Child abuse and family violence in Aboriginal communities

Exploring child sexual abuse in Western Australia
Report – May 2002


This brief takes the form of a review of the literature and commentary on family violence and child abuse associated with Indigenous peoples in Western Australia, with particular reference to child sexual abuse. The intention is to inform the Western Australian Government Inquiry into Responses by Government Agencies to complaints of Family Violence and Child Abuse in Aboriginal Communities.

In order to understand this issue, the authors have reviewed existing Australian material, and where relevant (and available) the literature in relation to other Indigenous communities, particularly those in Canada and the USA. 

Family violence - encompassing the totality of violence

For the purpose of this brief the term ‘family violence’ will refer to violence which ‘…occurs between people who are known to each other by way of familial or other domestic relationships, past or present. It includes abuse of parents, siblings and other relatives, but predominantly involves violence against sexual partners and the abuse of children’ (Domestic Violence & Incest Resource Centre [DVIRC] 1998: 12).

‘The term “family violence” has become widely adopted as part of the shift towards addressing intra-familial violence in all its forms, including child abuse and neglect, rather than taking a focus on a particular form of intra-familial violence.  Family violence is widely seen as the term that ‘best encompasses the various forms of violence that may take place between family members.  It is the most inclusive term, and is capable of encompassing changing ideas about what “family” means in late 20th century Australia’ (DVIRC 1998:36).

Family violence is the term adopted in Australian Federal Law (DVIRC 1998) and is also the term preferred generally by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (Cummings & Katona 1995; Bagshaw, Chung, Couch, Lilburn & Wadham 1999). The latter perceive the term to most accurately describe ‘how violence reverberates through the entire family or community’ (DVIRC 1998:13); it allows for the range of family members who may perpetrate violence and a wide conception of violence; and ‘it is not dependent, to the same extent as the term “domestic violence” on a clear delineation between private and public spheres, which are more blurred for indigenous than for non-indigenous people’ (DVIRC 1998:13).

In addition, there is a preference in indigenous communities for issues of violence to be seen as a community issue that takes into account intergenerational issues and not to be seen as a ‘woman’s issue’ (DVIRC 1998). Second, popular or mainstream conceptualisations of violence are often rejected by indigenous communities as a result of the perception that western definitions are not sensitive to the culture and traditions of indigenous Australians (IINA Torres Strait Islander Corporation Research and Resource Centre 1996; SNAIIC 1996; Bagshaw et al. 1999).  

Third, indigenous community groups often indicate a preference for programs that take an holistic approach to addressing issues of violence, loss of cultural identity, substance abuse, and specifically address the needs and rights of indigenous women and children (National Crime Prevention 1999a).  

Finally, there is a preference for identifying and discussing ways of defining indigenous violence that do not alienate perpetrators and/or victims/survivors (Bagshaw et al. 1999).  ‘Family violence’, like all terms that describe aspects of intrafamilial violence, does however suffer from issues of definition (for example, how is ‘family’ defined?; what sorts of violence are encompassed by the term ‘family violence’?)’ (Extract from Tomison 2000:2-3).

The use of the generic term, ‘family violence’ also accommodates the growing body of evidence that different types of violence may occur simultaneously in the same family and that the presence of one form of violence may be a strong predictor of another (for example, Goddard & Hiller 1993, Stanley & Goddard 2002, Tomison 1995b). The literature also indicates the importance of assessing all forms of family violence when investigating child abuse (Tomison 2000). 

Throughout this brief, unless otherwise specified, the term ‘child abuse’ will include sexual abuse (defined below), physical abuse1, emotional abuse2 and neglect3.

Child sexual abuse

A widely used definition of child sexual abuse is that used by Kempe and Kempe (1978). They define child sexual abuse as: ‘(T)he involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activities which they do not fully comprehend, are unable to give informed consent to and that violate social taboos of family roles’ (1978: 60). 

Tomison (1995a: 2) explains that this ‘may involve activities ranging from exposing the child to sexually explicit materials or behaviours, taking visual images of the child for pornographic purposes, touching, fondling and/or masturbation of the child, having the child touch, fondle or masturbate the abuser, oral sex performed by the child, or on the child by the abuser, and anal or vaginal penetration of the child’. 

While studies have indicated that the majority of all sexual abusers are men (Leventhal 1990), a consistent profile of child sex abusers has not emerged (Oates 1990). Perpetrators of child sex assault ‘constitute a markedly heterogeneous group’ (Wurtele & Miller-Perrin 1993: 16).  Factors which increase the likelihood of sexual abuse include the opportunity to offend (for example maternal absence, lack of privacy), the power discrepancy between the offender and the victim, and often the use of alcohol or drugs to overcome inhibitions (Finkelhor 1984, reported by Tomison 1995a). 

