The Australian Medical Association has recently come out in favour of a Victorian proposal to require people to report child sexual abuse. The proposal, made by the Minister for Community Services, Ms Setches, would involve mandatory reporting of suspected cases of child sexual abuse. She has appointed Mrs Delys Sargeant of the Family and Children’s Services Council to look into the legal implementation of the scheme. Ms Setches said her concern arose over the fact that about 1400 cases were reported in Victoria last year, lower than the national average.
While the AMA has welcomed the proposal, other welfare groups, including the Victorian Council of Social Service, and the Children’s Welfare Association have opposed it.
While at first glance it might seem that any efforts to prevent or minimize child abuse can only be described as positive, a number of negative features in fact lurk beneath the surface. It is concern about such possible dangers in mandatory reporting which requires that the debate be approached with caution and both eyes wide open.
No one would argue with the fact that child abuse – physical and sexual – is a tragic and horrible phenomena. It cannot be justified under any circumstance. However, equally appalling is the horror associated with false accusations of child abuse. The break up of families; the emotional and psychological turmoil produced; the ruined careers and damaged reputations; and the mistrust and suspicion generated are all tragic results of wrong reports of child abuse. Most lamentable is when children are forcibly taken from parents, or when parents are incarcerated or kept away from their offspring.
The American Experience
Such dangers are of course not just possibilities. In far too many cases they are actualities. In America for example it is reported that one million families are falsely accused of child abuse each year. Child abuse hot lines are overloaded with anonymous calls reporting alleged cases of child abuse. Child abuse is defined so loosely and vaguely that scolding, spanking, or raising one’s voice can be regarded as abuse. Indeed, abuse includes vague concepts such as emotional neglect or educational neglect. Thus withholding TV-watching privileges or practising home-schooling can be considered abuse.
The situation in America has become one of paranoia and mistrust. Child-care workers are afraid to change a baby’s nappies for fear of being accused of “fondling”. Children who are under weight or of sub-average height may be put in a foster home because of “failure to thrive” – a clear case of parental neglect! Teachers accused of abuse are removed from their job, although often it turns out the student accuser was simply trying to get back at the teacher for a low mark! In divorce cases there has been an explosion of claims of child sexual abuse. Some are legitimate of course but many are motivated by bitterness or desire to maintain sole custody of a child.
Such stories can be multiplied at length. Similar horror stories are being repeated in England and Europe as well.
What about Australia? Surely it is not that bad here? At the moment, it isn’t. But it is a truism that what occurs in America, whether good or ill, in five or ten years time finds its way to Australia. And clearly the deluge has begun. To cite but two recent examples: The Sunday Age (16-2-92) featured a large two-page spread on what it headlined a “State-tortured family”. The story described the horror a family went through when their intellectually disabled daughter was twice taken away from them at Community Services Victoria instigation. Her father was wrongly accused of sexually abusing the daughter, putting the family through an ordeal which they described as “torture” and “tragic”.
And in South Australia, government school teachers have been banned from cuddling distressed children, even as young as five. The Education Minister said cuddling and consoling a child was “inappropriate behavior”. The ban is a result of fear of being sued for child abuse.
Such stories are appearing with alarming regularity. Clearly Australia is heading down the same unfortunate road America and Europe have followed. Indeed, one wonders if Australia may not soon emulate Germany which has recently proposed legislation making it a criminal offense to spank children, scold or nag children, or “withdraw affection”.
Ironically, when Australia and the West is heading even further in the direction of totalitarian, anti-family legislation, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is struggling to free itself from such shackles. Only recently have we begun to learn of the true nature of communist tyranny. In East Germany it has been revealed that the Stazi, the secret police, had files on an entire third of the population. Not only had neighbours informed on neighbours, but family members had informed on spouses, children and parents. Clearly this is not the situation one would wish to see replicated in Australia today.
