TRIGGER WARNING – This section describes circumstances in which children have experienced abuse
In trying to reduce rates of child abuse, parents have been directed to learn about grooming behaviours and personal safety education for young children, which is fantastic. But, I haven’t seen a lot of information around how to assess the safety of environments and cultures within community groups. So, after observing a community group that described itself as “Child Safe”, but wasn’t really that safe, I’m on a mission to raise awareness about the risks of overnight activities and unsupervised environments.
Survivors and their families have taught us that it’s really hard for children to recognise they are being groomed, extremely hard to speak up once the abuse is occurring and near impossible for community groups to keep predators out. Rather than focusing exclusively on vetting systems, I believe we should be identifying the environments that allow grooming and abuse to go unwitnessed.
I hope these observations help you better understand why I think camping and overnight activities should be reserved for older children (who are assertive enough to challenge authority, old enough to problem solve complex, threatening situations and speak up if they do experience abuse).
Abused Children Sometimes Abuse Other Children
While not all abused children go on to abuse other children, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 7.7% Australians experienced sexual abuse as children (Personal Safety, Australia, ABS 2016).
The average age for the first incident of sexual abuse was 8.8 years for children who experienced sexual abuse, and 6.8 years for children who experienced both physical and sexual abuse (Personal Safety, Australia, ABS 2016). If we use this data to model the risk of a child experiencing abuse, by the time children are 9, it is likely there will be a child in their primary school class who has experienced sexual abuse, and some of those kids will have been suffering for years and many of them won’t have spoken up yet.
When young children have been abused, they sometimes re-enact their abuse on other children. When you are trying to decide whether your child is ready for overnight activities, ask yourself whether they would have the ability to disclose harassment and abuse, but also whether they could handle it. Kids can recover from abuse like they can recover from a car accident, but sometimes it’s a long and expensive process. The reality is when children are unsupervised, you will see beautiful interactions that build friendship, but also bullying, violence and abuse.
Acknowledging this genuine risk, ask yourself whether the experiences being offered outweigh that risk, remembering that kids with additional needs are targeted.
Unsupervised Environments Enable Unwitnessed Abuse
Unsupervised environments (like change rooms, tents and boarding rooms) are places where abuse occurred historically. If an institution has a history of child abuse (as many do), but hasn’t changed much about its activities or culture, the same incidents can take place.
During my time leading camps and sleepovers for young children, I grew to realise I wasn’t supervising when I was sleeping. I once awoke to see my son pulling his pants up as he left a toilet connected to the hall where our sleepover was being held. Another child’s father was standing at the toilet door, helping him back to bed. In that moment I realised I had no idea what had just happened.
In my work to improve safeguards in this community group, when I raised the topic of sleepovers, leaders would describe circumstances where they found themselves alone with a child at night during a camp, because they were the only leader who got up to help the child. These were honest people, feeling awkward about breaking the rule that you needed to have two adults present when helping a child. I didn’t suspect them of doing harm, but it does illustrate that overnight activities create circumstances where a child could experience unwitnessed abuse.
When thinking about whether your child is ready to go camping, remember traumatised kids don’t always disclose their abuse and sleeping leaders aren’t supervising. We can train little kids to wake up two adults and a friend to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t mean they will. If a predator is part of an adult support team, you simply can’t guarantee anyone will wake up to witness grooming or abuse.
Personal Safety Education is Important, but it’s Not Enough
When I first learned about personal safety education, I imagined teaching children the language to describe abuse would change everything. I pictured children running to their carers to disclose immediately. However, it’s much more complicated. Through my study, I became aware of the effects of abuse on memory and the way many children ‘block’ traumatic memories. I became aware of trauma bonds and other confusing, unexpected dynamics between the abused and abusers. I had not understood how the brain was changed by abuse.
I’ve read accounts of survivors who denied being abused for years, even when questioned directly. Furthermore, children with additional needs don’t always have the capacity to form memories they can describe. None-the-less, the abuse changes their brains, they become triggered by smells and sounds. They might re-enact abuse without being able to recall who taught them the behaviours. They might not be able to disclose their abuse in a way the criminal system can prosecute.
Children sometimes take decades to disclose abuse, so while we see statistics like “one in four girls report have experienced sexual abuse in childhood,” and some of those kids were hurt by other kids during school and community activities, it’s unlikely to see those statistics reflected in the data collected by institutions themselves. So, while an institution might say they are “Child Safe” it in no way guarantees children aren’t experiencing sexual harassment and abuse in their walls.
Community Groups Can Lack Resources to Address Child Protection Effectively
During the three years I spent advocating for improved safeguards in a community group, I witnessed a lot of complacency around child protection policy and its enforcement by leaders. The committee in charge of child protection included highly trained professionals, but went through a change in leadership and met only occasionally due to personal health issues in the team. Overnight activity policy for camps and sleepovers had been developed quickly and didn’t require overnight security for young children, but the chair of the child protection committee was unaware of this for years. The child protection committee was unaware of a number of child safety incidents, like leaders assisting children alone at night, because they relied on leaders completing incident report forms and leaders weren’t. When risk assessments were prepared, they contained complex, detailed strategies to reduce the risk of physical injuries, dehydration and sunburn, but there was no acknowledgement or strategies for risks like sexual harassment, abuse or physical violence. The child protection committee relied on poorly maintained, data to assess their risk.