The status of Indigenous people in Western Australia

In 1996, Western Australia (WA) had an Indigenous population of 56,205 people, representing 14.6% of the total Indigenous population in Australia and 3.2% of the total population in WA (Edwards & Madden 2001). Based on the lowest estimates of projected population growth, the WA Indigenous population was estimated to be 61,505 in 2001 (Edwards & Madden 2001). Edwards and Madden report that 285 discrete Indigenous communities have been identified in WA, 200 of these having less than 50 people (Edwards & Madden 2001). Most of these discrete communities (92%) are categorised as living in remote and very remote areas (based on the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia).

In the 1996 Census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were found to be disadvantaged across a range of socio-economic measures (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2001). They experienced ‘lower incomes than the non-Indigenous population, higher rates of unemployment, poorer educational outcomes and lower rates of home ownership’ (ABS 2001: 1). Available evidence suggests that Indigenous people continue to suffer from higher levels of ill health than the rest of the Australian population (ABS 2001).  

For example, life expectancy at birth of an Indigenous male is 56 years, compared with 76 years in the total Australian male population. Life expectancy is 63 years for Indigenous females, compared with 82 years in the total female population (ABS 2001). Data from 1994 and 1995 indicated that Indigenous people were more likely than non-Indigenous people to smoke, consume alcohol at hazardous levels, be exposed to violence, and to be categorised as obese (ABS 2001). In WA, Aboriginal people comprised: 31% of people who received services from State Welfare, 32% of the prison population, 31% of the state’s population who used services for homeless people, 18% of those in public housing but only 2% of those receiving Rent Assistance in the private rental market (State Homelessness Taskforce 2002, reported by Bromilow 2002).

History of contact between the Indigenous population of WA and white settlement

The history of contact between the Indigenous population of WA and white settlement is documented in the report, ‘Bringing them Home’ (National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families 1997) (See chapter 7, which reveals the subjugation of the Indigenous population from the first white settlement in WA, in 1829). 

There is a marked difference between the history of child protection of Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children (Jackson 2001). Early in the white settlement of the colony Indigenous people were regarded as ‘savages’ to be controlled and separated from the European community (Jackson 2001). While it is unclear when the separation of children from parents began, the practice had become clear by the second half of the nineteenth century when legislation was passed which allowed removal of Aboriginal children from their families and their re-location at institutions and missions. 

From 1915 to the 1930s Indigenous people were forcibly re-settled into ‘native settlements’ (National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families 1997: 105). However, from the age of 14 years, children of mixed descent were being sent away from the settlements to work, particularly on pastoral stations. First documentation of the sexual abuse of female Indigenous young people appears to have occurred at this point, as it was recorded that ‘a large proportion of the young women returned pregnant’ (National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families 1997: 108). In the 1950s, Indigenous children were removed for ‘education’ reasons and many Western Australian children were also removed for ‘neglect’ under the Child Welfare Act 1947. From the 1960s the policy changed to one of ‘integration’, which then moved to ‘self-management’ (Jackson 2001). Despite this, in 1972, almost one in every ten Aboriginal person in WA was in an institution, the majority of these being children. The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle which states that Indigenous children in out-of-home care should be placed with an Indigenous family, became policy in 1985.

The difference between sexual abuse of Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children

The issue of child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities is largely viewed from a different perspective to that taken in relation to child sexual abuse in Australian society generally. Child sexual abuse in Australian society generally tends to be viewed in individualistic terms; two predominant theories of causation have arisen.  Based on  family therapy, the ‘family dysfunction’ model views child sexual abuse as occurring as a result of dysfunctional family relationships, where the emphasis is on the role of sexual abuse as a means of maintaining equilibrium within the family system. Thus each family member would be seen as having an interest in the continuation of the abuse (O’Hagan 1989).

However, feminist theorists view child sexual abuse from a sociological rather than a familial perspective (Tower 1989), considering the sexual assault of children as an outcome of societal values. According to this view, women and children have inferior social status under the current patriarchal social structure and are subject to male dominance.  Using such a ‘social power’ framework, sexual abuse is seen merely as one part of the range of violence perpetrated by men against women and children (O’Hagan 1989).

In contrast, child sexual abuse in the Indigenous community is largely represented in the literature as arising from a pathological community context. Child sexual abuse is seen as arising from multiple causes, many of which relate to cultural disintegration, unresolved community trauma and racial abuse. Thus, as noted earlier, the issue of child sexual abuse is commonly viewed as one facet of a broader issue of violence in Indigenous communities. While it would seem that a large percentage of child sexual assault is perpetrated by Indigenous men, it is unclear what percentage of assaults are perpetrated by non-Indigenous men who have joined the Indigenous community or who are outside the community.


1 Physical abuse is defined as ‘any non-accidental physical injury inflicted on a child by a person having the care of a child’ (Tomison & Poole 2000: 10).

2 Emotional abuse is determined as ‘any act by a person having the care of a child which results in the child suffering any kind of significant emotional deprivation or trauma’ (Tomison & Poole 2000: 10).

3 Child neglect is ‘any serious omissions or commissions by a person having the care of a child which, within the bounds of cultural tradition, constitute a failure to provide conditions that are essential for the healthy physical and emotional development of a child’ (Tomison & Poole 2000: 10)