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Family Matters No. 83 - October 2009

Institute seminars and events

"Telling stories": Child abuse, neglect and adult sexual assault

Dr Leah Bromfield and Dr Antonia Quadara

Seminar held at the Institute on 1 May 2009 - Report by Alister Lamont

The Institute's first seminar of the year was presented by two of our leading researchers, Dr Leah Bromfield (Manager, National Child Protection Clearinghouse) and Dr Antonia Quadara (Coordinator, Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault). Using a conversational format, the presenters discussed the shared experiences and needs of victims/survivors of adult sexual assault and families who come into contact with child protection services.

In highlighting five particular areas they coined as "stories" for discussion, Dr Bromfield and Dr Quadara identified how adult sexual assault services and child protection services share clients (e.g., child victims, adult victims and adult survivors who are now parents) and that each group shares similar experiences relating to trauma and victimisation. The presenters also highlighted significant differences between both fields, particularly in relation to support needs and pathways into services.

The five stories discussed were: Symbolic economies of victimisation; Vulnerability to victimisation; Trauma; Who harms women and children?; and Systems responses. From these, Dr Bromfield and Dr Quadara highlighted several key similarities between the two fields, including factors relating to the "vulnerability of victimisation", such as gender (girls/women experiencing sexual abuse at higher rates), domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse problems.

The key differences highlighted by the presenters included how child abuse and adult sexual abuse are depicted differently in the media. Depictions of child abuse tend to cast parents and the child protection system as being accountable for failing children, whereas adult assaults are depicted as being "random", are often renamed as "scandals", and the experiences of victims are rarely identified.

The most valuable area of discussion concerned the story of "Who harms women and children?". Dr Bromfield discussed the fact that perpetrators of child abuse are usually parents, yet regardless of who is the main perpetrator, it is usually the mother who is involved in child protection services. Dr Quadara highlighted that therefore considerable overlap occurred in women's experiences of domestic and/or sexual violence, as adult victims are often involved in child protection services as well. The key message was that adult victims of domestic and sexual violence can often be parents, yet services for adult victims are usually only adult-focused.

In identifying the similarities and differences between the two sectors, the presenters brought a greater insight and depth of understanding into how to better inform the service system.

Home-to-school transitions for financially disadvantaged children

Diana Smart

Seminar held at the Institute on 2 July 2009 - Report by Jenny Renda

In this seminar, Diana Smart, one of the Institute's General Managers of Research, presented findings from a recent study, commissioned by the Smith family, that used data from the Growing Up in Australia: Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) to examine how 4-5 year old children from financially disadvantaged families fare in relation to other children on cognitive and social/emotional aspects of school readiness and subsequent early primary school progress. Ms Smart revealed that, without considering other factors, there were clear links between financial disadvantage and poor school readiness, with the language area showing the most marked differences. However, she also noted the importance of acknowledging that the majority of children from financially disadvantaged families were found to be school-ready, while 10-20% of those from families that were not financially disadvantaged were found not to be school-ready, depending on the type of school readiness examined.

Ms Smart then discussed other factors that were associated with enhanced or reduced school readiness; for example, particular child and parental characteristics, family environment factors, child care/preschool experiences and local area characteristics. Once these aspects were included, family financial disadvantage was no longer a significant influence, with the exception of language skills. However, financially disadvantaged families were found to have a higher number of risk factors associated with low school readiness (such as a less educated or younger mother, being read to less than three days per week or not being in formal care or preschool education). Generally, risk and protective factors were similar for children from financially disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged families. Examination of early primary school progress revealed that children who were both from financially disadvantaged families and showed poor school readiness were at the greatest risk of poor outcomes.

In concluding her presentation, Ms Smart highlighted the areas this research suggested could be targeted by policy or intervention to improve children's school readiness. Given the similarity of risk factors for the financially disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged groups, interventions do not need to be tailored specifically to children from financially disadvantaged families. Rather, in addressing the risk factors associated with poor school readiness, the needs of these families are likely to be met. Strategies that address the needs of boys, build children's capacity to persist and maintain their attention, encourage parenting that is consistent and avoids harshness, encourage parents to read to their children, and enable participation in preschool education, offer the most promising means of improving school readiness among children, from financially disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged backgrounds alike.