Responding to the challenge of child sexual abuse
Narrator Welcome to the Emerging Minds’ podcast.
Sophie Guy [00:00:08] This podcast deals with the topic of child sexual abuse and maybe distressing to some listeners. If this podcast brings up any difficult emotions for you, please reach out to someone you can talk to or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
You’re with Sophie Guy and today I’m joined by Carol Ronken, Director of Research for Bravehearts, a national organisation dedicated to preventing child sexual assault and exploitation in Australia. Carol has a masters in applied sociology and has worked for Bravehearts since 2003. She also holds a position as a visiting fellow in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology. Today, she joins me for a discussion about the issue of child sexual assault and exploitation and shares her extensive knowledge of the issue. Our conversation touches on a variety of themes from defining what child sexual assault is, dispelling some of the myths and how to identify signs that a child is being abused.
Sophie Guy [00:01:14] Hi Carol, and welcome and thank you for joining me on the Emerging Minds’ podcast.
Carol Ronken [00:01:19] Thank you so much, Sophie. Thank you for having me.
Sophie Guy [00:01:22] We’re here today to talk about the important and sometimes challenging topic of child sexual abuse. It’s a really large topic and there are many different aspects we could cover. So I’m kind of anticipating quite a wide ranging conversation that we’ll probably have. And as someone who has dedicated almost two decades to Bravehearts and to advancing research, policy, and legislation addressing the issue of child sexual abuse, I’m looking forward to learning from your wisdom and your deep understanding of this topic.
Carol Ronken [00:01:55] Thank you so much.
Sophie Guy [00:01:56] I wonder if we could start by you telling us a bit about your background and how you came to be the research director at Bravehearts.
Carol Ronken [00:02:04] My background is psychology, was my primary educational background. I did a double degree in psychology. At the time, originally was interested in sort of clinical work and then I became more and more fascinated with the impact of research. So I then moved off from my my psychology degree and did a masters in applied social research, which I absolutely loved. And while I was doing that, I guess I became more and more fascinated with how we work with and how we manage sexual offenders. It was a huge interest of mine. And while I had been studying psychology a friend of mine had disclosed that she had been a victim of sexual abuse and had had a quite a horrific time with her family not believing her and not supporting her. So my interest really grew from that, I guess.
And then I moved up here to Queensland to focus more on criminology and that aspect and looking at those theories around behaviours and how our system responds to offending behaviours. While I was at Griffith, I was working as an associate lecturer there. I was a really loving teaching and the friend of mine who had disclosed to me while we were studying our undergraduate degrees, her partner rang me to tell me that she had committed suicide. And it sounds quite trite, but it obviously definitely floored me. And probably for the first time I started to think about the victims of sexual assault and particularly child sexual abuse. I had been so focussed on offenders and how we can prevent offending by working with offenders that I hadn’t really cast my mind to the impacts on victims at that much broader scale. And certainly I hadn’t really thought about the lack of support services there for victims.
And so this was back in 2002. And at that time, Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston was on the news nearly every night. There was a huge controversy surrounding our then Governor-General, Peter Hollingworth, who in his previous life had been head of the Anglican Church. And a number of victims had come forward about him ignoring their disclosures about him himself, making allegations against Peter Hollingworth. And Hetty was in the news practically every night, sort of calling for his resignation, calling for the PM to to dismiss him. And I was watching this incredibly passionate woman on the news and I just thought, I need to meet with her. So I rang Bravehearts and came out and met with Hetty and began volunteering and really loved the organisation. It takes a very holistic approach to child sexual assault. Very much victim orientated, of course. We provide services to victims. So counselling, support services, we provide help with redress at the moment. It’s sort of come out at the Royal Commission. We do a lot of training programs with organisations as well as education programs with children looking at prevention through providing education programs to kids from prep right up to through high school. And so, look, I was volunteering and then Hetty in early 2003 sort of offered me a job here. And at the time, we were very small. There was only a handful of staff. We had no funding whatsoever. But I took it and haven’t looked back since. I really appreciate the approach that Braveheart’s takes, I guess, that holistic approach. And you know, through my work here at Bravehearts, I support a lot of what Hetty does in terms of lobbying for changes in legislation, in in looking at how we do address child sexual assault and exploitation more broadly in the community. So, yeah, that’s my story, how I came to Braveheart’s and I’ve been here for over 17 years now.
Sophie Guy [00:05:49] Wow. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. And when you say I’m curious about what you mean by a holistic approach that Braveheart’s takes to addressing child sexual abuse, could you talk a bit more about that?
