red tape around child protection made it feel like we were losing sight of children like this girl in this film.  Watching Polly and me last night made me want to go back.

The panel discussion after the film inspired me and made me despair at the same time.  The beautiful girl, Bee, and the amazing young man Asher, were so courageous and inspiring despite their horrendous histories of abuse.  They wanted to raise awareness of child protection in our community so that it stops happening to kids like it did to them, they want to talk about it, to allow people to feel comfortable to talk about things we normally would shut away.  The professionals on the panel were also wonderful; the Pediatrician, the Foster Parent and the advocacy worker, all of whom clearly had so much experience dealing with children who had been abused and neglected, giving their views.

The part that made me despair was that there was nobody there from the Department of Human Services (the Victorian equivalent of NSW Community Services), and not just another bureaucrat, but a “real” frontline worker.

As someone who has worked in child protection and who has never been allowed to tell her story, I ached to see someone there who could speak to the wonderful and inspiring work that is being carried out by child protection workers across this state and others across Australia every day.   These child protection workers are a very rare and very wonderful breed.  Nobody who works in child protection, nobody does it for the money.  Nobody does it for the good feelings of achievement and self-worth at the end of the day.  This is because most of the times, on most days when you get home from work after working in child protection you feel like hell.  You feel like you have been chasing your tail, seeing child after child after child who has been abused or neglected and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.  And there isn’t.

In 2008/09 Community Services in NSW received over 300,000 reports of children being abused or neglected…300,000.  This is a number that is just incomprehensible to most people.  Granted, some of those reports probably shouldn’t have been made; reports of children presenting to school with head lice or without lunches, but a large slice of these reports are children who have been very seriously abused or neglected.  Children who have had serious physical injuries sometimes resulting in death, children who have been so severely sexually abused that they will never have children of their own, children who have been so horrendously psychologically abused and neglected that they will never trust another human being again.

These are the children that stick with you.  These are the children that were depicted by that wonderful little girl in Polly and me.

So what’s the solution?  Everybody is looking for a solution.  In late 2009, the Honourable Justice James Wood conducted an Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW.  You can read his report here.  In March 2010, the NSW government responded to Justice Wood’s report with the Keep Them Safe: A Shared Response to Child Wellbeing report.  This was the government’s 5-year plan to implement most of Justice Wood’s recommendations about the re-shaping of the child protection system in NSW.  You can find more information about this on the website.  The philosophy behind the Keep Them Safe report is that child protection is everybody’s business, not just that of government departments responsible for child protection.  It outlines reforms and recommendations and changes to government practice and policy to improve the child protection system in NSW.

But how many of you knew this? How many people in the community would know that NSW Community Services, NSW Police, NSW Health and NSW Education and Training and other NSW government departments and non-government agencies have faced their biggest shake up ever in terms of how they identify and respond to children at risk of significant harm.  Not many I would think.

This is why community education is absolutely crucial.  We are regularly exposed to all sorts of graphic, visual representations of the dangers in our community splayed daily across our television screens, magazines, newspapers and radio.  The drink driving campaign is a good example.  The graphic depiction of what can happen when you drive over the legal limit.  The campaigns about smoking are just as graphic, as they should be.  The other ones about teenage drinking, the need to rest during long driving trips, the speeding campaigns, all graphic, all with the same message.  We see blood, we see injuries, and ultimately, we see the absolute devastation that these events can bring a family and community…and so we should.

What we don’t see is the devastating effects of child abuse in our community.  We don’t see children being abused and neglected, we don’t see children cowering in corners, we don’t see children being admitted to hospital with broken bones as a result of being physically assaulted by an adult, we don’t see children being admitted to hospital bleeding and broken as a result of being sexually abused by adults.  Why not?

Sure it’s confronting, it’s confronting to think that an adult can harm a child in that way, but we NEED to hear think about that, we need to see the effects, we need to be educated, just as we are about the devastating effects of drink driving, teenage drinking and drug use. These campaigns work because they scare people.  They scare people and they shake people into reality and whenever you have one extra drink and drive, whenever you drag on a cigarette, whenever you take drugs – you think about those ads, even fleetingly.  Those ads are in our subconscious; those ads are in our collective psyche. Children that are being abused and neglected are not, and they should be.

This week is Child Protection Week.

I hope that we can all raise awareness of child abuse and neglect within our families, our circle of friends and our community.  It might not seem like much, but every little bit counts.

For more information you can go to:

NSW Community Services – www.community.nsw.gov.au

NAPCAN – National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect www.napcan.org.au

Keep Them Safe – www.keepthemsafe.nsw.gov.au

To report a child you believe is at risk of significant harm from abuse or neglect call the NSW Community Services Helpline on 132111.

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