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Still unseen and ignored: Tracking community knowledge and attitudes about child abuse and child protection in Australia

Still unseen and ignored: Tracking community knowledge and attitudes about child abuse and child... fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 1 TYPE Original Research PUBLISHED 02 September 2022 DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 Still unseen and ignored: OPEN ACCESS Tracking community knowledge EDITED BY Thea Brown, and attitudes about child abuse Monash University, Australia REVIEWED BY and child protection in Australia Setyo Budi Kurniawan, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Malaysia Joseph Tucci* and Janise Mitchell Luz Anyela Morales Quintero, Meritorious Autonomous University Australian Childhood Foundation, Melbourne, VIC, Australia of Puebla, Mexico *CORRESPONDENCE Joseph Tucci In September 2003, we released the first results of a national community jtucci@childhood.org.au attitude tracking study about child abuse and child protection. At that time, SPECIALTY SECTION we concluded that as a community, violence against children was tolerated. This article was submitted to Forensic and Legal Psychology, The community did not understand or appreciate the seriousness, size and a section of the journal cost of child abuse in Australia. There was evidence that child abuse was Frontiers in Psychology not viewed as an important challenge facing children in Australia. A second RECEIVED 22 January 2022 ACCEPTED 27 June 2022 study conducted in 2006 found that nothing much had changed, indeed PUBLISHED 02 September 2022 community engagement with the issue of child abuse may have even CITATION deteriorated. A third study in 2010 found that the community actively avoids Tucci J and Mitchell J (2022) Still the problem of child abuse rating it less concerning than high petrol prices. unseen and ignored: Tracking community knowledge and attitudes In 2021, 18 years after the first report was published, we have concluded about child abuse and child protection again that child abuse remains out of sight and out of mind as a community in Australia. Front. Psychol. 13:860212. concern. This article describes the findings of this fourth iteration of our survey doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 and analyses the implications for ensuring that individuals are more engaged COPYRIGHT and committed to taking action to preventing child abuse and/or protecting © 2022 Tucci and Mitchell. This is an children from violation. open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, KEYWORDS distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the community attitude, child abuse, prevention, child fatality, awareness original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted Introduction academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms. Arguably, child abuse does not remain in community consciousness for very long. As Durfee and Tilton- Durfee (2013) noted that it took the publication of “The Battered Child Syndrome” by Kempe et al. (1962) to break a 102 year silence that followed the world first 1,860 study about fatal child abuse by French Physician—Ambrose Tardieu. In his seminal work, Kempe et al. (1962) wrote then that as a clinical condition in young children who experienced serious physical abuse from a caregiver, “: : :it is a significant cause of childhood disability and death: : :.yet there is reluctance on the part of many physicians to accept the radiologic signs as indications of repetitive trauma and possible abuse (p. 143–144).” Frontiers in Psychology 01 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 2 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 Kempe suggested that  assess the degree to which child abuse is considered a community concern; “: : :many physicians find it hard to believe that parents could gauge the accuracy of public knowledge about the extent, have attacked their children and they attempt to obliterate nature and impact of child abuse; and, such suspicions from their mind (p. 146).” track community attitudes about the challenges facing children in relation to child abuse and child protection. Four years later in 1966, Robert and John Birrell wrote the first paper to bring to light the extent to which children were being physically abused and neglected in Australia—a Survey method proportion of whom were killed as a result. As brothers and both pioneering doctors themselves, they prophetically argued then An online survey of 1,009 adults aged 18 years and over that in Australia was completed in November 2020 by EY Sweeney. “: : :one of the main reasons why the maltreatment syndrome A sample of 1,009 yields a high degree of statistical precision, with a margin of error of  3.1%. The margin of error is how is not well recognised is the general attitude of disbelief and incredulity that people would or could do such things to little likely it is that a result will differ from the “true” result (if everyone in Australia was surveyed). A maximum margin of children. The attitude is widespread, extending to housewife, doctor, lawyer, and even policeman. The hospital staff: : :tend error of  3.1 at a 95% confidence level means that for a survey often not to think of violence, particularly when faced by a result of a 50%, if the survey was repeated multiple times 95% neatly dressed and plausible husband or wife: : :Recognition of these times the survey result will be between 46.9 and 53.1%. of the “Battered Child Syndrome” is naturally the crux of any Further to this, the data was weighted to the latest available ABS census statistics on state, gender and age to ensure a nationally program of prevention: : : (Birrell and Birrell, p. 1137).” representative sample. A sample of telephone interviews was also conducted Maintaining that terms missing in professional conceptualization can lead to blind spots in practice, Durfee in order to compare key questions to historical results so and Tilton- Durfee (2013) found that child abuse was only as to calibrate the data if required given the shift from formally added to the 1965 edition of Index Medicus—the predominantly telephone surveying in 2009 to a predominantly most comprehensive bibliographic database of life science online survey in 2020. and biomedical science information of its time. It took The composition and background of the sample are detailed another 5 years for the term infanticide—the killing of a in the Supplementary Tables A1–A5 in Supplementary child—to be included. Appendix A. Of course, child abuse is not invisible. It is rendered so through the prevailing attitudes of the community. For this reason, it is critical to not only ascertain what these Survey sample perceptions actually are, but also to understand if they change over time and how. Critical findings In 2003, we began what has become the longest running community tracking research examining the attitudes and Child abuse remains unseen perceptions of adult Australians about child abuse and child In Table 1, the key findings mirror the results from the protection. This paper presents an analysis of the fourth previous surveys in which unprompted recall for child abuse iteration in this series which has been running for almost two as a community concern remains low. It has shifted very little decades (Tucci et al., 2001, 2003, 2006, 2010). over the past 18 years. If anything, it has decreased since It is not difficult to connect the ways that individuals view its peak in 2006. issues that affect the safety and wellbeing of children with their As noted in Supplementary Appendix B (Supplementary level of commitment to support efforts to prevent child abuse Table B.1), COVID-19 and related issues have understandably and protect children from violation. As such, the reduction of taken over as the primary concerns of adults in the community. violence against children depends significantly on these views. It is hardly surprising given its scale and impact. In 2021, Tucci, Mitchell, and Thomas reported the findings of a community survey that demonstrated there is no doubt that Methodology COVID-19 has led to an immediate and chronic fallout of negative effects on the mental health and wellbeing of Aims children and parents across Australia. A quarter of parents felt that they were failing their children and more than a third The key objectives of this research were to stated that they had lost confidence about their parenting. Frontiers in Psychology 02 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 3 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 1 Key findings. TABLE 2 Key findings. Child abuse is rated thirteenth on a list of community issues. 7 in 10 respondents believed that child abuse was fairly well or very well recognized as a serious community problem. There were six times more people who had no concerns at all than there were people who were concerned about the problem of child abuse. However, 56% were so poorly informed that they could not even hazard a guess at the number of reports of child abuse received last year in Australia. Child abuse is rated less concerning than transport, traffic, and roads. Of those willing to hazard a guess, almost all grossly under-estimated the number Community concern about child abuse has not changed since 2003. of reports, suggesting less than 10,000 reports were received in 2019–20 when the 71% of respondents did not recall seeing or hearing any advertising or news actual number was over 480,000. related to child abuse or the protection of children in the past 12 months. There is a lack of knowledge and confusion about which form of abuse occurs most frequently in Australia. When asked directly, 86% of respondents argued that the community still needs to better understand the extent and nature of child abuse in Australia. These problems emerged at exactly the time when parents noticed that their children needed more re-assurance and were experiencing signs of heightened stress such as eating and previous studies that the community must be reminded of child sleeping disturbances. abuse before any attention is paid to it. A third of parents felt isolated and left without adequate support. Almost 40% were worried that their own stress The community is grossly uninformed about and mental health was adversely affecting the wellbeing of their children. child abuse despite believing the issue to be well understood Concerningly, almost a third of parents were frightened that the impact of COVID-19 will have lasting mental health impacts The results presented in Table 2 show that, as a community, for their children such as ongoing heightened anxiety and stress. it is not surprising that adults want to feel that they 1 in 5 parents were concerned about their children’s future social understand such a critical issue as child abuse. Of course, development and self-confidence. people want children to be safe. This is reflected in the majority Social distancing restrictions and lockdown measures have of respondents (70%) believing that child abuse was more resulted in an overwhelming number of children experiencing a than adequately recognized as a serious community problem. range of losses in their daily lives. The absence of their ability to However, there appears to be a profound disconnect between play with friends during lockdown was acutely experienced by 8 what the community thinks it knows and what it actually out of 10 children. More than two-thirds of children missed their does know about the true size and extent of child abuse as a grandparents and extended family. The loss of face to face school community problem. and sporting activities was also significant for many children. When asked to estimate the number of reports of child abuse Given that their children were spending more time on their made each year to child protection authorities 56% were so own in their room and using technology more, a substantial poorly informed that they were unwilling to even hazard any portion of parents were concerned about the safety of children sort of guess. Of the remaining 44% who were willing to give an online. A quarter of the parents surveyed were worried about answer, the vast majority (35%) perceived the number to be less how to best protect their children from online bullying. A third than 10,000—a small fraction of the real figure. of parents were worried about how to keep their children from According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, being abused or exploited when they are using the internet. They there were 486, 300 notifications of child abuse in 2019–20. feel ill equipped to know how to manage. If the more conservative figure is used representing the total In the face of problems that are urgent and the subject number of reports of child abuse that led to a direct investigation of government, institutional and community responses (such by child protective services, then the correct number was 183, as COVID-19, crime, economy, environment), child abuse 300. In this instance only 3% of respondents in the survey were languishes outside the consciousness of the vast majority of the anywhere close to providing an accurate estimate. population. 7 in 10 of respondents could not remember seeing Similarly, when asked to identify which forms of child abuse or hearing anything about child abuse in the media in the past occurred most frequently in Australia, respondents identified 12 months. This was even more surprising given the ongoing sexual abuse and physical abuse to occur the most frequently media reports in the aftermath of the Royal Commission into with emotional abuse and neglect being the forms of abuse to Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia— occur least frequently. a national formal inquiry which captured the public attention In reality, the opposite is true. According to the AIHW about the ways that children were systematically abused and (2021), emotional abuse (54%) was the most common type of exploited for decades within religious, sporting, out of home abuse or neglect substantiated through investigations in 2019– care and other organizations (Tucci and Blom, 2019). 