Discussion paper


Children and young people with disability are often absent in discussions about child sexual abuse as people with disability are left out of discussions about violence, abuse and neglect. This is due in part to individuals with disability being excluded from society, hidden away in institutions or in family homes. Community attitudes contribute to and are informed by the fact that people with disability, including children, are often seen in segregated, special and demeaning settings. This situation is changing slowly. People with disability are taking their rightful place as citizens actively contributing to and increasingly benefiting from all that our society has to offer.

Segregation and exclusion in closed institutional contexts away from public scrutiny leaves children (and adults) with disability at heightened risk of violence and harm including sexual abuse. Further, when children with disability are stereotyped as dependent and passive and unable to ‘speak up’, they are at heightened vulnerability to being segregated, abused, overlooked and not heard. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recognised early on the likely particular vulnerabilities of children with disability and the institutional contexts which they encounter. This commissioned discussion paper set out to provide a reasoned analysis of the historical, social and policy context surrounding children with disability and to examine the evidence about prevalence and prevention of sexual abuse of children with disability in institutional contexts.

To achieve this aim we proceeded iteratively and conceptually, drawing on our expertise and cumulative experience of over 60 years in disability, child and family studies, and care and protection. We used reports, submissions, position papers and scientific literature in Australia to analyse past approaches to children with disability and the present context of the changing nature of disability services in Australia.

While the paper draws from materials that are relevant to Australia as a whole, some documents from New South Wales are used to illustrate specific points. Just as children and young people with disability are rarely present in discussions about sexual abuse, they are also remarkably absent from Australian literature on this subject. This is a major failing: we do not know the extent of sexual abuse of Australian children with disability.

We therefore turned to international literature to identify prevalence figures and to examine the interactions between impairment and environment and their potential influence on the risk of sexual abuse. We found that internationally there is no clearly developed evidence base for the prevalence and risk of sexual abuse of children with disability. We provide an analysis and critique of international prevalence and risk figures and the application of these in the Australian context.

Quality of care and safeguarding processes form the basis of the disability reform agenda in Australia and also of the incoming market approach to specialist support and service delivery, which relies on mainstreaming, and building inclusive and accessible communities. This has led to debate on possible fail-safe governance mechanisms and prevention strategies, although with remarkably less focus on children and young people with disability.

There is an absence of empirical data in Australia on strategies to prevent sexual abuse of children with disability in institutional contexts. Again, we turned to the international literature to source information on relevant key factors. We approached this from a public health perspective that recognises the need to implement both population-based and targeted interventions.

In this discussion paper we argue the need to put aside the community perception that disability is embedded within the child. This is not the official understanding of disability in Australia. Instead, disability is understood as arising from interactions between individuals with impairment and the various barriers that may hinder (their) full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. This understanding comes from the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). We adhere to the key frameworks of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). These international covenants require that children with disability are considered as children first, with disability considered as only one feature and not the defining feature of their everyday lives.

We also present an analysis and critique of the available literature on prevention of sexual abuse, noting the pitfalls in assuming a ‘special group’ approach to children with disability or a broad-brush approach to diversity. The human rights perspective is embedded within Australian legislation and policy directives in disability. It provides an excellent foundation to ensure that children with disability and their rights are more visible and to give them the same priority as other children. This is essential to ensure children with disability are safe in institutional contexts in the future.

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