Child abuse and family violence in Aboriginal communities

Exploring child sexual abuse in Western Australia
Report – May 2002

Executive Summary

Within the Australian Indigenous community, family violence is commonly used as a broad term, encompassing all forms of violence between members of a kinship group or the immediate community. Concomitantly, abuse of Indigenous children, and particularly sexual abuse, is generally viewed as a community issue, rather than within the narrower nuclear family context used in the non-Indigenous community. The two bodies of knowledge (child abuse within the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities) also differ in terms of their 'ways of knowing' - knowledge on Indigenous issues frequently coming from personal experience.

As in the broader Australian community, the extent of family violence in the Indigenous community, is unclear, although it is known that violence levels are much higher in the Indigenous than the non-Indigenous population. In WA, Aboriginal children are over seven times more likely to be the subject of a substantiated child abuse incident than non-Aboriginal children. Indeed, the levels of violence appear to be so high that there is a risk that this behaviour will become 'normalised' in some communities, thus perpetuating the experience of trauma in future generations.

The causes of family violence in Indigenous communities are commonly viewed in terms of a response to past traumas, including the impact of the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their families and the long history of oppression and dispossession, as well as being due to present significant disadvantage. The present problems relate to economic, social and health disadvantage, complicated for some, by the experience of racism, substance abuse and behavioural problems. It would appear that repeated layers of pain have contributed to manifestations of despair and self-destruction, behaviour that did not appear to be present prior to the disintegration of many traditional cultural laws.   

WA is the only Australian state which does not have mandatory reporting of at least some forms of child abuse by at least some professionals. While there is no requirement in any state to report occurrences of sexually transmitted diseases, the mandatory reporting of child abuse laws in other states do provide a base-line cover for sexually abused children, one which is not available in WA.

Best practice responses and solutions to Indigenous violence are difficult to find due to both what would seem to be a dearth of programs and the lack of documented evaluations about the effectiveness of programs. The many reports on the problems within Indigenous communities conclude that the general failure to find solutions is exacerbated by a significant lack of resources, an on-going paternalistic approach towards Indigenous people and a reluctance to address the problem. The latter being  due to issues such as Indigenous mistrust of the government and government uncertainty about what should be done. A number of broad principles for programs are repeatedly identified in the literature. They include the need for major policy change which gives power and decision-making back to the Indigenous community, together with financial resources adequate to make a change and professional support to the community.