Dangers of Mandatory Reporting
Mandatory reporting of abuse is open to all sorts of, well, abuse. Besides the harm done to the family, it tends to produce self-perpetuating bureaucracies, which feed on such problems. Politically motivated lobby groups and welfare agencies, whose funding – and very livelihood – depends on the incidence of abuse, are all too tempted to exaggerate the problem. As one welfare worker put it, mandatory reporting results in “a huge expansion of staff and a redirection of resources from developing community supports for parenting to investigations and more investigations”. Any program which mitigates against the family, or least lessens support for it, will not help children, but will only further harm them.
Also, mandatory reporting fosters a climate of suspicion, fear, mistrust and paranoia. Worst of all, children are taught to fear and suspect the very ones they most need – their parents. The protective behaviours programs are creating just such an atmosphere.
And of major concern is the fact that the accuser is not held accountable for accusations made. An accusation can be made out of hurt, or out of spite, yet the accuser faces no jury or judge as does the accused. Moreover, too many non-experts – teachers, social workers – will be forced into reporting, whereas only qualified personnel, for example, medical practitioners and lawyers, should be involved in such reporting.
Particular problems with the Victorian proposal include the following:
No one knows exactly how many cases of abuse occur. There are no reliable figures on the subject, although some experts in the field doubt whether actual cases of child sexual abuse is on the increase. Thus Ms Setches concern about Victoria’s supposed lower rate of reporting is unjustified. Moreover, some studies suggest that the family is not the chief source of abuse. Mr. Geoffrey Partington has argued that non-family carers account for some 70% of all abuse cases.
Also, the appointment of Mrs Sargeant is of some concern. Her seeming approval of homosexuality, and other non-traditional expressions of sexuality, would seem to encourage the very environment in which child abuse would occur.
The Roots Of Child Abuse
It is worth looking at some of the cultural/ideological factors which may contribute to the causes of child abuse. Clearly, prevention of child abuse is best accomplished by getting at the roots of child abuse. Ironically, most social workers, teachers and lobbyists who are most vocal about child abuse are part of what has been called the “New Class”, a group of people whose mindset is characterized by such principles as moral relativism, secularism, liberalism, welfarism and statism, most of whom find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private. This is the very mindset that has cultivated the soil in which child abuse can flourish. What are some of the features of this mindset which result in anti-child attitudes and activities? They include the following:
-The Abortion Culture. Abortion in and of itself of course is the greatest example of child abuse. But the abortion mentality cannot help but lead to anti-child attitudes and actions. As one writer put, “if you can legally murder your child before birth, it’s hard to understand why you can’t slap him around afterwards”.
-The Pornography Culture. Not only is pornography degrading to women, it is increasingly dangerous to children. Sexual desire, removed from its context of love, trust, commitment and responsibility, is inherently anti-baby. Sex is divorced from reproduction and women and children are treated as playthings or commodities.
-The Divorce Culture. Marital unfaithfulness and sexual infidelity break apart families and especially hurt children. No fault divorce has simply compounded the problem and its harmful effects.
-The Drug and Alcohol Culture
These and other features of the liberal/secular mindset have helped set the stage for the increase of an anti-child mentality in general, and the mushrooming of child abuse cases in particular.
What Should Be Done?
The following are proposals that need to be fleshed out more, but they are a starting point.
-Education. Objective public education programmes, which include full participation of parents, should be supported.
-Training. Only properly-trained authorities, such as police or medical doctors, should be involved in making reports of child abuse.
-Clarity of definition. Clear, precise definitions of what constitutes child abuse should be hammered out. Once agreed upon and enacted into law, they should be openly, widely publicized.
-Evidence. Rumour and hearsays is not sufficient. Proper evidence and eye witnesses, should be produced, where possible.
-Civil rights. Those accused should be subject to due process of law, with full civil rights accorded to them. No more “guilty until proven innocent”.
-Reporting. No more anonymous incriminations. Informants should be held accountable for their reporting. No “hot lines”.
In sum, child abuse is a serious problem. But if we are not careful, we may make the problem worse. Thus we need to proceed with caution, as we seek to get the right mix: preventing abuse while preventing false accusations of abuse.