20. This was followed by neglect (22%), physical abuse (14%), Interestingly, 6% of respondents were not worried about and sexual abuse (9%). This misconception is likely influenced anything at all in their community. This confirms the results of by the media being a primary source of information for the Frontiers in Psychology 03 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 4 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 community on the issue of child abuse. Media interest is more “: : :While it may seem intuitive that a survivor would disclose likely to report cases of serious physical and sexual violence abuse when it happened, data reveals a different reality. In a toward children than other forms of abuse or neglect. study of over 1,000 survivors, the average age at the time of reporting child sex abuse was about 52 years: : :.” Children are still not trusted to tell the truth, Children continue to face many barriers that prevent leaving them in danger disclosure. They often lack the knowledge needed to recognize Despite the overwhelming majority of respondents (85%) and understand abuse, lack the ability and language to articulate that they have been abused, do not have an adult they can knowing the harmful implications of not believing a child’s disclosures of abuse, this findings as reported here confirmed disclose their abuse to, do not have opportunities to disclose previous findings that two- thirds (67%) of respondents believe abuse, and ultimately are not believed when they try to disclose. that children make up stories about being abused or are Most disclosures fail to reach individuals who can report the uncertain whether to believe children when they disclosed being situation and stop the perpetrator. Research shows that, when abused. This remains a devastating result for children. It means child victims do disclose, a large percentage of the disclosures that children really only have a 1 in 3 chance of finding an adult are to peers instead of parents or authority figures. Brattfjell and Flam (2019) have argued that disclosures are who will believe them if they tell them that they are being abused or violated. It is far more likely that children will not be believed more a process than a single event involving or in fact perceived as lying. Critically, 3 in 4 respondents seemed to understand that the “: : :telling through direct and indirect hints and signs, decisions to tell, indecision and delaying, or withholding until experience of abuse was so compromising for children that they were not likely to disclose they were being hurt. Only 1 in 4 adulthood, the dependency on trusted confidants who ask and respondents believed that children will usually tell someone if listen for final disclosure to occur: : :.” they are being abused. With an understanding of how difficult it is to disclose abuse for children, it would appear to be even Rather than occurring in a single moment, the process of disclosure means that the truth can take decades to finally more important to believe children are telling the truth when they report to an adult. emerge. The experience for adult survivors of abuse often replicates their experience as children. They are asked questions Respondents understand both how difficult it is for children to disclose abuse and how devastating it can be for children to be which cast doubt on their story. They are interrogated as to why it has taken so long to come forward. They are threatened and perceived as not telling the truth and yet many continue to hold the view that children cannot be trusted. their integrity is impugned. These results provide an invaluable insight into why it is After almost two decades in which there has been no not surprising that the Royal Commission into Institutional shift in the prevailing attitude that children lie about their Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) found that experience of abuse, it is time for a concerted community effort to change this collective mindset and trust children’s truth about “: : :Of survivors who told us about barriers to disclosure their own violation. during their private session, more than one in five (22.6 per cent) who said they had disclosed as an adult and more than a Children are blamed for the behavior of abusive adults quarter (26.1 per cent) who told us they disclosed in childhood said they had thought they would not be believed: : :” There remain many pervasive beliefs that form the basis for dismissing or minimizing the true scale and impact of Nor, that they also reported that child abuse (Table 3). A small but significant proportion of respondents believed that children are responsible for their own “: : :.Many victims do not disclose child sexual abuse until many years after the abuse occurred, often when they are well TABLE 3 Key findings. into adulthood. Survivors who spoke with us during a private 1 in 6 respondents believed that sometimes children are responsible for the abuse session took, on average, 23.9 years to tell someone about the they receive from others. abuse and men often took longer to disclose than women (the 1 in 6 respondents believe that an adult should not be blamed for abusing a child average for females was 20.6 years and for males was 25.6 if they get so angry that they lose control. years): : :(Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to 14% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that parents who have physically abused and caused injuries to their child should be charged by the Child Sexual Abuse, 2017)” police. 11% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a parent who punches These results are replicated around the world. Child USA a child is committing physical abuse. (2020) (a think tank on child protection) also found that Frontiers in Psychology 04 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 5 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 4 Key findings. abuse. It reflects the continued victim blaming of children and young people in relation to their experiences of violence. For Almost 1 in 5 respondents were believed that children were abused by strangers example, it is akin to the damaging cultural myth that women rather than people known to them. who “dress or behave provocatively are asking to be assaulted” 13% of respondents believed that child abuse only happens in poor or disadvantaged families. (CASA FORUM, 2014). In what caused a furore at the time, 3 in 10 respondents did not believe that child abuse is a social problem of direct the then Governor General of Australia, Dr. Peter Hollingworth concern to them. publicly blamed a 15 year old young woman for being sexually 62% of respondents were worried about the possibility of their children being exploited claiming that it was “not sex abuse” by a priest, but abused by someone they don’t know. “rather the other way round” (Robertson, 2020). 69% of respondents were worried about the possibility of their children being This belief shifts responsibility away from the perpetrator abused and exploited online. of the violence and onto the victim. It is further reinforced by the finding that 1 in 6 of the respondents believed that messaging about the risks to children of exploitation online adults should not be blamed for abusing a child if they get so appear to be resonating with the community. angry that they lose control. In these circumstances, the adult’s behavior is positioned as normal and legitimate—something More people than ever before turn away from that everyone can understand and hence condone. Similarly, the reality of child abuse 14% of respondents did not believe that parents should be held accountable if they physically assaulted and caused injuries to The community is overwhelmed by the issue of child abuse. their child. A further 11% of respondents were uncertain or did It is disheartening, confronting and stressful for many. It reflects the reality of the ongoing threat and danger that face children not believe that a parent who punches a child is committing physical abuse. It is clear from these findings that children are and young people every day. With such intensity involved in the reaction to child abuse for adults, it is no wonder that afforded less protection from violence than adults. An adult who punched another adult would been deemed to have committed they prefer to turn away from it and to an extent deny the seriousness of its scale and effects for children, families and the an assault. Indeed, the devastating consequences of “one punch” attacks have been the subject of significant community outcry community more broadly. and widely reported on in the media. There is still an unwillingness to re-examine the personal Reluctance to act leaves children unprotected behavior of adults. Despite significant support for adults As noted in, a small but significant proportion of adults are to recognize that their children’s safety relies on them, a reluctant to take action to protect children from being abused strong undercurrent of discriminating against victims and even if they were certain of the facts. Children require adults responsibility shifting still exists. to act protectively in order for them to be safe from abuse. Adults in the community are the early responders for children who are at risk of being abused. Yet, if these responders do not believe children or fail to take action, children remain Child abuse still happens in someone else’s without the backup they urgently require. Messaging from many neighborhood governments across Australia that child abuse is everybody’s Echoing results from the previous three studies, there is still responsibility are falling short. confusion about the characteristics of the perpetrators of child abuse (Table 4). This misunderstanding speaks directly to long Lack of confidence is a key obstacle in held myths associated with child abuse. In particular, that child protecting children abuse only occurs in poor households with uneducated parents. Many respondents identified their own lack of confidence in There is still a belief that children are most commonly abused by recognizing the signs of abuse and knowing what they needed to strangers rather than individuals known to the child and more do to take action to protect children. This lack of confidence has than likely a member of his/her family. not changed at all in the past decade with almost identical results Continuing to believe in the myth of stranger danger and the being identified in the 2009 study. Knowledge, confidence and view that child abuse occurs as a result of poverty reinforces the skills are core elements of community capability. community’s tendency to locate the problem outside of families Without these qualities, the community is not able to stand like their own, in neighborhoods that are different to their up for children, leaving them arguably in danger. own. In so doing, it facilitates a harmful collective perception that reduces the urgency to protect children or take personal Long standing barriers to taking action to responsibility to do anything about it. Clearly, almost 1 in 3 of respondents did not believe that child abuse is a problem protect children from abuse continue to exist which affects them directly. This theme is replicated across a As highlighted by the findings in Table 5, there are persistent range of findings in the analysis section of this article. However, barriers acting to restrain individuals from taking action to Frontiers in Psychology 05 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 6 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 5 Barriers to taking action to protect a child TABLE 6 Key findings. known to be abuse. 81% of respondents believed that a 4 year old child wandering the streets I may feel unsure the abuse was actually taking place 30% unsupervised is a form of neglect. I may not know what the right thing to do is 21% 78% of respondents believed that a child who knocks on your door asking for food, saying there is no food in their house and they are hungry is suffering from I don’t know who to contact to help abused or neglected children 9% neglect. I worry that I might make a false allegation of abuse 32% 91% of respondents believed that a teacher who texts a 14 year old asking I may feel it was not my responsibility to do something 11% him/her to meet to have sex is sexual abuse or grooming. I may not want to get involved 16% 79% of respondents believed that a child who goes to school regularly without I may have fears for my own safety if I do something 24% lunch is being neglected. 64% of respondents believed that a parent who regularly leaves an 11 year old to I may be worried the family involved might be broken up 17% look after a 6 year old is being neglectful. I don’t think the authorities would be able to help 11% 79% of respondents believed that a child being cared for by a parent who has a None 14% serious drug habit is at risk of neglect. Don’t know/No answer 7% 80% of respondents believed that an 8 year old being locked outside the house for 1 h as punishment is at risk of neglect or emotional abuse. 74% of respondents believed that a baby regularly left to cry for more than an hour at a time is at risk of neglect or emotional abuse. protect children. Getting it wrong and falsely accusing parents 72% of respondents believed that a parent constantly yells at a child is causing of abuse is at the top of this list. A lack of confidence about emotional or psychological abuse. what to do was identified again in this list. Fear for their own safety if they take action is significant. However, some TABLE 7 Key findings. are rhetorical beliefs that can be used to justify a lack of action. For example, believing that authorities will not be able 12% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a 14 year old having to help or not wanting to get involved represent a different sex with a 25 year old adult is sexual abuse. kind of barrier which reflects attitudinal positioning aimed 28% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that 15 year old having sex with an 18 year old adult is sexual abuse. at softening the unwillingness of the individual to not follow 10% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a child or teenager through with the information they have. This is not uncommon, who is manipulated into sending a naked or semi-naked photo of themselves to there are broader discursive themes which are implicated in an adult is being subject to grooming or sexual abuse/exploitation. this lack of action, such as the sanctity of the family unit, the 12% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a parent who downloads photos and videos of children being sexually abused is a form of child dissonance between the individual and society ownership of abuse or exploitation. social problems, the myth that if it is serious enough someone 11% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe a public transport else will take action. employee who secretly records or photographs up children and teenagers’ dresses There is the need to actively address each of these barriers was a form of sexual abuse. with community education. Without concerted effort to change, 19% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe a 4 year old child wandering the streets unsupervised is a form of neglect. it is likely that these barriers will continue as they have for at least the last two decades. A significant proportion of adults continue to There is common agreement about the not recognize significant acts child abuse and categories of abuse and neglect which warrant neglect further action There is virtually no change in the number of respondents When faced with some scenarios there appears to be general who had difficulty in recognizing clear examples of at risk or consensus about them constituting abuse or neglect (Table 6). abusive situations for children. The lack of consensus on these This is important because the threshold to have child protection sorts of adverse childhood experiences represents a significant to become involved and investigate reports or offer support to barrier to taking action to protect children in these sorts of children is a contentious debate. The threshold itself is never circumstances (Table 7). articulated or defined. It is often reported that community standards differ according to range of factors, including cultural A significant number of people have identified background of reporters, their qualifications, their experience in reporting previously. child abuse and neglect in the past 5 years However, these results also suggest that there is greater In 2009, 26% of respondents had identified a child or young consensus for some scenarios than others. The exercise of person who had been abused or neglected in the past 5 years. seeking feedback from the community about what constitutes The findings in Table 8 suggest even more people are identifying abuse and neglect is a potential innovation that can be used abuse. In the earlier survey it was not possible to undertake by child protection authorities to determine the circumstances a detailed analysis of the kind of violation to which children when they should become involved. had been subjected. In this study, a new set of questions were Frontiers in Psychology 06 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 7 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 8 Key findings. TABLE 9 Reaction to the becoming aware of the problem for the child. 