Carol Ronken [00:06:00] Yeah, definitely. Look, there are so many amazing agencies there who, you know, are funded to provide services to victims and really invaluable services to victims. But one of the strengths of Bravehearts is that it doesn’t just do one thing. It believes very strongly that if we’re going to ever reduce the incidence of child sexual assault in our communities, we need to take that holistic approach. We can’t just be providing services for victims. We need to ensure that victims have a voice in policy and legislation reform. We need to look at how we can prevent this crime from all different angles. Obviously, by providing children with personal safety skills, but also looking at how do we work with offenders? What sort of prevention programs can we put in place to try and prevent offending from occurring in the first place? What are the risk factors that we know about in terms of offending? And then, of course, you know, as an organisation, we believe very much in supporting other organisations in the work they do. And through the Royal Commission there was a huge emphasis on the child safe standards within organisations that work with children. So, you know, a huge part of what Bravehearts has been doing, and since before the Royal Commission, is working with organisations to look at their policies and their procedures and the culture within the organisation itself to ensure that it is child safe. So, yeah, look, it is taking that holistic view in terms of how we address this crime. And I guess that’s just for us really important because, you know, you can tackle it from one angle and that can be powerful. But I think that the more that we actually focus on all of the different areas and have an understanding of all of the different areas that can impact on prevention, the better chance we have of protecting our children.
Sophie Guy [00:07:41] Yeah, sure. And I just wanted to ask you. I noticed this and you mentioned it when we spoke on the phone, that I am using the words child sexual abuse. But I notice that Bravehearts uses the term child sexual assault. And you also talk about exploitation. Could you just explain why you use that term?
Carol Ronken [00:08:01] Yeah, look, for me, it was quite new when I started at Bravehearts because I also spoke about child sexual abuse. And I, I often slip still back into that even almost 20 years later. But for Bravehearts, and I think it was something that Hetty very much pushed for, was that we need to ensure that the horror of this crime is articulated when we talk about it and when we define it. And sexual abuse, or I guess the term abuse, almost refers to someone having a right that they abuse. So, you know, parents who abuse their right to discipline their children and physically abusing their children. And I think for us the reality was that this is an assault. It’s a sexual assault on a child. Legislation often talks about it as being an assault rather than abuse. So I guess for us, it was really important to ensure that that terminology was strong and spoke to what this really is. And it is a sexual assault. The difference between child sexual assault and adult sexual assault is, is many, but it’s also very similar. It’s a sexual assault against a victim. So for us, that was really important.
And only recently, I guess, it’s probably really just since late last year that we’ve started talking about child sexual assault and exploitation. And that’s sort of come about as, look when we talk about child sexual assault on its own and we talk about the numbers. We know that about one in five children will be sexually assaulted or exploited before the age of 18. And people find that really hard to get their head around. It’s a huge number. You know, if you think 20% of our children will experience some form of sexual harm. So when we just sort of said sexual assault, people reacted quite strongly against that. And I guess we try to explain that when we talk about child sexual assault, we’re talking about a whole continuum of behaviours. So we’re not talking about those contact offences or the physical or penetrative offences that, that are perpetrated. But we’re also talking about non-contact offences. We’re also talking about media related offences. And when you sort of talk about child sexual assault, that doesn’t really capture those non-contact offences and the media related offences. So we included exploitation. And that is a little bit problematic as well, because so many people understand child sexual exploitation as being related to trafficking of children or child prostitution, or some way someone benefiting from from that child sexual harm. So that itself is also a bit of a problematic term. And I think that that to me, it comes to heart of some of the issues that we have in this sector, that there are so many different terms to use. There’s so many different ways of understanding this. And that can create issues. So I think that that is one of those conversations we need to have as a sector and try to come to some sort of agreement around this, because I think language and the way we frame things is so important.
Sophie Guy [00:10:51] Yeah. You know, this term child sexual abuse or child sexual assault is very broad and it does cover many things from a one off non-contact event, perhaps with a stranger through to repeated and violent abuse, sometimes by family members. Is there anything else you can share that could sort of make it easier to understand these diversity of experiences? How do you help people to make sense of it? Is it helpful to think about particular forms being more common than others? Is it helpful to kind of differentiate them like that?
