In a few moments I will invite Rosie Batty to officially launch the report, but first I want to relay a little of how the issue of family and domestic has crossed my brief as National Children’s Commissioner since I began in the role.
In 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued its Concluding Observations on Australia.
At the time, the UN Committee expressed grave concern at our children’s exposure to family and domestic violence, and in particular its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.
In 2013, during my first year in the role, children and young people repeatedly raised with me their concerns about feeling safe, and the importance of living free from all forms of violence.
As a result, my 2013 Children’s Rights Report identified the protection of children from violence as a priority for my work.
The impact of family and domestic violence was again raised with me in 2014 when I looked into the issue of intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour among children.
A police representative at one of the national roundtables I held as part of that work, and who had reviewed all child suicides in the previous 12 months in one state, told me ‘that every child who suicided came from a family with a domestic violence background.’
My 2014 Children’s Rights Report identified the intersection of intentional self-harm, and family and domestic violence, as an area requiring further research and focus. We ended 2014, and began this year, with an unprecedented national conversation and I hope, commitment, to end family and domestic violence.
This, however, did not arise from government reports or political leadership, it arose from the most deeply tragic of circumstances.
On 12 February 2014, 11-year old, Luke Batty, was killed by his father. Luke’s mother, Rosie, found the strength to rise above her personal tragedy to speak out about the scourge of family and domestic violence. Rosie captured the nation’s attention with her bravery. As a result we have seen an explosion of news reporting about family and domestic violence, whereas before there was relative silence.
In recent months, all too often there has been front page news around the country about a terrible sequence of deaths of mothers and their children. Because of Rosie Batty, and the courage of other adults and children who have spoken out, we can no longer ignore this issue.
Federal, state and territory governments, our nation’s leaders in business and the community, at this point in history, appear united in their determination to address family and domestic violence. And from a public policy perspective, we have benefitted enormously in recent times from increased government cooperation to end violence.
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children have been in place since 2009 and 2010 respectively.
These two national policy initiatives represent the highest level of collaboration between governments, and a shared vision to end violence against women and children. Outcomes under the national plans are achieved through a series of three-year Action Plans, and I am pleased the latest Action Plans for both include a strong focus on preventing and responding to domestic and family violence.
Given this national attention and commitment, I decided to use my report this year to highlight the unique experiences of children affected by family and domestic violence. This involved receiving submissions, collecting and analysing new data, reviewing the research and hosting a series of expert forums and individual consultations. The results are showcased in the Children’s Rights Report we are launching today.
The report highlights new information about the incidence of and impact of family on children and sets out three main areas for concerted action by governments - in relation to data and research, early intervention and system reform.
New data generated for this work shows that 1 in 12 men and women experienced physical abuse by a family member, and one in 28 experienced sexual abuse by a family member, before the age of 15.
Available Victims of Crime data for some jurisdictions only further indicates that for the four year period to 2013, there were over 14000 physical assaults and over 12000 sexual assaults of children perpetrated by parents or other family members - mostly directed at younger children aged between 0 and nine years of age. For me these are shocking statistics that show just how many children are direct victims of violence in the home.
Previous studies have also estimated that over 20% of children and young people have witnessed violence against a mother or step mother.
However, despite the data we have sourced, the availability of information about children's exposure is extremely poor and something, as a nation, we need to urgently remedy if we are serious about addressing this issue.
Currently, nationally disaggregated data about children affected by family and domestic violence is not readily available, there is limited breakdown on the age or characteristics of child victims, limited data about offenders and perpetrators, and inconsistent use of terminology and recording of data.
So my first tranche of recommendations go to the need to undertake research and collect basic data about children's unique experiences of family and domestic violence. We must be able to identify those children affected by family violence, to understand its nature, scope and frequency and to inform the targeting of interventions. By not paying adequate attention to this blight on our society, we will continue to either ignore or minimise it.
Second, there is a clear need for early intervention, from a child's conception, especially in the early years of a child's life. In particular have called for routine screening and better information on family and domestic violence during pregnancy.
Research is now clear that exposure to family violence can have significant negative impacts on the the developmental trajectory of children, including in utero, and has been directly linked to mood and personality disorders, impaired cognitive functioning and learning, antisocial and aggressive behaviours, heightened anxiety and pervasive fear. And these traumatic impacts are increasingly being recognised in children whether they are direct victims of family and domestic violence or bystanders to it.
And third, we need to develop a national response framework that prioritises the needs of children. Most children receive no help at all. Some may be helped as a result of services provided to their parents, primarily in terms of their immediate safety. Some may receive child protection services, and still others may be involved in family court proceedings. It is clear through the work I have undertaken that none of these systems are particularly well equipped to deal with the needs of children affected by family violence, especially where there are multiple victims, like a mother and a child. Overall children get little of the therapeutic support they need to recover, either in the immediate aftermath or on an ongoing basis. Children tend to be lost and unheard in these different systems which in the main operate as separate entities and struggle to talk and cooperate with each other a critical times.
I don't have time to detail all of the findings or recommendations contained in the report, but I will say this.
The experiences of children must be understood in their own right, and not just as part of an adult situation. We know that family and domestic violence is widespread and predominantly associated with violence against women, but its impact on children is variable, poorly documented and not well understood.
We need to generate evidence to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and we need to translate what evidence we do have into action.
If ending violence is our priority - and it must be - we need a seismic shift in cultural attitudes - one that recognises every child, every woman, every person as the holders of inalienable, universal rights to freedom from violence in all its forms. We must do all we can to remove violence from the lives of our children.
I am acutely aware that this Christmas will be Rosie's second without Luke. I cannot commend Rosie enough for her willingness to speak out about this issue and the work she has done so tirelessly since Luke's death, so that women and children do not have to live a life in constant fear. She has done this without compromise and in the face of unbearable grief, in order to make change happen. I hope, Rosie, that you see this report as a homage to Luke and the 23 children every year that pay the ultimate price of family and domestic violence.
I would now like to invite Rosie Batty to officially launch the Children’s Rights Report 2015.