Some institutions run activities knowing some kids will experience serious physical injuries and some will experience abuse during those activities. I’ve listened to senior leaders reason that an institution’s responsibility is to minimise abuse, not eliminate it. On the other hand they project an image of safety to the community. I would argue it isn’t the right of institutions to make decisions on behalf of parents regarding risks like sexual abuse. Instead, I believe they have a responsibility to be transparent about these risks and allow parents to make informed choices.
In truth, most people would prefer to leave the difficult work of child protection to others. It could be argued to ask people to do this work unpaid is exploitative. It’s understandable they might not have enough time to do an excellent job. Only, it’s an essential role within institutions which requires a nuanced approach that recognises how frightened people are of being falsely accused, or falsely accusing others and if it gets left to people who are in denial of the extent of the problem, burned out, inured or inexperienced, I’ve seen it lead to poor policy and little accountability.
Police Vetting Systems Aren’t a Complete Safeguard
Institutions often reassure parents with policies insisting every adult has been vetted for a criminal record by the police.
This messaging reinforces a significant community misunderstanding about police checks and vetting systems. A lack of a criminal conviction does not guarantee someone is safe around children. It skirts a more complicated truth, that child abuse is incredibly difficult to prove in court. Therefore, abusers can remain at large in positions of authority, even when they have been accused of child abuse.
After reading the data on family violence and the Royal Commission’s[i] findings, if you really consider what it tells us – it is that adult predators surrounded every school, every church and every swimming pool. Sometimes they were the people least suspected (like married fathers, trusted youth workers, counselors or faith leaders). Their survivors were in every classroom. While there were a handful of predators who attacked hundreds of children, there was a far larger number who attacked a small number of children. Sometimes they hurt their own biological kids. It is a difficult and disillusioning reality to make sense of, but as parents of children with additional needs, we need to understand that predators are likely to be around every community group and institution we attend, and they will often target us and our children. If your intuition is telling you that you’re being groomed, don’t let the fact someone has a police check reassure you.
Where There Is Poor Accountability Standards Slip
During my time volunteering with young children, a senior leader lamented that all you needed to be accepted as a leader in our community group was “two legs” . She had been serving for over forty years. Leaders were hard to find, had a range of motivations for being there and were sometimes difficult to manage. So, while there was a great website detailing robust policies and procedures, if a leader didn’t quite follow the rules or their responsibilities slipped, they were often forgiven. If leaders actively broke some rules, but were otherwise hardworking, it was often ignored. For example, our group had a ‘no alcohol’ policy, yet several leaders ignored the rule including a senior leader on the child protection committee. When they were reported for it, they weren’t sacked and it wasn’t taken as a sign they might be ignoring other rules. This was problematic, because it actively misled parents about the standards they could expect, but also because misconduct clusters and if people aren’t being held accountable to the rules you can’t have any confidence children are being safely supervised.
Some Grooming Behaviours Are The Same Behaviours Good People Use to Build Friendships, Trust and Community
If you listen to survivors describe grooming, they often talk about how their abuser made them feel special before the abuse. Only, if you list the grooming activities, a lot are similar to small acts of kindness. A trip to McDonald’s, a thoughtful birthday present, a conversation that made them feel understood. If you speak with parents of survivors, they’ll describe being supported and listened to without judgement. They’ll talk about believing they’d found a friend – someone they could trust. I’m concerned using the word ‘grooming’ confuses people into thinking there’s something distinctive about grooming behaviours that build trust, when mostly the only difference is motive. If a program allows predators to run amazing, fun activities and then transition to overnight activities, it has done a lot of grooming for them in plain sight.
You need to be open to the possibility that predators are in your community, even if everyone has a police check. History teaches us it’s highly likely predators are around every school sized group in some way. It teaches us they sometimes cooperate. In “Ten Things Every Child WIth Autism Wishes You Knew,” Ellen Notbohm quotes a psychiatrist who observes that while most men care enormously about their own children, they rarely show the same level of attentiveness toward other people’s children.[ii] Therefore, as parents we need to really assess the motives of men (who make up the great majority of predators) around young children. If men aren’t earning a living from the work or supporting their own children alongside your child, if they are paying individualised attention to a vulnerable child or family, if they are blurring the boundaries of their role, it’s a huge red flag. [ii] You don’t have to assume they are predators, but be very careful.
We can support our safe teachers, volunteers and professionals who work with young children by ensuring they are able to do their work in plain sight at all times. We need to fund more support in classrooms and create infrastructure that improves visibility. We need to acknowledge the inherent risks of some environments like camps and sleepovers and postpone those experiences for later childhood.