Carol Ronken [00:11:21] I think it definitely is. One of the things that I guess we understand, whether we’re calling it sexual abuse or sexual assault or sexual exploitation, is basically that these acts are anything that exposes a child or involves a child in sexual processes that are beyond their understanding or contrary to to what our community standards are around our interactions with children. So it’s a very broad sort of definition, but we do talk about those different types of offences. So those contact offences might involve anything from kissing or fondling a child right through to, you know, the oral sex or the penetrative offences. With non-contact offences, we include things like talking sexually explicit to children. Making obscene phone calls or remarks to children online. Exposing them to things that they’re not ready to be exposed to of a sexual nature. Or persistently intruding into their lives around sexual messaging. And then, I think it was the Royal Commission that’s brought out this other form, the media offences. Previously we talked about what we now call media offences as Ppart of those non-contact offences. But that sort of the stuff around exposing children to pornography or sexting or taking sexual images of children or producing them and distributing them online. So there’s that whole range of sexual behaviours and they all have different impacts on children. And children are impacted in different ways.
I think one of the things that makes sexual abuse different to other forms of abuse and neglect in childhood is that with child sexual abuse, it’s almost always premeditated. It’s something that involves those predatory acts of grooming of a child. That manipulation, self gratification for the offender, the exploitation of that relationship with that child. So it’s very different to other forms of abuse or neglect and I think that sort of lends itself to also us understanding that that means that we need to address it differently and think about it differently. You know, who the offenders are, are very different. So when you do talk about other forms, like physical abuse or emotional abuse and neglect, primarily the offenders or perpetrators in those types of abuses are the primary caregivers of the child. Person that the child is living with. When you’re talking about sexual assault of a child, primarily the offender is someone that the child knows, loves and trusts, but not necessarily living in the child’s home. So they’re people like certainly, you know, relatives. They could be parents, they could be siblings. They’re often other people that the child knows, so their coach, their teacher, babysitters, priests, counsellors, family friends. So they do tend to be people that the child loves and trusts, but not necessarily living in the child’s home.
And I guess there’s that misconception out there that strangers are the greatest risks to our child. I think that comes about through media. You know, often the cases that get the most media attention are those when a child is abducted by a stranger or sexually assaulted and murdered by a stranger. They’re the ones that sort of seem to grab media attention a lot of the time. But only around about 5-10% depending on which research you read, are actually strangers who who perpetrate these offences. And I think that can be really hard for people to want to understand or want to believe. You know, I think it is safer for us to think about people we don’t know as being the risks to our children. And having to think about the possibility that is someone we do know and there’s someone that we trust with our child who may be harming them or may be at risk of harming them, that can be really difficult, I think, for people to understand.
Sophie Guy [00:15:02] When I was looking at the literature on disclosure, and at Emerging Minds the age range that we’re specifically focussed on is the 0 to 12 years, and I’m interested in how those things particularly relate to young children being able to disclose?
Carol Ronken [00:15:19] One of the things I think a lot of people, they probably haven’t been informed about, is that children of all ages are sexually harmed. And I apologise, you know, I understand a lot of what I might be saying might be triggering or upsetting for people. But children from infancy are sexually harmed right through to adolescence. Again, there’s a lot of contradictions in the research but generally, you know, sexual assault of a child starts around ages between five and seven. So that one of the typical ages, the average age of of that first victimisation. So there we’re talking about very young children. And that has implications, obviously around disclosure, but also for prevention. As for parents, it’s hard to think about talking to our kids and giving them those personal safety messages at that young age. But it is so important to do and we can do it. We have a program that we take it to schools from prep to grade three called Dittos Keep Safe Adventure. And we also take it into childcare centres. And it gives really gentle messages to children about personal safety, about their rights, about, you know, being able to sort of speak out and talk to somebody if something happens that makes them feel unsafe or unsure about somebody.
So we can do personal safety with very young children in a very age appropriate way. We don’t have to talk to four or five year-olds about sexual assault and describe all the ins and outs of it. It’s about building resiliency in these children and empowering these children to be safe. Because one of the things we know about sex offenders is that they do target children who are vulnerable. And that vulnerability is not necessarily because of their socio economic status or because they come from a single parent home. They could be vulnerable because their parents are just really, really busy. And these kids are just sort of looking for that adult attention. So kids can be vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. Those shy, quiet kids can be targeted quite easily. So that whole thing around the importance of building resilient children and and empowering kids is so key to that personal safety message, those personal safety messages.
