Is the system failing abused children?

Jay Stevens had a “pretty rough upbringing” – and that’s putting it mildly. When he was a child he witnessed his mother’s murder (the product of domestic violence), so he knows more than most what it’s like to be the victim of child abuse. He had some support but it wasn’t enough, and for many children, there is even less because their stories go unreported, or when they do try to speak out their voices are not heard. Jay Stevens just doesn’t want any more kids to end up in the same situation he did.

He claims he’s “trying to prevent what actually happened [to him, from happening again in the future].”

“The system itself I think is failing because there’s just not enough support through the system, through the government,” Mr Stevens said.

That’s why Jay Stevens is taking matters into his own hands.

But, “we’re not vigilantes” he is quick to add. “We don’t go after the predators.”

Enter M.A.C.E. (Motorcyclist’s Advocating Child Empowerment). Mr Stevens is one of the founding members of the organisation, and the vice-president of the Southern Tasmania chapter. Their objective? To “empower children that have been affected by sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.”

According to an information leaflet distributed by the MACE organisation: “In 2010 there were 50,550 cases of child abuse reported. Of those only 30,000 were reported to police due to our complex legal system being geared towards the perpetrator. It is conservatively estimated that only one in four cases of child abuse are reported (some estimates have it as high as one in fifteen).”

Mr Stevens: “And it just gets worse and worse each year. Mental abuse cases, sexual abuse cases, verbal bullying, most of it all gets swept under the carpet by the government and it’s so unfair. [Our aim is] raising public awareness of what’s actually happening out there, and the statistics are quite high.”

While I cannot speak for the verity of the information in the leaflet provided by MACE, Mr Stevens does seem to have his facts straight.

According to a 2016 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: “In 2014–15, 151,980 children received child protection services. This equates to 1 in 35 Australian children aged 0–17 who had an investigation, care and protection order and/or were placed in out-of-home care. This was a 6% rise over the past 12 months.”

The report also indicates a 13% increase in children receiving child protection services since 2012.

In the same document it is claimed that “the national recurrent expenditure on child protection and out-of-home care services was about $3.6 billion in 2014–15, a real increase of $228.4 million (6.7%) from 2013–14 (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision 2016).”

In 73% of instances reported for the 2015–2016 period, the cases involved repeat clients. With spending increasing at approximately the same rate as departmentally deemed necessary interventions, it would be easy to draw a link between these figures and some form of systemic failure.

Organisations like MACE that operate outside the departmental framework are eager to help, but there isn’t always a lot they can do, and they still need to work within the system. Mr Stevens says that while MACE have only been operating in Tasmania for two years, nationally it takes 2-3 years to get a case assigned, at which point they can offer a mentoring service. They can talk to the child and the child’s family, accompany the child to school or court if they are required to give evidence, and offer opportunities for socialisation with other disadvantaged children. Beyond that though, their hands are largely tied.

In a presently overburdened and seemingly ineffectual system, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that more can’t be done by those willing and able.

Debra Manskey, who works in a professional capacity with vulnerable people, weighs in on this contentious issue.

“I think there’s a lot of room for people [to help]. Unfortunately, in the past there’s been a number of people who’ve taken advantage. And now in Tasmania it’s a requirement, you can’t go through the door … unless you have a police check and you can’t work [with children] unless you are licensed to work with vulnerable people. And it’s an interesting licensing system because it has to be renewed once a year, and if you don’t do it properly… But the thing is, people in the past have taken advantage of people in vulnerable situations.”

All members of MACE have full police clearance and a license to work with vulnerable people as a condition of joining. They are also affiliated with well-established charities: The Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul Society.

Unfortunately, systemic child abuse has largely occurred in the past within the very framework the government has implemented to protect those same children. The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) has run a series of articles over the past few years concerning widespread abuse of children in foster care, and a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013.

In parliament earlier this week, the Hon Richard Marles said he “would … like to acknowledge the bravery shown by those people who were prepared to tell their stories to the royal commission.”

For Mr Stevens, though, while these are welcome developments, it is still a case of too little too late, and more people are needed ‘on the ground’.

“We really do need someone like us, an organisation, an association like us to get out there and help,” he said.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare did not immediately respond to my request for comment.

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