It’s a headline you wish you’d never read at all but unfortunately, it’s true – and something every parent needs to be aware of.
A leading child protection expert has previously warned of a rise in the number of young children sexually abusing their peers in preschool and primary schools across Australia.
Professor Freda Briggs from the University of South Australia told the ABC that children as young as five are displaying problem sexualised behaviour. The Professor who wrote a paper called “Child sexual abuse in early-childhood care and education settings” highlights important issues that every parent should understand.
Why is child-on-child sexual abuse happening?
In her research, Professor Briggs suggested that the behaviour of abusers is a result of two specific causes; their own sexual abuse and/or exposure to pornography.
“Children of say six are sexually abusing children of five, and usually it is about replicating either what’s happened to them as abused victims or that they’ve seen too much pornography and (they’re) trying to do what they’ve seen the grown-ups do,” she explained to the ABC.
One of just many: a horrifying example in South Australia
At the time of publication, Professor Briggs’ report shared many examples of abuse across Australia with children as young as preschool age and into the upper primary school years. She was also involved in assisting parents from an Adelaide school where a group of six-year-old boys have been forcing five-year-olds to perform oral sex on them.
One of the victims’ mothers, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Professor and the ABC: “My son told me other boys in kindy were kissing penises and they were asking him to do it too.
“They asked him, ‘do you want to play Star Wars?’, and then they made him do it. I went to the principal and she said, ‘we don’t believe you, we don’t believe it’s happened at school’.”
The struggle with reporting – schools dismiss abuse as ‘normal curiosity’
Many schools are ill-equipped to deal with such complaints. Denial and mismanagement is a recurring theme according to the parents of victims. When the incident occurs with children under 10 it is not illegal, which makes getting a resolution as a victim even more tricky.
Professor Briggs confirmed that many schools did not respond well to reports of children sexually abusing their peers.
“Typically schools have ignored it and dismissed it as normal sexual curiosity when it isn’t,” she said.
“And as a consequence, they haven’t reported it or when they do report it, it’s often reported minimally such as it’s inappropriate behaviour.”
Professor Briggs’ report identified this topic is a neglected area of research and that teachers and social workers are not trained in how to deal with the child perpetrators or their victims.
“Teachers are just not supported; police are not interested because the children are much too young to be arrested, so there’s no crime committed,” Professor Briggs said.
Juvenile abusers will continue this behaviour if not addressed
Research has shown that in 80 per cent of cases, child perpetrators are re-enacting their own experiences of sexual abuse or things they have seen in the media.
“They will replicate what’s happened to them because it releases some of the fear if you can play at it with other people,” Professor Briggs said.
“[The] problem is that if the children enjoy the power that it gives them when they do this with younger children, it’s apt to continue and become a habitual behaviour.
We need appropriate treatment for these children. You can’t wait until they’ve been abusing for several years and only tackle them when they’re in their teens. But initially, we need to be asking the first child who is doing this who showed them how to play that game. Not in a reprimanding sort of way, but to investigate.”
The issue with schools sweeping incidents of child-on-child sexual abuse under the rug is that the abuser’s behaviour remains unchanged and it is likely to escalate and worsen.
What do parents need to know about child-on-child sexual abuse?
It is important that parents are mindful that whilst rare, child-on-child sexual abuse does occur in preschools and Australian schools.
Encouraging a policy of open and honest communication in your home and a culture of ‘no secrets’ is important so that children will feel safe to come to you if they have worries about themselves or other children.
Of course, preventing child exposure to pornography is crucial (whether this potentially manifests in abuse or simply to avoid little people seeing things they are not able to appropriately process). For more information on managing devices in your home visit the government’s eSafety website.
The Western Australian Department of Child Protection advises that when a child or young person tells you that he or she is being abused by someone of any age, the most important things you can do are:
- believe the child
- reassure the child that telling you was the right thing to do
- maintain a calm appearance
- find a quiet place to talk with the child
- be truthful
- listen to the child and let them take their time
- let the child use their own words to tell you what happened
- let the child know what you will do next
- do not confront the person alleged to be the abuser
- call the Department’s district office nearest to where the child lives
- be respectful of the sensitive nature of the information and only discuss the child’s situation with professionals who are dealing with the matter
- if possible, write down what the child has said.
Resources that support victims of sexual abuse
If you have any reason to believe your child has been sexually abused, contact the police and the school’s headmaster. Health NSW provides the following resources that can also be of assistance:
- ACT – Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 6247 2525
- New South Wales – NSW Rape Crisis Centre (24/7) Phone: 1800 424 017 or NSW Health Sexual Assault Services (visit web page to find the number in your local area)
- Northern Territory – Department of Health, Sexual Assault Referral Centres
- Queensland – Sexual Assault Helpline 1800 010 120
- South Australia – Yarrow Place Rape and Sexual Assault Service (08) 8226-8777 or 1800 817 421 freecall
- Tasmania – Sexual Assault Support Service 1800 697 877
- Victoria – Sexual Assault Crisis Line 1800 806 292
- Western Australia – Sexual Assault Resource Centre (08) 6458 1828 or free call 1800 199 888
More reading on child sexual abuse
If you’re feeling motivated to know more about this devastating topic and how to keep your children safe, here are some great articles: How to Talk about Private Parts with your Children as part of child protection, Learn the Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children (a quick and informative 3-minute read) and How to Tell if Your Child is Being Bullied.
A Champion of Children
Professor Freda Briggs died in 2016. South Australia’s Acting Premier John Rau said at the time of her death, “We are all actually better off for having her loud, clear voice in the areas that she’s spoken up on. At times perhaps [it was] discomforting for governments but ultimately with the result that things have been brought into the light.”
Former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer tweeted that the academic had been a “champion of children” and would be “very much missed”.
Whilst this research was released 5 years ago it is still valuable for parents to understand the issue as well as create strategies in the home to protect and assist their children as needed.