Sophie Guy [00:17:21] And with that program, to what extent are the adults in children’s lives involved in that? Because I imagine it’s important to also educate parents as well. Like you said before, I can well imagine that a lot of parents could feel uncomfortable about how to bring it up and how to have this conversation. Do you work with parents in a specific way as well?
Carol Ronken [00:17:44] Look, we do. It’s a school based program so often what we do is invite parents to come along and we’ll hold parent workshops. One of the difficult things has been that it’s been very difficult to get parents to come along to those sorts of things because they’re time poor. They’re often working so it can be really hard. So we’ve definitely been exploring different ways of doing that. I think that one of the things that we’re looking at now is doing more stuff online and having webinars available for parents just to access when they can. Trying to talk about these personal safety messages through the media in really positive ways. And I think we do need to be doing so much more of that. I mean, Child Protection Week and we’ve got our, our National Awareness Day, our White Balloon Day. And a huge part of that is around raising awareness. Letting people know we can talk about this issue without it being threatening or scary and giving them ways and avenues of being able to do that. We need to get so much better at talking to adults and and ensuring that adults are part of these education programs. And not just Bravehearts, you know, a lot of organisations need to do that as well. Because as I guess you’re sort of implying in your questions is that it’s not up to kids to keep themselves safe. It shouldn’t be. They should be just able to enjoy their childhood. As adults, it’s our job to ensure that the children in our lives are safe. So we do need that information. We do need to be able to educate ourselves and talk about these issues and ask those really hard questions of those who might be able to provide some support and advice.
Sophie Guy [00:19:15] And what are some of the ways and avenues that open up the space for people to be able to have those conversations? Do you have a sense of that?
Carol Ronken [00:19:23] I think talking about some of the realities of child sexual assault. Getting rid of some of those myths. I think that can allow people to feel safe to ask questions. I certainly think that sharing stories from survivors and victims is also a really important part of that awareness and sort of opening up those conversations in our community. Knowing that, yes, child sexual assault can have the most devastating and long term impacts on children, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If we can get through the silence and the shame and the secrecy that tends to surround child sexual assault. If we can break down those barriers. If we can talk about this issue more broadly and without that shame, I think that that allows people to start having those little chats around this issue. Talking about their own experiences or their own concerns and how they can address them. We do as a community need to get better at that. And I think that unfortunately sometimes our, our policies and the way we address this issue, it makes victims feel like they have to be ashamed of what happened.
You know, we recently we’ve seen a little bit of uproar in the media around Victorian legislation stopping victims of sexual assault from speaking out and identifying themselves as victims unless they have the court permission to do that. And that as a policy and a legislation from a government sends out these messages. And I know that from the Victorian government’s point of view, it was around protecting victims from media or anyone intruding into their lives. But the same time, having to say, well, you have to get court’s permission to identify yourself as a victim of sexual assault. That’s horrific because it’s taking that power away. And it’s sort of saying, well, look, you know, there’s something different about this type of crime that means that victims of this type of crime can’t identify themselves or shouldn’t identify themselves. There’s no other crime where victims aren’t allowed to sort of say, hey, I was burgled last night. There’s nothing like that. And but for some reason, there’s this fear that identifying yourself as a victim of child sexual assault or sexual assault more broadly will somehow make you more vulnerable and that’s not the case for many. For many it’s about empowering them.
Sophie Guy [00:21:37] Have you noticed public attitudes, you’re talking about how it’s hard for people to talk about and, you know, there’s a real need for there to be more openness about it, but have you seen things change over time?
Carol Ronken [00:21:48] Thankfully, yes, I have. It’s it’s been really a positive thing. And I have to say, I think that the the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which finished a couple of years ago now, that Royal Commission went for five years and it had such a positive impact in terms of talking about the sexual harm of children. Even though the Commission itself was focussed on sexual abuse within institutional settings, it allowed people to speak out. Just after the Royal Commission was announced by the then prime minister, Julia Gillard. We had an over 300% increase in calls to our line, our support and information line. And so many of these survivors who were ringing us were speaking out for the first time. And I know that the Royal Commission themselves talks about the fact that so many of the private sessions they ran were with victims who had never spoken out before. And just putting it in the public sphere like that just made them feel like they weren’t alone. That that they could talk about what happened to them and they could do that in a safe space and that they wouldn’t be judged or they wouldn’t be disbelieved. They would be supported. And I think that was so powerful. And we do see the media reporting more on these types of offences. We do see more discussion around how we respond to this. And certainly personal safety education, the emphasis of that in schools has grown certainly since I’ve started Bravehearts. Not long after I started, we launched the Ditto program and we’ve seen over a million children now with the Ditto program. And there are some other organisations that do fabulous work. There in South Australia, she’s now passed away, but Frieda Briggs from the University of South Australia, did some amazing work around prevention programs for children. And Elspeth McGuinness, who’s still at the University of South Australia, continues to do a lot of that work, you know, supporting and speaking out about educating children, as well as educating teachers to be able to look out for some of those signs and know how to respond.
