Sex abuse of Aboriginal children shown to be just as bad as ever

Words: Anna Patty

This article initially appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

A strategy to tackle child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities has failed despite the investment of tens of millions in taxpayer dollars over five years to address the problem, a scathing report by the NSW Ombudsman has found.

The assessment of 12 Aboriginal communities in NSW found the former Labor government's approach to addressing child sex abuse had done little to help reduce the number of reported incidents. Aboriginal children were still dramatically over-represented as victims of child sex abuse.

And the Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, has warned the state government against simply pouring more money into programs without a proper evaluation of their effectiveness. His 93 recommendations include better monitoring and accountability of services.

In 2011, more than half the 8857 victims of sexual abuse in NSW were children under the age of 16. Aboriginal children represented 10 per cent of all child abuse victims, despite making up just 4 per cent of the child population.

Nearly a quarter of sex abuse reports between 2007 and 2011 in the 12 communities the Ombudsman studied involved Aboriginal children - but they represented just 12 per cent of those populations.

Aborigines were also over-represented as suspects and were accused over 70 per cent of incidents.

Almost all the children who had been abused were known to Community Services. Two-thirds had been the subject of 10 or more child at risk reports before the incident occurred.

While state government figures suggest 55 per cent of all reports of NSW children at risk made to Community Services received a thorough face-to-face assessment, the Ombudsman found only 26 per cent of reports were assessed in the 12 communities his office examined.

About $60 million was earmarked for a range of strategies launched in 2007 including the $22.9 million Safe Families program in five Aboriginal communities in western NSW. However, it had helped raise awareness of the problem and the need for families to report assaults. ''This program raised high expectations, but fell well short on delivery,'' the Ombudsman said.

A $5 million initiative to solve the problem of child assault victims needing to travel up to four hours to see a paediatrician had also delivered an ''inadequate return on this investment and children are still being required to travel unacceptable distances''.

The Ombudsman said his office has been highlighting the need for agencies with a shared role in child protection to identify and respond to at-risk children and young people.

''Yet many of the early intervention and 'integrated' case management programs operating in high-need communities are failing to reach those who need them most,'' he said.

The Ombudsman said the O'Farrell government's establishment of the Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs in 2011 and its recent commitments to forming genuine partnerships with Aboriginal leaders and its education initiatives, ''provides considerable scope to achieve real and lasting change''.

The NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, said the state government welcomed the Ombudsman's 93 recommendations.

"The comprehensive report acknowledges the failures of the past including poorly integrated services, chronic staffing shortages and poor accountability," Mr Dominello said.

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