Child abuse – hiding in plain sight

FEATURE:

By Nima Green

In the last few years, a number of high profile cases of child abuse in Australia, have been garnering more attention, raising an uncomfortable question of how it is possible that such heinous crimes can be occurring in our communities.  Campaigners are saying that it is this unease that is sustaining the stigma, which prevents many victims from coming forward.  One such campaigner is Manny Waks.

Manny Waks as a schoolboy in 1988, and as he is now.

Manny Waks was just 12 years old, when his life began to change. He was a student at the Yeshivah Centre, an Orthodox Jewish school in St Kilda East. It was here that he became a victim of sexual abuse, which continued until he was fourteen.

“In my case it was from 1998 to 1981…There were two perpetrators within the Yeshivah centre, one of them was employed by the centre for security related matters and I was preyed upon by these individuals and it’s what turned out be systematic cases of abuse for quite a large number of victims,” he says. “Unfortunately when some of the victims went to the authorities of the Yeshivah centre they were treated in an inappropriate manner, certainly the police were not called in or anything along those lines.”

When asked if he felt let down by the authorities, he answers firmly,

“Yes, absolutely yes.”

Manny is now a 35 year old community leader, as a Vice-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.  He is a bespectacled, smartly dressed man who, as a leader in the Jewish community and a human rights advocate, believes that he has a responsibility to speak publicly about the abuse he experienced during his childhood. He hopes that his story will empower and encourage others to speak to the police or seek the help that they are looking for.

It has taken him 20 years to get to this point though.  He first went to the police in 1996, but the lack of evidence was a problem.

“It was my word against the perpetrators.”

Manny says that it is due to the private nature of the crime, as well as the difficulties children experience in making disclosures and being believed, that child abuse and neglect often goes undetected .

“Initially in 1996, I went to the police.  It was something that had stayed with me for a number of years, and it was something that was impacting on me…Unfortunately though there was a lack of evidence…and the case was laid to rest for some time.”

However, this year, finally there have been arrests made, of perpetrators involved in his case, as well as in the cases of several other victims from the same school.  Many then decided in September this year to go public during Child protection week.

“I felt that this was a good opportunity to go public now, because I felt that there could be a number of other victims out there…and ultimately we are where we are today because quite a large number of people have come forward.”

This case is a timely reminder that child abuse in our communities are not as removed as we might like to think.

The sad reality is that the profile of an abuser who is related to or familiar to the victim, is far more common than that of the ‘dangerous stranger’ concept, which parents usually warn their children about. Statistics from Victoria Police show that from 2010 to 2011, the number of rape offences in which the victim and offender(s) were related, living together, or in a relationship increased by 31.6%.  Obviously these figures relate to adults as well as children, but the sad fact is that abuse, neglect and child sexual assault are clearly happening in or close to homes, in communities across the country.  The most recent national figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, show that in Australia, during 2009-10, there were 286,437 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect made to state and territory authorities.

These are staggering statistics, and as uncomfortable and confronting as it is, only greater public discussion around this issue will enable the victims of this horrific crime to begin to be able to move forward.

Manny says that people have got to get around the pervasiveness of silence around this crime.

“Unfortunately there’s still a stigma in our communities around this type of abuse even towards the victim who didn’t do anything wrong.  I was hoping to try and change the mindset of some …I have no regrets.  One of the great benefits of going forward was seeing a number of victims who subsequently went forward to police as a direct result of that and some of the victims contacted me and informed me that seeing my case in the media has emboldened them to go forward…Victims feel embarrassed for many years due to the stigma…but some action needs to be taken.”

Unfortunately, it seems that most of us wouldn’t take action.  Last year, in the biggest survey of its kind ever conducted in Australia, the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect interviewed 22,000 respondents giving them a range of scenarios and asking how they would react.  The survey reveals that when confronted by clear-cut cases of child abuse, less than half of us would take any formal action to protect a child, with only 34 per cent of respondents saying that they would definitely call the police.

Few would disagree that these findings are sad, show a lack of generosity and are perhaps even irresponsible. So what is the reason for this level of apathy? According to the survey, some were worried they might be wrong, as well as being worried what would happen to them as a result of disclosing that information.  Also, others believed it was none of their business, did not want to upset the child’s parents and some even conceded that they didn’t like to admit things like abuse really happen.

The implications of this are unnerving.  Just how many children suffering from abuse, are hiding in plain sight, in our own neighbourhoods? Is it our own collective blind spot that stops us from acting to protect children?

Manny says that the first step for victims of abuse, as well as for people worried they might know someone who is suffering, is to be able to talk about it.

“I thinks it’s imperative firstly to seek assistance.  There is no magic cure for everyone, every individual is unique and requires a different level of assistance, some more, some less, some through psychological assistance others through simply reporting it to the police and making a statement and seeking justice through the judiciary …I would urge and encourage everyone to go through with that.  You don’t have to go public because I understand the sensitivities involved here.”

Claire Lindsay Johns is the Senior Project Coordinator at the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Teams (SOCIT), a Victoria Police unit that specialises in dealing with child abuse cases.  She echoes Manny’s message and adds that victims, friends and neighbours should feel comfortable in coming forward.

“We’re really clear about what we want; we want more people to report sexual assault, that is our absolute goal and objective…We know that only about one in seven people report sexual assault, an incredibly low number, but we know the prevalence is incredibly high and it’s one of the most underreported crimes, and it’s one that we just don’t talk about enough in the community.  So, we want people to feel confident that they can come to Victoria Police and feel that they can have their story heard.”

Due to this high prevalence, Victoria Police is increasing the number of these sexual offence and child abuse teams across the state over the next year, with eight more teams expected to be operational by 2012.

For Manny, his decision to talk to the police, as well as him going public, has helped to provide him with a network of support and care, and he now feels like he is moving forward in his life.

However, there are clearly many others who are still struggling with the weight of the abuse they are suffering, whilst being alone and isolated.  Manny hopes that his story will show others that child protection in this country must be a group effort.  Victims must be able to feel as if they will be listened to and supported, and members of the public must try not to turn a blind eye to the signs of a child in need.

“It’s about taking appropriate action so that you as an individual who has gone through a traumatic experience can feel comfortable once again and feel empowered and can get on with your life as a person.”

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