Sophie Guy [00:23:50] I wanted to to switch now to perhaps thinking about practitioners. You know, for practitioners who haven’t had much experience working with children and families where the child has been sexually assaulted. What is important to know, do you think?
Carol Ronken [00:24:05] I think the very basics are really important to know. So the fact that the official statistics around child sexual assault only tell part of that story. So when when we look at child protection data, when we look at police statistics, that’s only telling us about children or survivors who’ve come forward. So it’s a very small percentage of people who have experienced sexual harm. Over the last, you know, 30 odd years, consistently when we look at research that asks communities, do victims surveys or ask communities about experiences, research consistently shows that around about one in five children will experience some form of sexual harm. So I think understanding that is really important. And I guess also knowing that children from all backgrounds can be sexually harmed. So I think we tend to sort of still, unfortunately, think about those who may live in in lower socio economic areas or come from single parent families, that they are more vulnerable to this. But that’s not true. And I think that we need to understand that they come from all backgrounds, all religions, all races, all cultural backgrounds. And we need to be able to find ways to support those children. Because child sexual assault does affect children or victims in different ways. Some children who experience what might, and I hate saying this term, but might be considered a minor offence. So so they may have been exposed to something inappropriate or touched, fondled. And by no means minimising the impact of that. But some of those children may be horrifically impacted by something that we would think, well, that’s quite minor. And then we’ve seen children here at Bravehearts who have experienced horrific abuse. But the level of resilience is so strong and they are just powering along and doing really well.
So often that’s to do with their support networks, the support that they get from their families. Being believed when they first speak out. Having someone that they know they can talk to. So I think that those sorts of things are really important and we also need to understand about who the offenders are. We need to understand that than not, you know, the scary, scary man hiding in dark corners. These are people that we trust with our children’s lives. And I’m not trying to scare people because we know that the majority of adults out there are safe with children. But offenders come from all different backgrounds. They’re not necessarily those frightening looking stereotypes of what we sort of picture in our heads as a sex offender might look like. They’re both male and they’re female. You know, around about 6% of child sex offenders are women. And sometimes they will offend in conjunction with a male offender, but they can also be the primary perpetrator and commit horrific offences on their own. So understanding all of that.
For me, I think one of the biggest things that us as adults need to do is remember to believe children. So even if we have that little thing in the back of our heads thinking, no, this can’t possibly be true. I know that person. They would never harm a child. Never, ever allow a child to feel as if they are disbelieved. We know from some of the research that when children speak out, particularly, when they speak out to a third party, so someone who might not necessarily be a parent, if they speak out to someone else. That around about 98% of the time, children are telling the truth. So there’s only a very small percentage where a child may not be telling the truth. And if that’s the case, for me, the question is, well why are they saying this then if it’s not the truth? So we need to delve into that as well. But that belief is so important because it feeds into that child’s self-esteem, feelings of who they are, knowing that they’re supported and that they’ve got someone that they can turn to is just so critical in their healing process. And being able to understand what’s happened to them, to be able to process it and to be able to move forward.
Going back to why I came into this, you know, when my friend disclosed to me that she was sexually assaulted as a child and she would tell me that her parents told her that she was lying. You know, she didn’t disclose until she was in her late teens. And by then, the abuse had stopped for about the last five years. But they just sort of said, look, you know, you’re a problem child. You’ve always been a problem to us. You know, you’re lying about this. We know him. He would not have done that. And she lived with that disbelief from the people who she should have been able to trust, who should have been able to be there to support her. And I have no doubt that that was probably the biggest thing that that impacted on her. And, you know, ended up with her taking her life. That belief is just so important.
Sophie Guy [00:28:48] Yeah. Yeah that certainly comes through in everything that I’ve been reading around this. It’s almost seems like the sort of number one fundamental thing to know isn’t it, about responding to a child?
Carol Ronken [00:29:00] Yeah, 100%.