38% of respondents had witnessed a child or teenager being humiliated or criticized by an adult family member over the past 5 years. Uncertain about what to do 13% 22% of respondents had witnessed a child or teenager being physically Shocked 13% abused by an adult family member over the past 5 years. Sorry for the child 18% 23% of respondents had heard someone make sexually suggestive comments Angry about the situation 24% or jokes about a child or teenager over the past 5 years. Frustrated I was unable to help 18% 18% of respondents had had a child or teenager disclosed that they were Guilty for not helping 8% being abused or hurt by an adult over the past 5 years. Don’t know/ No answer 7% 30% of respondents knew of a child or teenager who was living with family violence at home over the past 5 years. Total 100% 30% of respondents suspected a child or teenager was experiencing abuse over the past 5 years. TABLE 10 Action taken by respondents in response to their concerns. 18% of respondents knew of a child or teenager who had experienced sexual abuse or exploitation online over the past 5 years. Discussed my concerns with a family member/friend to get 30% their advice Talked to the child who was the subject of the concerned 26% asked to specifically understand the nature of the abuse that Discussed my concerns with a professional (e.g., teacher, 22% doctor, social worker) respondents had identified. Talked to the person who was harming the child 17% The results in Table 8 suggest that there are significant numbers of incidents of child abuse and neglect that Reported concerns to child protection authorities 16% Reported concerns to the police 14% respondents have come across in the course of their daily lives. Phoned a helpline for advice 14% Many people feel sorrow, anger and Did nothing 17% powerlessness when they come face to face Other 6% with child abuse The initial reactions of respondents who identified children the parent. Surprisingly, 1 in 4 of respondents took the step who had been abused or neglected are listed in the above table. of talking about the concerns directly with the child, possibly These offer a more detailed insight into the drivers of adult before deciding what to do next. 1 in 6 raised the issue directly behavior in relation to taking action to protect vulnerable and with the person who was suspected of being the perpetrator at risk children. of the abuse. With nearly one third of respondents talking to The findings presented in Table 9 paint a picture of trusted people within their own informal networks, the need to the anger, shock, sorrow, frustration, and powerlessness equip the community with knowledge and empower them to experienced by adults who become aware a child is being abused. take action is again demonstrated in these findings. In many ways these feelings mirror the experiences of the very children who are suffering the abuse and neglect. Clearly, there When driven to act, it occurs quickly is a need to empower the community in relation to taking action The time taken for individuals to take action is set out when they become aware that a child is being abused rather than in Table 11. Of those who took any action, almost a third them continuing to feel impotent and a hostage to the problem. responded immediately. A further 32% responded within a People are willing to act if resourced and week. 1 in 10 (11%) took more than a month and some over a year. These results highlight that individuals who are motivated supported to do so to take action will do so quickly and decisively. The action that each adult took after identifying the abuse and neglect is described in Table 10. In this question, respondents may have indicated that they took more A sense of responsibility and concern drives action for many than one action. Of most concern is the 1 in 6 that did nothing to The main motivation for taking action is listed in Table 12. protect children they were worried about. This leaves many In this question, respondents may have indicated more than one children in real danger. reason for taking action. Importantly, the results also showed that 83% took some Individuals engaged with their own commitment to the form of action. 30% of respondents took direct action that child or their social responsibility, as adults, to protect children. could have led to the protection of the child by reporting it to Some saw that their action would lead to the whole family statutory child protection authorities and/or the police. Other receiving assistance. For others, it was the thought that they responses were less direct and involved seeking advice from had to act because they were the last resort for the child in trusted others in the community or discussing concerns with question. A small proportion of respondents were compelled Frontiers in Psychology 07 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 8 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 11 Period of time before respondent took action after being TABLE 13 Outcomes of action taken by respondents. concerned about the child. Made things much better 22% Same day 34% Made things a little better 33% Within a week 32% Made no difference at all 15% Within a month 14% Made things worse 5% More than a month but less than 6 months 5% Don’t know if it made a difference 25% Between 6 and12 months 1% Total 100% 1 year or more 5% Total 100% TABLE 14 Main reason for not taking action. TABLE 12 Main reason for taking action. I was unsure the abuse was actually taking place 24% I didn’t know what was the right thing to do 22% I acted on my gut instinct and knew I had to do something 25% I didn’t know who to contact to help the child 6% I felt it was my personal responsibility to do something 28% I was worried that I might make a false allegation of abuse 25% I didn’t think anyone else would take action 16% I didn’t think it was my responsibility to do something 5% I thought the situation was serious and needed immediate action 19% I didn’t want to get involved 24% It’s part of my job to protect children 16% I had fears for my own safety if I did something 17% I didn’t want to have regrets later about not doing something at the time 20% I was worried the family involved might be broken up 15% I cared about the child concerned 35% I didn’t think the authorities would be able to help 3% I was worried about the long-term consequences for the child if I didn’t do 33% something Someone I spoke to about the situation advised me not to do anything 6% further I thought the family was under stress and needed help 14% No, none 5% Don’t know / No answer 4% Other 19% Don’t know / No answer 9% to act as a way of avoiding feeling regret later if the child continued to be harmed. active avoidance of the problem of child abuse. These include not wanting to become involved, not knowing what steps to take and fearing that intervention would make the situation Taking action helps children worse for the child. As noted in Table 13, for those that did take action, over half (55%) believed their intervention resulted in improved safety for the child. Smaller proportions of respondents did not know There is significant impetus to about the impact of their actions or believed that the safety of prioritize the prevention of child abuse the child has been further compromised by their involvement. and the protection of children As noted in Table 15, there is strong recognition that Confusion and uncertainty stops inadequate investment in strategies to reduce the extent of child people taking action abuse will lead to severe consequences for the community. It follows that there is also a high degree of interest to 1 in 6 (17%) of respondents stated they took no action at all. be better informed and more actively involved in efforts to The main reasons for not taking action, despite being concerned prevent child abuse. about the possibility of a child being abused, are described in Table 14. In this question, respondents may have indicated more than one reason for not taking action. Discussion A quarter of the respondents who did not take action were uncertain about whether or not the abuse was actually taking Child abuse remains largely unseen place. A much smaller proportion (6%) followed the advice of another person to take no action. A significant proportion (17%) and ignored identified legitimate concerns about their personal safety as a reason for not taking action. Birrell and Birrell (1966) had to fight community disbelief However, the remaining reasons for not taking action and professional skepticism to raise public alarm about the reflected a number of critical barriers that are derived from an impact and scale of child abuse in Australia. Frontiers in Psychology 08 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 9 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 15 Key findings. would not believe children’s stories about being abused. In 2006, 31% of respondents stated that they would not believe children’s 75% of respondents believed that there is a need for national campaigns to stories about being abused. In 2021, 32% of respondents believed raise awareness of child abuse and the need to protect children from child abuse. that children can make up stories about being abused. 45% of respondents would be prepared to become actively involved to In 2003, just over 1 in 3 respondents did not believe that support a campaign or event(s) that helped the community know how to child abuse was a problem that they needed to be personally recognize child abuse and be more confident to act. concerned about. In 2021, the result was exactly the same. 85% of respondents believed that if we do not prevent child abuse now, the long term consequences for the community are enormous. In 2010, 1 in 6 of respondents did nothing when faced with 80% of respondents argued that more money should be invested in a child they believed was being abused. In 2021, the result was protecting children from child abuse and neglect. exactly the same. In 2006, additional concerns came to light for the first time. For example, 1 in 5 of respondents in the survey lacked the confidence to know what to do if they suspected that a child In a follow up to their original paper, Birrell and Birrell was being abused. In 2021, 1 in 5 (22%) were not confident (1968) wrote that it was clear that about knowing what to do if they suspected that a child was being abused or neglected. In addition, 1 in 4 (27%) were not “: : :our community, despite some understanding of the confident of being able to recognize that a child was being problem, still has a long distance to travel in the recognition abused or neglected. of this problem: : :(p. 1028).” The community lacks all of the building blocks required to prevent child abuse and adequately act to protect them Over five decades later, the results of the current study from abuse and neglect. They are not aware of the true suggest that there is still a gulf between the reality of scale and impact of child abuse. They do not believe that child abuse as a societal problem and sufficient community it is as widespread as it really is. They have a shallow appreciation of it. understanding of how it is defined, what its components In September 2003, we released the first results of a national are, how it develops or the level of risk that children community attitude tracking study about child abuse and child and young people face in their own homes. They lack protection (Tucci et al., 2003). At that time, we argued that confidence about when, what and why they should take as a community, violence against children was tolerated. The action when exposed to information that children are being community did not understand or appreciate the seriousness, abused and neglected. There are still prevailing attitudes that size and cost of child abuse in Australia. There was evidence stop them from stepping up to keep children safe. These that child abuse was not viewed as an important challenge attitudes have been there for at least 18 years and they have facing children in Australia. A second study conducted in 2006 not changed. (Tucci et al., 2006) found that nothing much had changed, indeed community engagement with the issue of child abuse may have even deteriorated. A third study in 2010 found that Children are left unprotected the community actively avoids the problem of child abuse rating it less concerning than high petrol prices. There is still significant proportion of adults who do not In 2021, 18 years after the first report was published, we perceive that taking action to protect children from abuse is their have concluded again that child abuse remains largely unseen responsibility. They continue to be influenced by powerful and and ignored as a community concern. The results are virtually inaccurate myths and beliefs such as identical to those found over the past three earlier studies. children lie when they disclose abuse; In 2021, child abuse rates lower than problems with public child abuse only happens in poor or disadvantaged transport and roads on a list of community concerns. In 2021, families; 7 in 10 of respondents could not remember seeing