For abuse of a child to occur, the first necessary condition is that the child remain silent, that their voice not be heard. This silence may be engineered by the abuser, using their status, fear or shame. It may be engineered by institutions that are passive in protecting children or complicit in covering it up or by adults and peers who are not alert to the signs or do not know how to respond.
A just-released Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) Practice Paper Protection through participation – Involving children in child-safe organisations is a practical guide to how to talk with children about their safety and feelings of safety. The paper is itself based on the Australian Catholic University’s research into how children understand and experience safety in institutions conducted last year for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.
The paper is an excellent resource suitable both for organisations developing their systems and for individual concerned adults. It combines general discussion with some specific and practical advice and tools. It tells us:
- Children want to be in the know. They want to understand if there are risks or troubling events. Adults sometimes minimise this information thinking they are protecting the child but, in the words of one young person, ‘They think they should hide that stuff from kids to keep them safe but you feel more scared if you don’t know what’s happening.’
- Children want to be asked for their views and involved in solutions. Sometimes group discussions are appropriate but in some situations, where the level of trust is not high or there is likely be shame or embarrassment, anonymous reporting via suggestion boxes or surveys may be a way to start the conversation. Involving children in decisions about a wide range of issues that affect them is good practice and should be normal in institutions. It builds confidence in children for when more challenging matters arise for them.
- Adults need to be skilled and calm. They need to be informed about the real risks faced by children, the possible signs of abuse and to know how to approach a child or how to respond if approached. Responses that adults may have heard and learned in their own childhood like ‘just grow up’, ‘walk away’ or ‘it’s not a big deal’ can close down approaches by children and end conversations about abuse. Adults must be aware of their own emotional triggers and set them aside to explore a child’s disclosures calmly and reasonably.
- Adults need to be available. Children will raise issues more readily with people with whom they have a meaningful relationship and this takes time to build. Opportunities for discussion can occur at unpredictable times, like doing the dishes or driving somewhere in the car, and the adults who are physically and emotionally present are key to hearing a child’s concerns.
- Recognise and use the power of peers. The paper says it most succinctly:
‘Young people are more likely to listen to peers and those people who have successfully protected themselves or dealt with situations if they arose. Working in partnership with young people to run workshops, teach classes or initiate conversations were all seen as helpful.’