Australia's response to sexualised or sexually abusive behaviours in children and young people

30 Jul 2010

This study has been conducted for the Australian Crime Commission's National Indigenous Intelligence Task Force (NIITF). An objective of the NIITF is to conduct research on intelligence and information co-ordination and identification of good practice in the prevention, detection and responses to violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities.

Responding to children and young people with sexualised or sexual offending behaviours presents significant challenges across the allied health, child protection, education and juvenile justice sectors. This report maps the specialised therapeutic services designed to effect positive behavioural change and thus divert young people with sexualised behaviours from the juvenile justice system.

Accurate numbers on children with sexualised or sexual offending behaviours are difficult to determine. Recent Australian research cites international data to estimate that sexual abuse by children or young people constitutes between 40 and 90 per cent of sexual offending against children. Even the lower estimate belies the generally held assumption that perpetrators of child sexual assault are adult males. Young people are responsible for a significant proportion of sex offences against children, a fact that continues to go largely unknown. There are several factors contributing to this gap in understanding. These include entrenched ideals about children as inherently innocent, widespread ignorance about developmental sexuality, and the tendency of both young people and parents to deny or minimise incidents when they do occur.

In Australia, data on children with sexualised behaviours are not collected uniformly and non-disclosure contributes to what might be large numbers of offences going undetected. Mandatory reporting requirements apply where children display sexualised behaviours and are thought to be at risk of harm. Yet a general lack of knowledge as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour means that many may respond inappropriately to incidents of sexualised behaviours. This context of confusion, denial and non-disclosure creates a hidden population of children that continues to be at risk. Attention to redressing the contexts for non-disclosure is urgently required to ensure that children in need are provided with specialised therapeutic care.

Scholars and clinicians agree that the ‘earliest possible intervention’ leads to the best rehabilitative outcomes for the young people involved. Clinical studies indicate that recidivism rates are low where a full program of specialised counselling is completed. Despite these positive findings, there are a number of key challenges to the comprehensive provision of tertiary services to young people who have sexualised behaviours.

This report presents qualitative data from interviews with specialised clinicians as well as submissions from service providers in both community and youth justice settings. In mapping the availability of therapeutic services, this report highlights a number of geographic and demographic gaps in service provision, including difficulties with eligibility criteria, referral pathways, funding arrangements and specialised workforce development.

The intention of this research is to ascertain what therapeutic services were being delivered to all Australian children, including programs designed to reduce the numbers of Indigenous children before the courts on charges of sexual assault.

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