or hearing outsiders should not interfere into the private lives of anything about child abuse in the media in the past 12 months. families; and, In 2006, 43% respondents felt so poorly informed on the children are to blame for the abusive behavior of issue so as to be unable to guess at the number of reported cases adults and are somehow therefore less deserving of child abuse, whilst those prepared to estimate, significantly of our protection. underestimated the problem. In 2021, 56% were so poorly informed that they could not even hazard a guess at the number of reports of child abuse were received last year in Australia. This These mindsets shape the behavior of many adults. It is an 13% increase over that time. makes them more susceptible to perceiving why they should In 2003, the community was extremely ambivalent about not take action to protect children. For example, respondents trusting children. Thirty-five (35%) percent of respondents who had become aware of a child who was being abused in Frontiers in Psychology 09 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 10 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 the past 5 years identified not knowing the right thing to do, The community is turning away and being worried that they would be accused of making a false ill-informed allegation and not carrying any responsibility to act as key reasons for doing nothing. Over the past decade, it appears the community is finding it Such biases are inherently connected to broader more and more difficult to face up to the reality of child abuse themes that are reinforced by the reporting in the media with increasing numbers reporting they find talking about child (FrameWorks Institute, 2003, 2004; FrameWorks Institute, abuse tense and difficult and that they cannot bear to see images 2009, 2015). These include the perception that of children who have been hurt or neglected. In this survey, 44% of respondents reported feeling tense and children will always be abused, it is part of human anxious when they take part in a conversation about child abuse. nature; This is an increase of 16% since 2010 when the last study in this systems are not working so there is little we can do that series was undertaken. In addition, 71% of respondents reported will make a difference; that they cannot bear to look at pictures of children in the media there is no sense of community anymore, so why should who have been hurt or neglected. This is an increase of 12% since we bother, the best I can do is to look after me and my 2010 when the last study in this series was undertaken. loved ones; Perhaps due to ongoing stress directly arising from COVID- child abuse does not touch my life directly, I do not need 19 and the fatigue of the ongoing consequences for the to be worried about it; and, community broadly (Tucci et al., 2020), more people than ever perpetrators are really cunning, they have been getting before find it hard to stay engaged with the intensity of the reality away with abusing children for years, not even the faced by so many children who are being abused or neglected. police can stop them. It is as if when there is community wide danger, the risks to children need to be pushed even further away from individual Each of these examples highlight how disempowering and community awareness. It is a threat that is just too much to prevailing narratives are for adults who may be motivated handle. It acts to make the world feel so much vulnerable at a to act in the best interests of children but end up being time when uncertainty is so prevalent. overwhelmed by the sheer weight of obstacles that they perceive The end result is that individuals turn away from the reality to be in their way. of child abuse because they find the pain suffered by children At every turn, each of these themes increases the intolerable. It is inevitable that a problem that the community uncertainty that adults experience as they determine is forced to hide from is a problem that stays in the shadows how to evaluate the information they have about a child and away from active engagement and efforts to resolve. Looking and ultimately how they choose to act. The greater away is easier than looking into the eyes of children who have the uncertainty, the greater the likelihood of inertia been hurt and traumatized by the very adults who are supposed and in turn the higher the likelihood that children are to care and nurture them. left unprotected. All social movements that result in collective and effective It is only when adults engage with their sense of social common action commence with the realization of the crisis that responsibility that they act. This is a finding that has been is occurring and the way that such escalating problems affects replicated elsewhere (FrameWorks Institute, 2004, 2009, 2015; each person in the community. Concerted action about the NAPCAN, 2010). In this study, respondents cited the following environment has required the collaboration of different sectors reasons as being the main motivations behind their decision to of the community playing a role to prove the existential threat actively intervene to protect a child they knew was being abused it represented to the current and future generations. It requires or neglected: uncomfortable truths to be realized and accepted. This is still not I knew I had to do something; the case for child abuse. Its long term ramifications have been I felt it was my personal responsibility to do something; proven by the weight of scientific evidence (Tucci et al., 2019). I didn’t think anyone else would take action; The cost to the community has been estimated in the billions It’s part of my job to protect children; and, of dollars (Taylor et al., 2008; McCarthy et al., 2016). It is at the I didn’t want to have regrets later about not doing core of downstream social consequences such as poor health, something at the time. unemployment, mental illness, addiction, suicide, and more. Yet, despite efforts to the contrary, child abuse appears to These are the clearest results to date in favor of a strong remain, at its most basic level, a topic that sits on the periphery and detailed community education campaign that builds the of community consciousness. case for why, how and when adults need to act to keep children Clearly, the results of this survey show that many people safe from abuse. feel sorrow, anger, and powerlessness when they come face to Frontiers in Psychology 10 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 11 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 face with child abuse in their own families and communities. We need to support education with national legislation. They are shocked, feel sorry for the child, experience anger that Current laws in relation to child abuse differ markedly from children are being hurt and frustrated or guilty at not being able state to state in Australia. These differences contribute to help the child. to the confusion about how to define, identify and The act of turning away from it prevents the community respond to child abuse. from learning what it needs to know in order to be empowered Community attitudes can be changed if the public has enough to act to prevent it in the first place. The results access to a clear and unequivocal framework for understanding demonstrated that 9 out of 10 people acknowledge that in its the issue of child abuse. We need national uniform laws effort to buffer the pain that children suffer, the community stays which set out standards for defining, identifying, reporting and uninformed about the real extent and nature of the problem of investigating cases of child abuse, family violence and neglect. child abuse in Australia. That is why all levels of government need to commit to resourcing sustained public education campaigns aimed at engaging the community in the protection of children from The community want and are prepared abuse. Increasingly, there has been significant public investment to do more in the past 5 years in using community education campaigns to address gender inequality as the upstream factor leading There is hope still in these results. Three quarters of to family violence (Our Watch, 2022). This has not translated respondents supported the need for a national campaign to raise into similar resourcing of campaigns in relation to child awareness of child abuse and how the community can act more abuse prevention. protectively toward children. Just under half of respondents Importantly, State and Commonwealth Governments need would be prepared to become actively involved to support a to urgently co-operate to develop and implement uniform campaign that helped the community know how to recognize national child abuse and child protection legislation. child abuse and be more confident to act. Over 8 out of 10 And finally, individuals need to find within themselves the respondents believed that if there was inadequate action taken commitment to listen to and believe children, especially in to prevent child abuse now, the long term consequences for the relation to child abuse and family violence. community are enormous. Changing the story Conclusion For almost 40 years, raising public awareness of child abuse “: : :statistics paint a horrendous picture of an Australian through mass media campaigns has been widely recognized as childhood stolen by trauma, abuse and violence. It is an effective primary prevention strategy (Daro, 1988; Daro and Gelles, 1992; New South Wales Child Protection Council, 1995; unquestionably one of the most pressing and critical social problems: : :(Tucci et al., 2006).” Jernigan and Wright, 1996). King (1997), for example, suggested that public awareness In 2021, child abuse remains unseen and largely ignored campaigns be focussed on promoting debate about the in particular in the face of so many other issues facing the notions of childhood which provide an opportunity for community. As this survey was conducted during a worldwide society to consider what is and is not in the interests pandemic, so were earlier studies conducted at times of of children. Rayner (1995) argued that the prevention of significant worldwide and national problems, such as the child abuse was predicated on creating and maintaining a risks of terrorism. “non-abusive” society and a healthy family environment in Children cannot afford competing demands for community which children’s rights to safety and security are respected attention to detract from their fundamental entitlements to and optimized. Similarly, the New South Wales Child safety, love and care. The reality of the other challenges Protection Council (1997) proposed that the promotion confronting the community is not a reason to do nothing. of a “child friendly society” was the cornerstone of the The most vulnerable and at risk children cannot be left prevention of child abuse. to wait whilst larger problems are addressed. The problem The need for public awareness and community education does not go away if we choose to turn away from it. campaigns to tackle abuse and neglect of children in Australia Difficult challenges facing the community require strong is well documented with significant consensus on the need leadership, an understanding of where the community is for these programs to be multi-faceted and utilize a range of up to in its understanding and what it needs to be communication strategies (National Child Protection Council, more empowered. The results of this survey have again 1995; Tomison and McGurk, 1996; New South Wales Child Protection Council, 1997; Tucci et al., 1998, 2001, 2003, 2006, mapped the challenges faced by vulnerable, frightened and unprotected children and young people in the community. 2010; Repucci et al., 1999). Frontiers in Psychology 11 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 12 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 They have not changed, if anything the problems they Acknowledgments experience are further compounded. We would like to acknowledge the pro-bono support of EY Sweeney for facilitating the research. The content of this Data availability statement manuscript has been presented in part in the following report: Tucci and Mitchell (2021). The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation. Conflict of interest Ethics statement The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could Ethical review and approval was not required for the study be construed as a potential conflict of interest. on human participants in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. The patients/participants provided their written informed consent to participate in Publisher’s note this study. All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated Author contributions organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or Both authors listed have made a substantial, direct, claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it or endorsed by the publisher. for publication. Supplementary material Funding The Supplementary Material for this article can be Funding for the project was provided by Australian found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/ Childhood Foundation. fpsyg.2022.860212/full#supplementary-material References AIHW (2021). Child Protection in Australia. Canberra, ACT: Australian The ‘Other- Mind’ Mistake and the ‘Family Bubble’. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute of Health and Welfare. Institute. FrameWorks Institute (2004). Making the Public Case for Child Abuse and Birrell, R. G., and Birrell, J. H. W. (1966). The “maltreatment syndrome” in Neglect Prevention: A FrameWorks Message Memo. Washington, DC: FrameWorks children. Med. J. Aust. 3, 1134–1138. doi: 10.5694/j.1326- 5377.1966.tb91885.x Institute. Birrell, R. G., and Birrell, J. H. W. (1968). The maltreatment syndrome in FrameWorks Institute (2009). Framing Child Abuse and Neglect: Effects of Early children: a hospital survey. Med. J. Aust. 2, 1023–1028. doi: 10.5694/j.1326- 5377. Childhood Development Experimental Research. Washington, DC: FrameWorks 1968.tb83393.x Institute. Brattfjell, M. L., and Flam, A. M. (2019). “They were the ones that saw me FrameWorks Institute (2015). Communicating Connections: Framing the and listened.” From child sexual abuse to disclosure: adults’ recalls of the process Relationship Between Social Drivers, Early Adversity, and Child Neglect. London: towards final disclosure. Child Abuse Negl. 89, 225–236. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu. FrameWorks Institute. 2018.11.022 Jernigan, D., and Wright, P. (1996). Media advocacy: lessons from community CASA FORUM (2014). What Are The Myths And Facts About Sexual Assault?. experiences. J. Public Health Policy 17, 306–330. doi: 10.2307/3343268 Melbourne, VIC: CASA Forum. Kempe, C. H., Silverman, F. N., Steele, B. F., Droegemueller, W., and Silver, Child USA (2020). Delayed Disclosure: A Factsheet Based On Cutting Edge H. K. (1962). The battered child syndrome. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 181, 17–24. doi: Research On Child Sexual Abuse. Philadelphia, PA: Child USA. 10.1001/jama.1962.03050270019004 Daro, D. (1988). Confronting Child Abuse – Research for Effective Program King, M. (1997). 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Sydney, NSW: New South Wales Child Protection Council. Tucci, J., Goddard, C. R., Saunders, B., and Stanley, J. (1998). Agenda for Change – Solutions to Problems in Australian Child Protection Systems. Melbourne, Our Watch (2022). Record Federal Funding Announced For Our Watch, As VIC: Australians Against Child Abuse and Child Abuse and Family Violence Prevention Prioritised For All Australians. Available online at: https://www. Research Unit, Monash University. ourwatch.org.au/resource/record- federal- funding- announced- for- our- watch (accessed May 28, 2022). Tucci, J., Goddard, C., and Mitchell, J. (2001). More Action – Less Talk: Community Responses to Child Abuse Prevention. Melbourne, VIC: Child Abuse Rayner, M. (1995). The Commonwealth’s Role in Preventing Child Abuse. and Family Violence Research Unit, Monash University and Australians Against Melbourne, VIC: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Child Abuse. Repucci, N., Wollard, J., and Freid, C. (1999). 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(2019). “The need for a new paradigm Australian Institute of Family Studies. in the care and support of children in foster, relative and adoptive care,” in Tucci, J., and Blom, M. (2019). “These were terrible years. No love or kindness, The Handbook of Therapeutic Care for Children – Evidence Informed Approaches no safety or warmth”. Reflections on the outcomes of the royal commission into to Working with Traumatised Children and Adolescents in Foster, Kinship and institutional responses to child sexual abuse in australia. J. Trauma Dissociation Adoptive Care, eds J. Mitchell, J. Tucci, and E. Tronick (London: Jessica 20, 373–377. doi: 10.1080/15299732.2019.1630789 Kingsley). Frontiers in Psychology 13 frontiersin.org http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Frontiers in Psychology Pubmed Central

