In their own words

Why do adults not hear what abused children say? If they did, tragedies such as that of the UK’s Victoria Climbie or of Australia’s Daniel Valerio might be averted, write Chris Goddard and Neerosh Mudaly.   

Children and young people who have been abused and neglected are rarely heard. It is as if they are beaten into silence, neglected by the community and the state as well as by abusive adults. The reality may be that we do not want to hear what they say, that their words are too painful to absorb.

In the UK, many professionals failed Victoria Climbie. In Australia, Daniel Valerio had more than 100 bruises. He spoke few words. His older brother, aged four, had a wider vocabulary and could describe what was happening.

Sometimes even direct reports from a child are not enough. We know about these fatal failures only because the media ensured Daniel’s and Victoria’s voices and silences carried beyond the grave.

Crimes against children are committed in hundreds of Australian homes every day and yet there is scandalously little research into them. How the children who have been assaulted think and feel about their traumatic experiences has remained largely unexplored.

Yet research we have conducted at Monash University suggests abused children and young people can contribute a great deal to our understanding of violence in the home.

One 11-year-old girl understood only too well why she had been sexually abused: she was the “easiest target”. A teenager, sexually abused since infancy, thought such assaults were “normal”. Only when she started secondary school did she begin to learn that her father’s abuse was out of the ordinary.

Children also have clear insights into the causes of abuse: a 12-year-old understood that: “They are picking on you because you are smaller than them.” And they have an understanding the effects of abuse: “I had to grow up too quickly and I just feel that I missed out on childhood pretty muchÉ I really struggle with thatÉ you have to grow up very fast in that sort of situation; otherwise you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that.” Another young person described how abuse “just creeps into every part of your life”.

Children can understand the sense of complete powerlessness. “I didn’t have any control over my lifeÉ so I started controlling my food; I would either eat and then throw it up again, or I just wouldn’t eat.”

Perhaps we would listen more carefully if we realised how difficult it is for the children to tell. A 13-year-old boy: “I did, but I didn’t want to tell. I wanted to but didn’t want toÉ I was thinking if I told and he found out, I would be in serious trouble.”

Some children also have remarkable insight into how some adults minimise the abuse of children. A 12-year-old girl, subject to abuse and a witness to domestic violence: “They don’t want to believe the truth; they just want to believe the easiest side. They don’t want to hear the truth because the truth is so much harder to understand and so much longer than a lie.”

Our failure to listen closely to children who have been abused contributes to every child’s vulnerability. A system that refuses to release essential data – or does not collect it in the first place – does not have child protection as its priority.

Instead, it reflects a world that prefers victims and their advocates to remain silent, where the “simplest” and “easiest” options for adults are chosen – all because the truth is “harder to understand” and understanding takes “longer than a lie”.

Dr Chris Goddard is director of the child abuse and family violence research unit at Monash University and Dr Neerosh Mudaly is senior counsellor with the Australian Childhood Foundation.

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