Still unseen and ignored: Tracking community knowledge and attitudes about child abuse and child protection in Australia

Frontiers in Psychology , Volume 13 – Sep 2, 2022

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fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 1 TYPE Original Research PUBLISHED 02 September 2022 DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 Still unseen and ignored: OPEN ACCESS Tracking community knowledge EDITED BY Thea Brown, and attitudes about child abuse Monash University, Australia REVIEWED BY and child protection in Australia Setyo Budi Kurniawan, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Malaysia Joseph Tucci* and Janise Mitchell Luz Anyela Morales Quintero, Meritorious Autonomous University Australian Childhood Foundation, Melbourne, VIC, Australia of Puebla, Mexico *CORRESPONDENCE Joseph Tucci In September 2003, we released the first results of a national community jtucci@childhood.org.au attitude tracking study about child abuse and child protection. At that time, SPECIALTY SECTION we concluded that as a community, violence against children was tolerated. This article was submitted to Forensic and Legal Psychology, The community did not understand or appreciate the seriousness, size and a section of the journal cost of child abuse in Australia. There was evidence that child abuse was Frontiers in Psychology not viewed as an important challenge facing children in Australia. A second RECEIVED 22 January 2022 ACCEPTED 27 June 2022 study conducted in 2006 found that nothing much had changed, indeed PUBLISHED 02 September 2022 community engagement with the issue of child abuse may have even CITATION deteriorated. A third study in 2010 found that the community actively avoids Tucci J and Mitchell J (2022) Still the problem of child abuse rating it less concerning than high petrol prices. unseen and ignored: Tracking community knowledge and attitudes In 2021, 18 years after the first report was published, we have concluded about child abuse and child protection again that child abuse remains out of sight and out of mind as a community in Australia. Front. Psychol. 13:860212. concern. This article describes the findings of this fourth iteration of our survey doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 and analyses the implications for ensuring that individuals are more engaged COPYRIGHT and committed to taking action to preventing child abuse and/or protecting © 2022 Tucci and Mitchell. This is an children from violation. open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, KEYWORDS distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the community attitude, child abuse, prevention, child fatality, awareness original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted Introduction academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms. Arguably, child abuse does not remain in community consciousness for very long. As Durfee and Tilton- Durfee (2013) noted that it took the publication of “The Battered Child Syndrome” by Kempe et al. (1962) to break a 102 year silence that followed the world first 1,860 study about fatal child abuse by French Physician—Ambrose Tardieu. In his seminal work, Kempe et al. (1962) wrote then that as a clinical condition in young children who experienced serious physical abuse from a caregiver, “: : :it is a significant cause of childhood disability and death: : :.yet there is reluctance on the part of many physicians to accept the radiologic signs as indications of repetitive trauma and possible abuse (p. 143–144).” Frontiers in Psychology 01 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 2 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 Kempe suggested that  assess the degree to which child abuse is considered a community concern; “: : :many physicians find it hard to believe that parents could gauge the accuracy of public knowledge about the extent, have attacked their children and they attempt to obliterate nature and impact of child abuse; and, such suspicions from their mind (p. 146).” track community attitudes about the challenges facing children in relation to child abuse and child protection. Four years later in 1966, Robert and John Birrell wrote the first paper to bring to light the extent to which children were being physically abused and neglected in Australia—a Survey method proportion of whom were killed as a result. As brothers and both pioneering doctors themselves, they prophetically argued then An online survey of 1,009 adults aged 18 years and over that in Australia was completed in November 2020 by EY Sweeney. “: : :one of the main reasons why the maltreatment syndrome A sample of 1,009 yields a high degree of statistical precision, with a margin of error of  3.1%. The margin of error is how is not well recognised is the general attitude of disbelief and incredulity that people would or could do such things to little likely it is that a result will differ from the “true” result (if everyone in Australia was surveyed). A maximum margin of children. The attitude is widespread, extending to housewife, doctor, lawyer, and even policeman. The hospital staff: : :tend error of  3.1 at a 95% confidence level means that for a survey often not to think of violence, particularly when faced by a result of a 50%, if the survey was repeated multiple times 95% neatly dressed and plausible husband or wife: : :Recognition of these times the survey result will be between 46.9 and 53.1%. of the “Battered Child Syndrome” is naturally the crux of any Further to this, the data was weighted to the latest available ABS census statistics on state, gender and age to ensure a nationally program of prevention: : : (Birrell and Birrell, p. 1137).” representative sample. A sample of telephone interviews was also conducted Maintaining that terms missing in professional conceptualization can lead to blind spots in practice, Durfee in order to compare key questions to historical results so and Tilton- Durfee (2013) found that child abuse was only as to calibrate the data if required given the shift from formally added to the 1965 edition of Index Medicus—the predominantly telephone surveying in 2009 to a predominantly most comprehensive bibliographic database of life science online survey in 2020. and biomedical science information of its time. It took The composition and background of the sample are detailed another 5 years for the term infanticide—the killing of a in the Supplementary Tables A1–A5 in Supplementary child—to be included. Appendix A. Of course, child abuse is not invisible. It is rendered so through the prevailing attitudes of the community. For this reason, it is critical to not only ascertain what these Survey sample perceptions actually are, but also to understand if they change over time and how. Critical findings In 2003, we began what has become the longest running community tracking research examining the attitudes and Child abuse remains unseen perceptions of adult Australians about child abuse and child In Table 1, the key findings mirror the results from the protection. This paper presents an analysis of the fourth previous surveys in which unprompted recall for child abuse iteration in this series which has been running for almost two as a community concern remains low. It has shifted very little decades (Tucci et al., 2001, 2003, 2006, 2010). over the past 18 years. If anything, it has decreased since It is not difficult to connect the ways that individuals view its peak in 2006. issues that affect the safety and wellbeing of children with their As noted in Supplementary Appendix B (Supplementary level of commitment to support efforts to prevent child abuse Table B.1), COVID-19 and related issues have understandably and protect children from violation. As such, the reduction of taken over as the primary concerns of adults in the community. violence against children depends significantly on these views. It is hardly surprising given its scale and impact. In 2021, Tucci, Mitchell, and Thomas reported the findings of a community survey that demonstrated there is no doubt that Methodology COVID-19 has led to an immediate and chronic fallout of negative effects on the mental health and wellbeing of Aims children and parents across Australia. A quarter of parents felt that they were failing their children and more than a third The key objectives of this research were to stated that they had lost confidence about their parenting. Frontiers in Psychology 02 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 3 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 1 Key findings. TABLE 2 Key findings. Child abuse is rated thirteenth on a list of community issues. 7 in 10 respondents believed that child abuse was fairly well or very well recognized as a serious community problem. There were six times more people who had no concerns at all than there were people who were concerned about the problem of child abuse. However, 56% were so poorly informed that they could not even hazard a guess at the number of reports of child abuse received last year in Australia. Child abuse is rated less concerning than transport, traffic, and roads. Of those willing to hazard a guess, almost all grossly under-estimated the number Community concern about child abuse has not changed since 2003. of reports, suggesting less than 10,000 reports were received in 2019–20 when the 71% of respondents did not recall seeing or hearing any advertising or news actual number was over 480,000. related to child abuse or the protection of children in the past 12 months. There is a lack of knowledge and confusion about which form of abuse occurs most frequently in Australia. When asked directly, 86% of respondents argued that the community still needs to better understand the extent and nature of child abuse in Australia. These problems emerged at exactly the time when parents noticed that their children needed more re-assurance and were experiencing signs of heightened stress such as eating and previous studies that the community must be reminded of child sleeping disturbances. abuse before any attention is paid to it. A third of parents felt isolated and left without adequate support. Almost 40% were worried that their own stress The community is grossly uninformed about and mental health was adversely affecting the wellbeing of their children. child abuse despite believing the issue to be well understood Concerningly, almost a third of parents were frightened that the impact of COVID-19 will have lasting mental health impacts The results presented in Table 2 show that, as a community, for their children such as ongoing heightened anxiety and stress. it is not surprising that adults want to feel that they 1 in 5 parents were concerned about their children’s future social understand such a critical issue as child abuse. Of course, development and self-confidence. people want children to be safe. This is reflected in the majority Social distancing restrictions and lockdown measures have of respondents (70%) believing that child abuse was more resulted in an overwhelming number of children experiencing a than adequately recognized as a serious community problem. range of losses in their daily lives. The absence of their ability to However, there appears to be a profound disconnect between play with friends during lockdown was acutely experienced by 8 what the community thinks it knows and what it actually out of 10 children. More than two-thirds of children missed their does know about the true size and extent of child abuse as a grandparents and extended family. The loss of face to face school community problem. and sporting activities was also significant for many children. When asked to estimate the number of reports of child abuse Given that their children were spending more time on their made each year to child protection authorities 56% were so own in their room and using technology more, a substantial poorly informed that they were unwilling to even hazard any portion of parents were concerned about the safety of children sort of guess. Of the remaining 44% who were willing to give an online. A quarter of the parents surveyed were worried about answer, the vast majority (35%) perceived the number to be less how to best protect their children from online bullying. A third than 10,000—a small fraction of the real figure. of parents were worried about how to keep their children from According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, being abused or exploited when they are using the internet. They there were 486, 300 notifications of child abuse in 2019–20. feel ill equipped to know how to manage. If the more conservative figure is used representing the total In the face of problems that are urgent and the subject number of reports of child abuse that led to a direct investigation of government, institutional and community responses (such by child protective services, then the correct number was 183, as COVID-19, crime, economy, environment), child abuse 300. In this instance only 3% of respondents in the survey were languishes outside the consciousness of the vast majority of the anywhere close to providing an accurate estimate. population. 7 in 10 of respondents could not remember seeing Similarly, when asked to identify which forms of child abuse or hearing anything about child abuse in the media in the past occurred most frequently in Australia, respondents identified 12 months. This was even more surprising given the ongoing sexual abuse and physical abuse to occur the most frequently media reports in the aftermath of the Royal Commission into with emotional abuse and neglect being the forms of abuse to Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia— occur least frequently. a national formal inquiry which captured the public attention In reality, the opposite is true. According to the AIHW about the ways that children were systematically abused and (2021), emotional abuse (54%) was the most common type of exploited for decades within religious, sporting, out of home abuse or neglect substantiated through investigations in 2019– care and other organizations (Tucci and Blom, 2019). 20. This was followed by neglect (22%), physical abuse (14%), Interestingly, 6% of respondents were not worried about and sexual abuse (9%). This misconception is likely influenced anything at all in their community. This confirms the results of by the media being a primary source of information for the Frontiers in Psychology 03 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 4 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 community on the issue of child abuse. Media interest is more “: : :While it may seem intuitive that a survivor would disclose likely to report cases of serious physical and sexual violence abuse when it happened, data reveals a different reality. In a toward children than other forms of abuse or neglect. study of over 1,000 survivors, the average age at the time of reporting child sex abuse was about 52 years: : :.” Children are still not trusted to tell the truth, Children continue to face many barriers that prevent leaving them in danger disclosure. They often lack the knowledge needed to recognize Despite the overwhelming majority of respondents (85%) and understand abuse, lack the ability and language to articulate that they have been abused, do not have an adult they can knowing the harmful implications of not believing a child’s disclosures of abuse, this findings as reported here confirmed disclose their abuse to, do not have opportunities to disclose previous findings that two- thirds (67%) of respondents believe abuse, and ultimately are not believed when they try to disclose. that children make up stories about being abused or are Most disclosures fail to reach individuals who can report the uncertain whether to believe children when they disclosed being situation and stop the perpetrator. Research shows that, when abused. This remains a devastating result for children. It means child victims do disclose, a large percentage of the disclosures that children really only have a 1 in 3 chance of finding an adult are to peers instead of parents or authority figures. Brattfjell and Flam (2019) have argued that disclosures are who will believe them if they tell them that they are being abused or violated. It is far more likely that children will not be believed more a process than a single event involving or in fact perceived as lying. Critically, 3 in 4 respondents seemed to understand that the “: : :telling through direct and indirect hints and signs, decisions to tell, indecision and delaying, or withholding until experience of abuse was so compromising for children that they were not likely to disclose they were being hurt. Only 1 in 4 adulthood, the dependency on trusted confidants who ask and respondents believed that children will usually tell someone if listen for final disclosure to occur: : :.” they are being abused. With an understanding of how difficult it is to disclose abuse for children, it would appear to be even Rather than occurring in a single moment, the process of disclosure means that the truth can take decades to finally more important to believe children are telling the truth when they report to an adult. emerge. The experience for adult survivors of abuse often replicates their experience as children. They are asked questions Respondents understand both how difficult it is for children to disclose abuse and how devastating it can be for children to be which cast doubt on their story. They are interrogated as to why it has taken so long to come forward. They are threatened and perceived as not telling the truth and yet many continue to hold the view that children cannot be trusted. their integrity is impugned. These results provide an invaluable insight into why it is After almost two decades in which there has been no not surprising that the Royal Commission into Institutional shift in the prevailing attitude that children lie about their Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) found that experience of abuse, it is time for a concerted community effort to change this collective mindset and trust children’s truth about “: : :Of survivors who told us about barriers to disclosure their own violation. during their private session, more than one in five (22.6 per cent) who said they had disclosed as an adult and more than a Children are blamed for the behavior of abusive adults quarter (26.1 per cent) who told us they disclosed in childhood said they had thought they would not be believed: : :” There remain many pervasive beliefs that form the basis for dismissing or minimizing the true scale and impact of Nor, that they also reported that child abuse (Table 3). A small but significant proportion of respondents believed that children are responsible for their own “: : :.Many victims do not disclose child sexual abuse until many years after the abuse occurred, often when they are well TABLE 3 Key findings. into adulthood. Survivors who spoke with us during a private 1 in 6 respondents believed that sometimes children are responsible for the abuse session took, on average, 23.9 years to tell someone about the they receive from others. abuse and men often took longer to disclose than women (the 1 in 6 respondents believe that an adult should not be blamed for abusing a child average for females was 20.6 years and for males was 25.6 if they get so angry that they lose control. years): : :(Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to 14% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that parents who have physically abused and caused injuries to their child should be charged by the Child Sexual Abuse, 2017)” police. 11% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a parent who punches These results are replicated around the world. Child USA a child is committing physical abuse. (2020) (a think tank on child protection) also found that Frontiers in Psychology 04 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 5 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 4 Key findings. abuse. It reflects the continued victim blaming of children and young people in relation to their experiences of violence. For Almost 1 in 5 respondents were believed that children were abused by strangers example, it is akin to the damaging cultural myth that women rather than people known to them. who “dress or behave provocatively are asking to be assaulted” 13% of respondents believed that child abuse only happens in poor or disadvantaged families. (CASA FORUM, 2014). In what caused a furore at the time, 3 in 10 respondents did not believe that child abuse is a social problem of direct the then Governor General of Australia, Dr. Peter Hollingworth concern to them. publicly blamed a 15 year old young woman for being sexually 62% of respondents were worried about the possibility of their children being exploited claiming that it was “not sex abuse” by a priest, but abused by someone they don’t know. “rather the other way round” (Robertson, 2020). 69% of respondents were worried about the possibility of their children being This belief shifts responsibility away from the perpetrator abused and exploited online. of the violence and onto the victim. It is further reinforced by the finding that 1 in 6 of the respondents believed that messaging about the risks to children of exploitation online adults should not be blamed for abusing a child if they get so appear to be resonating with the community. angry that they lose control. In these circumstances, the adult’s behavior is positioned as normal and legitimate—something More people than ever before turn away from that everyone can understand and hence condone. Similarly, the reality of child abuse 14% of respondents did not believe that parents should be held accountable if they physically assaulted and caused injuries to The community is overwhelmed by the issue of child abuse. their child. A further 11% of respondents were uncertain or did It is disheartening, confronting and stressful for many. It reflects the reality of the ongoing threat and danger that face children not believe that a parent who punches a child is committing physical abuse. It is clear from these findings that children are and young people every day. With such intensity involved in the reaction to child abuse for adults, it is no wonder that afforded less protection from violence than adults. An adult who punched another adult would been deemed to have committed they prefer to turn away from it and to an extent deny the seriousness of its scale and effects for children, families and the an assault. Indeed, the devastating consequences of “one punch” attacks have been the subject of significant community outcry community more broadly. and widely reported on in the media. There is still an unwillingness to re-examine the personal Reluctance to act leaves children unprotected behavior of adults. Despite significant support for adults As noted in, a small but significant proportion of adults are to recognize that their children’s safety relies on them, a reluctant to take action to protect children from being abused strong undercurrent of discriminating against victims and even if they were certain of the facts. Children require adults responsibility shifting still exists. to act protectively in order for them to be safe from abuse. Adults in the community are the early responders for children who are at risk of being abused. Yet, if these responders do not believe children or fail to take action, children remain Child abuse still happens in someone else’s without the backup they urgently require. Messaging from many neighborhood governments across Australia that child abuse is everybody’s Echoing results from the previous three studies, there is still responsibility are falling short. confusion about the characteristics of the perpetrators of child abuse (Table 4). This misunderstanding speaks directly to long Lack of confidence is a key obstacle in held myths associated with child abuse. In particular, that child protecting children abuse only occurs in poor households with uneducated parents. Many respondents identified their own lack of confidence in There is still a belief that children are most commonly abused by recognizing the signs of abuse and knowing what they needed to strangers rather than individuals known to the child and more do to take action to protect children. This lack of confidence has than likely a member of his/her family. not changed at all in the past decade with almost identical results Continuing to believe in the myth of stranger danger and the being identified in the 2009 study. Knowledge, confidence and view that child abuse occurs as a result of poverty reinforces the skills are core elements of community capability. community’s tendency to locate the problem outside of families Without these qualities, the community is not able to stand like their own, in neighborhoods that are different to their up for children, leaving them arguably in danger. own. In so doing, it facilitates a harmful collective perception that reduces the urgency to protect children or take personal Long standing barriers to taking action to responsibility to do anything about it. Clearly, almost 1 in 3 of respondents did not believe that child abuse is a problem protect children from abuse continue to exist which affects them directly. This theme is replicated across a As highlighted by the findings in Table 5, there are persistent range of findings in the analysis section of this article. However, barriers acting to restrain individuals from taking action to Frontiers in Psychology 05 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 6 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 5 Barriers to taking action to protect a child TABLE 6 Key findings. known to be abuse. 81% of respondents believed that a 4 year old child wandering the streets I may feel unsure the abuse was actually taking place 30% unsupervised is a form of neglect. I may not know what the right thing to do is 21% 78% of respondents believed that a child who knocks on your door asking for food, saying there is no food in their house and they are hungry is suffering from I don’t know who to contact to help abused or neglected children 9% neglect. I worry that I might make a false allegation of abuse 32% 91% of respondents believed that a teacher who texts a 14 year old asking I may feel it was not my responsibility to do something 11% him/her to meet to have sex is sexual abuse or grooming. I may not want to get involved 16% 79% of respondents believed that a child who goes to school regularly without I may have fears for my own safety if I do something 24% lunch is being neglected. 64% of respondents believed that a parent who regularly leaves an 11 year old to I may be worried the family involved might be broken up 17% look after a 6 year old is being neglectful. I don’t think the authorities would be able to help 11% 79% of respondents believed that a child being cared for by a parent who has a None 14% serious drug habit is at risk of neglect. Don’t know/No answer 7% 80% of respondents believed that an 8 year old being locked outside the house for 1 h as punishment is at risk of neglect or emotional abuse. 74% of respondents believed that a baby regularly left to cry for more than an hour at a time is at risk of neglect or emotional abuse. protect children. Getting it wrong and falsely accusing parents 72% of respondents believed that a parent constantly yells at a child is causing of abuse is at the top of this list. A lack of confidence about emotional or psychological abuse. what to do was identified again in this list. Fear for their own safety if they take action is significant. However, some TABLE 7 Key findings. are rhetorical beliefs that can be used to justify a lack of action. For example, believing that authorities will not be able 12% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a 14 year old having to help or not wanting to get involved represent a different sex with a 25 year old adult is sexual abuse. kind of barrier which reflects attitudinal positioning aimed 28% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that 15 year old having sex with an 18 year old adult is sexual abuse. at softening the unwillingness of the individual to not follow 10% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a child or teenager through with the information they have. This is not uncommon, who is manipulated into sending a naked or semi-naked photo of themselves to there are broader discursive themes which are implicated in an adult is being subject to grooming or sexual abuse/exploitation. this lack of action, such as the sanctity of the family unit, the 12% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe that a parent who downloads photos and videos of children being sexually abused is a form of child dissonance between the individual and society ownership of abuse or exploitation. social problems, the myth that if it is serious enough someone 11% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe a public transport else will take action. employee who secretly records or photographs up children and teenagers’ dresses There is the need to actively address each of these barriers was a form of sexual abuse. with community education. Without concerted effort to change, 19% of respondents were uncertain or did not believe a 4 year old child wandering the streets unsupervised is a form of neglect. it is likely that these barriers will continue as they have for at least the last two decades. A significant proportion of adults continue to There is common agreement about the not recognize significant acts child abuse and categories of abuse and neglect which warrant neglect further action There is virtually no change in the number of respondents When faced with some scenarios there appears to be general who had difficulty in recognizing clear examples of at risk or consensus about them constituting abuse or neglect (Table 6). abusive situations for children. The lack of consensus on these This is important because the threshold to have child protection sorts of adverse childhood experiences represents a significant to become involved and investigate reports or offer support to barrier to taking action to protect children in these sorts of children is a contentious debate. The threshold itself is never circumstances (Table 7). articulated or defined. It is often reported that community standards differ according to range of factors, including cultural A significant number of people have identified background of reporters, their qualifications, their experience in reporting previously. child abuse and neglect in the past 5 years However, these results also suggest that there is greater In 2009, 26% of respondents had identified a child or young consensus for some scenarios than others. The exercise of person who had been abused or neglected in the past 5 years. seeking feedback from the community about what constitutes The findings in Table 8 suggest even more people are identifying abuse and neglect is a potential innovation that can be used abuse. In the earlier survey it was not possible to undertake by child protection authorities to determine the circumstances a detailed analysis of the kind of violation to which children when they should become involved. had been subjected. In this study, a new set of questions were Frontiers in Psychology 06 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 7 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 8 Key findings. TABLE 9 Reaction to the becoming aware of the problem for the child. 38% of respondents had witnessed a child or teenager being humiliated or criticized by an adult family member over the past 5 years. Uncertain about what to do 13% 22% of respondents had witnessed a child or teenager being physically Shocked 13% abused by an adult family member over the past 5 years. Sorry for the child 18% 23% of respondents had heard someone make sexually suggestive comments Angry about the situation 24% or jokes about a child or teenager over the past 5 years. Frustrated I was unable to help 18% 18% of respondents had had a child or teenager disclosed that they were Guilty for not helping 8% being abused or hurt by an adult over the past 5 years. Don’t know/ No answer 7% 30% of respondents knew of a child or teenager who was living with family violence at home over the past 5 years. Total 100% 30% of respondents suspected a child or teenager was experiencing abuse over the past 5 years. TABLE 10 Action taken by respondents in response to their concerns. 18% of respondents knew of a child or teenager who had experienced sexual abuse or exploitation online over the past 5 years. Discussed my concerns with a family member/friend to get 30% their advice Talked to the child who was the subject of the concerned 26% asked to specifically understand the nature of the abuse that Discussed my concerns with a professional (e.g., teacher, 22% doctor, social worker) respondents had identified. Talked to the person who was harming the child 17% The results in Table 8 suggest that there are significant numbers of incidents of child abuse and neglect that Reported concerns to child protection authorities 16% Reported concerns to the police 14% respondents have come across in the course of their daily lives. Phoned a helpline for advice 14% Many people feel sorrow, anger and Did nothing 17% powerlessness when they come face to face Other 6% with child abuse The initial reactions of respondents who identified children the parent. Surprisingly, 1 in 4 of respondents took the step who had been abused or neglected are listed in the above table. of talking about the concerns directly with the child, possibly These offer a more detailed insight into the drivers of adult before deciding what to do next. 1 in 6 raised the issue directly behavior in relation to taking action to protect vulnerable and with the person who was suspected of being the perpetrator at risk children. of the abuse. With nearly one third of respondents talking to The findings presented in Table 9 paint a picture of trusted people within their own informal networks, the need to the anger, shock, sorrow, frustration, and powerlessness equip the community with knowledge and empower them to experienced by adults who become aware a child is being abused. take action is again demonstrated in these findings. In many ways these feelings mirror the experiences of the very children who are suffering the abuse and neglect. Clearly, there When driven to act, it occurs quickly is a need to empower the community in relation to taking action The time taken for individuals to take action is set out when they become aware that a child is being abused rather than in Table 11. Of those who took any action, almost a third them continuing to feel impotent and a hostage to the problem. responded immediately. A further 32% responded within a People are willing to act if resourced and week. 1 in 10 (11%) took more than a month and some over a year. These results highlight that individuals who are motivated supported to do so to take action will do so quickly and decisively. The action that each adult took after identifying the abuse and neglect is described in Table 10. In this question, respondents may have indicated that they took more A sense of responsibility and concern drives action for many than one action. Of most concern is the 1 in 6 that did nothing to The main motivation for taking action is listed in Table 12. protect children they were worried about. This leaves many In this question, respondents may have indicated more than one children in real danger. reason for taking action. Importantly, the results also showed that 83% took some Individuals engaged with their own commitment to the form of action. 30% of respondents took direct action that child or their social responsibility, as adults, to protect children. could have led to the protection of the child by reporting it to Some saw that their action would lead to the whole family statutory child protection authorities and/or the police. Other receiving assistance. For others, it was the thought that they responses were less direct and involved seeking advice from had to act because they were the last resort for the child in trusted others in the community or discussing concerns with question. A small proportion of respondents were compelled Frontiers in Psychology 07 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 8 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 11 Period of time before respondent took action after being TABLE 13 Outcomes of action taken by respondents. concerned about the child. Made things much better 22% Same day 34% Made things a little better 33% Within a week 32% Made no difference at all 15% Within a month 14% Made things worse 5% More than a month but less than 6 months 5% Don’t know if it made a difference 25% Between 6 and12 months 1% Total 100% 1 year or more 5% Total 100% TABLE 14 Main reason for not taking action. TABLE 12 Main reason for taking action. I was unsure the abuse was actually taking place 24% I didn’t know what was the right thing to do 22% I acted on my gut instinct and knew I had to do something 25% I didn’t know who to contact to help the child 6% I felt it was my personal responsibility to do something 28% I was worried that I might make a false allegation of abuse 25% I didn’t think anyone else would take action 16% I didn’t think it was my responsibility to do something 5% I thought the situation was serious and needed immediate action 19% I didn’t want to get involved 24% It’s part of my job to protect children 16% I had fears for my own safety if I did something 17% I didn’t want to have regrets later about not doing something at the time 20% I was worried the family involved might be broken up 15% I cared about the child concerned 35% I didn’t think the authorities would be able to help 3% I was worried about the long-term consequences for the child if I didn’t do 33% something Someone I spoke to about the situation advised me not to do anything 6% further I thought the family was under stress and needed help 14% No, none 5% Don’t know / No answer 4% Other 19% Don’t know / No answer 9% to act as a way of avoiding feeling regret later if the child continued to be harmed. active avoidance of the problem of child abuse. These include not wanting to become involved, not knowing what steps to take and fearing that intervention would make the situation Taking action helps children worse for the child. As noted in Table 13, for those that did take action, over half (55%) believed their intervention resulted in improved safety for the child. Smaller proportions of respondents did not know There is significant impetus to about the impact of their actions or believed that the safety of prioritize the prevention of child abuse the child has been further compromised by their involvement. and the protection of children As noted in Table 15, there is strong recognition that Confusion and uncertainty stops inadequate investment in strategies to reduce the extent of child people taking action abuse will lead to severe consequences for the community. It follows that there is also a high degree of interest to 1 in 6 (17%) of respondents stated they took no action at all. be better informed and more actively involved in efforts to The main reasons for not taking action, despite being concerned prevent child abuse. about the possibility of a child being abused, are described in Table 14. In this question, respondents may have indicated more than one reason for not taking action. Discussion A quarter of the respondents who did not take action were uncertain about whether or not the abuse was actually taking Child abuse remains largely unseen place. A much smaller proportion (6%) followed the advice of another person to take no action. A significant proportion (17%) and ignored identified legitimate concerns about their personal safety as a reason for not taking action. Birrell and Birrell (1966) had to fight community disbelief However, the remaining reasons for not taking action and professional skepticism to raise public alarm about the reflected a number of critical barriers that are derived from an impact and scale of child abuse in Australia. Frontiers in Psychology 08 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 9 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 TABLE 15 Key findings. would not believe children’s stories about being abused. In 2006, 31% of respondents stated that they would not believe children’s 75% of respondents believed that there is a need for national campaigns to stories about being abused. In 2021, 32% of respondents believed raise awareness of child abuse and the need to protect children from child abuse. that children can make up stories about being abused. 45% of respondents would be prepared to become actively involved to In 2003, just over 1 in 3 respondents did not believe that support a campaign or event(s) that helped the community know how to child abuse was a problem that they needed to be personally recognize child abuse and be more confident to act. concerned about. In 2021, the result was exactly the same. 85% of respondents believed that if we do not prevent child abuse now, the long term consequences for the community are enormous. In 2010, 1 in 6 of respondents did nothing when faced with 80% of respondents argued that more money should be invested in a child they believed was being abused. In 2021, the result was protecting children from child abuse and neglect. exactly the same. In 2006, additional concerns came to light for the first time. For example, 1 in 5 of respondents in the survey lacked the confidence to know what to do if they suspected that a child In a follow up to their original paper, Birrell and Birrell was being abused. In 2021, 1 in 5 (22%) were not confident (1968) wrote that it was clear that about knowing what to do if they suspected that a child was being abused or neglected. In addition, 1 in 4 (27%) were not “: : :our community, despite some understanding of the confident of being able to recognize that a child was being problem, still has a long distance to travel in the recognition abused or neglected. of this problem: : :(p. 1028).” The community lacks all of the building blocks required to prevent child abuse and adequately act to protect them Over five decades later, the results of the current study from abuse and neglect. They are not aware of the true suggest that there is still a gulf between the reality of scale and impact of child abuse. They do not believe that child abuse as a societal problem and sufficient community it is as widespread as it really is. They have a shallow appreciation of it. understanding of how it is defined, what its components In September 2003, we released the first results of a national are, how it develops or the level of risk that children community attitude tracking study about child abuse and child and young people face in their own homes. They lack protection (Tucci et al., 2003). At that time, we argued that confidence about when, what and why they should take as a community, violence against children was tolerated. The action when exposed to information that children are being community did not understand or appreciate the seriousness, abused and neglected. There are still prevailing attitudes that size and cost of child abuse in Australia. There was evidence stop them from stepping up to keep children safe. These that child abuse was not viewed as an important challenge attitudes have been there for at least 18 years and they have facing children in Australia. A second study conducted in 2006 not changed. (Tucci et al., 2006) found that nothing much had changed, indeed community engagement with the issue of child abuse may have even deteriorated. A third study in 2010 found that Children are left unprotected the community actively avoids the problem of child abuse rating it less concerning than high petrol prices. There is still significant proportion of adults who do not In 2021, 18 years after the first report was published, we perceive that taking action to protect children from abuse is their have concluded again that child abuse remains largely unseen responsibility. They continue to be influenced by powerful and and ignored as a community concern. The results are virtually inaccurate myths and beliefs such as identical to those found over the past three earlier studies. children lie when they disclose abuse; In 2021, child abuse rates lower than problems with public child abuse only happens in poor or disadvantaged transport and roads on a list of community concerns. In 2021, families; 7 in 10 of respondents could not remember seeing or hearing outsiders should not interfere into the private lives of anything about child abuse in the media in the past 12 months. families; and, In 2006, 43% respondents felt so poorly informed on the children are to blame for the abusive behavior of issue so as to be unable to guess at the number of reported cases adults and are somehow therefore less deserving of child abuse, whilst those prepared to estimate, significantly of our protection. underestimated the problem. In 2021, 56% were so poorly informed that they could not even hazard a guess at the number of reports of child abuse were received last year in Australia. This These mindsets shape the behavior of many adults. It is an 13% increase over that time. makes them more susceptible to perceiving why they should In 2003, the community was extremely ambivalent about not take action to protect children. For example, respondents trusting children. Thirty-five (35%) percent of respondents who had become aware of a child who was being abused in Frontiers in Psychology 09 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 10 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 the past 5 years identified not knowing the right thing to do, The community is turning away and being worried that they would be accused of making a false ill-informed allegation and not carrying any responsibility to act as key reasons for doing nothing. Over the past decade, it appears the community is finding it Such biases are inherently connected to broader more and more difficult to face up to the reality of child abuse themes that are reinforced by the reporting in the media with increasing numbers reporting they find talking about child (FrameWorks Institute, 2003, 2004; FrameWorks Institute, abuse tense and difficult and that they cannot bear to see images 2009, 2015). These include the perception that of children who have been hurt or neglected. In this survey, 44% of respondents reported feeling tense and children will always be abused, it is part of human anxious when they take part in a conversation about child abuse. nature; This is an increase of 16% since 2010 when the last study in this systems are not working so there is little we can do that series was undertaken. In addition, 71% of respondents reported will make a difference; that they cannot bear to look at pictures of children in the media there is no sense of community anymore, so why should who have been hurt or neglected. This is an increase of 12% since we bother, the best I can do is to look after me and my 2010 when the last study in this series was undertaken. loved ones; Perhaps due to ongoing stress directly arising from COVID- child abuse does not touch my life directly, I do not need 19 and the fatigue of the ongoing consequences for the to be worried about it; and, community broadly (Tucci et al., 2020), more people than ever perpetrators are really cunning, they have been getting before find it hard to stay engaged with the intensity of the reality away with abusing children for years, not even the faced by so many children who are being abused or neglected. police can stop them. It is as if when there is community wide danger, the risks to children need to be pushed even further away from individual Each of these examples highlight how disempowering and community awareness. It is a threat that is just too much to prevailing narratives are for adults who may be motivated handle. It acts to make the world feel so much vulnerable at a to act in the best interests of children but end up being time when uncertainty is so prevalent. overwhelmed by the sheer weight of obstacles that they perceive The end result is that individuals turn away from the reality to be in their way. of child abuse because they find the pain suffered by children At every turn, each of these themes increases the intolerable. It is inevitable that a problem that the community uncertainty that adults experience as they determine is forced to hide from is a problem that stays in the shadows how to evaluate the information they have about a child and away from active engagement and efforts to resolve. Looking and ultimately how they choose to act. The greater away is easier than looking into the eyes of children who have the uncertainty, the greater the likelihood of inertia been hurt and traumatized by the very adults who are supposed and in turn the higher the likelihood that children are to care and nurture them. left unprotected. All social movements that result in collective and effective It is only when adults engage with their sense of social common action commence with the realization of the crisis that responsibility that they act. This is a finding that has been is occurring and the way that such escalating problems affects replicated elsewhere (FrameWorks Institute, 2004, 2009, 2015; each person in the community. Concerted action about the NAPCAN, 2010). In this study, respondents cited the following environment has required the collaboration of different sectors reasons as being the main motivations behind their decision to of the community playing a role to prove the existential threat actively intervene to protect a child they knew was being abused it represented to the current and future generations. It requires or neglected: uncomfortable truths to be realized and accepted. This is still not I knew I had to do something; the case for child abuse. Its long term ramifications have been I felt it was my personal responsibility to do something; proven by the weight of scientific evidence (Tucci et al., 2019). I didn’t think anyone else would take action; The cost to the community has been estimated in the billions It’s part of my job to protect children; and, of dollars (Taylor et al., 2008; McCarthy et al., 2016). It is at the I didn’t want to have regrets later about not doing core of downstream social consequences such as poor health, something at the time. unemployment, mental illness, addiction, suicide, and more. Yet, despite efforts to the contrary, child abuse appears to These are the clearest results to date in favor of a strong remain, at its most basic level, a topic that sits on the periphery and detailed community education campaign that builds the of community consciousness. case for why, how and when adults need to act to keep children Clearly, the results of this survey show that many people safe from abuse. feel sorrow, anger, and powerlessness when they come face to Frontiers in Psychology 10 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 11 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 face with child abuse in their own families and communities. We need to support education with national legislation. They are shocked, feel sorry for the child, experience anger that Current laws in relation to child abuse differ markedly from children are being hurt and frustrated or guilty at not being able state to state in Australia. These differences contribute to help the child. to the confusion about how to define, identify and The act of turning away from it prevents the community respond to child abuse. from learning what it needs to know in order to be empowered Community attitudes can be changed if the public has enough to act to prevent it in the first place. The results access to a clear and unequivocal framework for understanding demonstrated that 9 out of 10 people acknowledge that in its the issue of child abuse. We need national uniform laws effort to buffer the pain that children suffer, the community stays which set out standards for defining, identifying, reporting and uninformed about the real extent and nature of the problem of investigating cases of child abuse, family violence and neglect. child abuse in Australia. That is why all levels of government need to commit to resourcing sustained public education campaigns aimed at engaging the community in the protection of children from The community want and are prepared abuse. Increasingly, there has been significant public investment to do more in the past 5 years in using community education campaigns to address gender inequality as the upstream factor leading There is hope still in these results. Three quarters of to family violence (Our Watch, 2022). This has not translated respondents supported the need for a national campaign to raise into similar resourcing of campaigns in relation to child awareness of child abuse and how the community can act more abuse prevention. protectively toward children. Just under half of respondents Importantly, State and Commonwealth Governments need would be prepared to become actively involved to support a to urgently co-operate to develop and implement uniform campaign that helped the community know how to recognize national child abuse and child protection legislation. child abuse and be more confident to act. Over 8 out of 10 And finally, individuals need to find within themselves the respondents believed that if there was inadequate action taken commitment to listen to and believe children, especially in to prevent child abuse now, the long term consequences for the relation to child abuse and family violence. community are enormous. Changing the story Conclusion For almost 40 years, raising public awareness of child abuse “: : :statistics paint a horrendous picture of an Australian through mass media campaigns has been widely recognized as childhood stolen by trauma, abuse and violence. It is an effective primary prevention strategy (Daro, 1988; Daro and Gelles, 1992; New South Wales Child Protection Council, 1995; unquestionably one of the most pressing and critical social problems: : :(Tucci et al., 2006).” Jernigan and Wright, 1996). King (1997), for example, suggested that public awareness In 2021, child abuse remains unseen and largely ignored campaigns be focussed on promoting debate about the in particular in the face of so many other issues facing the notions of childhood which provide an opportunity for community. As this survey was conducted during a worldwide society to consider what is and is not in the interests pandemic, so were earlier studies conducted at times of of children. Rayner (1995) argued that the prevention of significant worldwide and national problems, such as the child abuse was predicated on creating and maintaining a risks of terrorism. “non-abusive” society and a healthy family environment in Children cannot afford competing demands for community which children’s rights to safety and security are respected attention to detract from their fundamental entitlements to and optimized. Similarly, the New South Wales Child safety, love and care. The reality of the other challenges Protection Council (1997) proposed that the promotion confronting the community is not a reason to do nothing. of a “child friendly society” was the cornerstone of the The most vulnerable and at risk children cannot be left prevention of child abuse. to wait whilst larger problems are addressed. The problem The need for public awareness and community education does not go away if we choose to turn away from it. campaigns to tackle abuse and neglect of children in Australia Difficult challenges facing the community require strong is well documented with significant consensus on the need leadership, an understanding of where the community is for these programs to be multi-faceted and utilize a range of up to in its understanding and what it needs to be communication strategies (National Child Protection Council, more empowered. The results of this survey have again 1995; Tomison and McGurk, 1996; New South Wales Child Protection Council, 1997; Tucci et al., 1998, 2001, 2003, 2006, mapped the challenges faced by vulnerable, frightened and unprotected children and young people in the community. 2010; Repucci et al., 1999). Frontiers in Psychology 11 frontiersin.org fpsyg-13-860212 September 2, 2022 Time: 11:10 # 12 Tucci and Mitchell 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.860212 They have not changed, if anything the problems they Acknowledgments experience are further compounded. We would like to acknowledge the pro-bono support of EY Sweeney for facilitating the research. The content of this Data availability statement manuscript has been presented in part in the following report: Tucci and Mitchell (2021). The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation. Conflict of interest Ethics statement The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could Ethical review and approval was not required for the study be construed as a potential conflict of interest. on human participants in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. 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Frontiers in PsychologyPubmed Central

Published: Sep 2, 2022

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