Sophie Guy [00:29:03] And I’m interested in this understanding for very young children. From reading the literature, it sounded as though it was not very common that young children would disclose because of lots of things to do with it happening before they’ve even got language to go around it. Or just the fact that generally I think we’re still not very comfortable talking about sex and we’re not comfortable talking about sexual assault. And there’s just no context for a child to even have the slightest idea how to broach it. So I just wondered, from your experience working in this space for a long time, is that an issue? And how do we address that and make it easier for it to be responded to at the time or very close to the time that it’s happening rather than having to wait for years afterwards?
Carol Ronken [00:29:49] Yeah, look, it is definitely an issue. I think it’s changing. Some research that sort of came out during the Royal Commission was that around about a quarter of people. So about, I think it was about 24%, took more than 20 years after the sexual assault to disclose that they’d been sexually harmed as a child. So these people were living with this for their whole lives and had not spoken out about it. I think that we are sort of seeing a slow shift in that. But there are certainly some huge barriers for, for children to speak out about this crime. There’s so much silence around it. And we know that perpetrators themselves need children to stay silent to allow them to continue to offending. So so perpetrators do everything they can to ensure that a child won’t speak out. They convince a child that they’re somehow responsible or to blame for what is happening. That they wanted it. That what’s happening is normal. And I think that goes back to what you just sort of mentioned around the fact that we don’t talk about sex with kids and there’s no context for them. So a lot of perpetrators will play on that naivete to, to groom children into sort of acting, you know, being part of this and then sort of play to the child, well, you wanted it, you know, you did this. You did that. You didn’t say no. You didn’t stop me. So you obviously wanted it. It’s absolutely a huge issue. And I guess if you think about how hard it is for an adult to speak out if they have been sexually harmed, it is so much harder for children who don’t have that understanding and the language to talk about what has happened and to understand what has happened. So those barriers to disclosure, things like guilt. So, you know, kids feeling as if it’s their fault.
Sometimes, and again, this can be really hard for people to understand, but sometimes victims, children are ashamed of their body’s natural reaction to the sexual activity. And they can find that really hard to comprehend that, you know, this felt absolutely awful. They hated what was happening to them. But it also might have felt just slightly nice to be touched in that way. So it can be really hard for kids to be able to put that altogether. And of course, as I said before, most of the time the offender or the perpetrator was someone that this child loves and trusts. And so many times we hear children saying that they, they don’t want to get this person into trouble. They don’t want to lose the relationship with this person. They love this person. So they don’t want anything to happen. So they keep quiet about it.
But I think to get around that, one of the things we as adults need to do is to be aware around what some of the indicators or the little red flags are that can sort of tell us that something’s happening to this child. That this child is being harmed. And we need to sort of be really aware of those signs because it is so difficult for children to speak out. And I think that if as adults, we we look out for those red flags. And we often talk about the red flags as being like a jigsaw puzzle. You know, on their own one or two of them might not mean anything or might mean something completely different. But as you see some of these signs popping up, it’s just that opportunity for you as an adult to say to this child, look, I noticed you’re not yourself anymore. You seem to be having lots of nightmares or you seem to be quite distracted. If there’s something going on in your life, I’m here for you and I’m happy, you can talk to me, you can me tell me anything and I will do whatever I can to support and to help you. So opening up those avenues for that child to feel as if they can speak out.
The one thing that I would definitely suggest is never ask a child directly if someone is sexually harmed them or sexually assaulted them.
Sophie Guy [00:33:29] When you say that do you mean sort of using that language?
Carol Ronken [00:33:31] Yeah. Or even, or even saying, has somebody touched you? You know, anything like that that could frighten a child because they might think, oh, my God, you know, they know my secret and they might just shut down completely. So, you know, we often sort of say, look, it’s really important just to let the child know that you’ve noticed that there seems to be something happening in their life. And open up those communication avenues rather than make a child feel like you know exactly what’s happening. Because a lot of the signs are signs that may come around for other forms of of trauma or other adverse childhood experiences. So it’s really important not to make a child feel that they’re obviously sort of being sexually harmed or something along those lines. It is really important for kids to feel safe and secure in speaking out and to ensure that they don’t feel any shame around that.
Sophie Guy [00:34:19] Yeah and I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the red flags. Because I am aware that when you start to try and pinpoint and say look out for this and this and this, that that gets tricky because as you say, some indicators are things that are just fairly broad and could indicate something else going on. But how do you talk about red flags in the context of child sexual assault and what adults could potentially be mindful of?
Carol Ronken [00:34:43] We talk about them certainly as being those those red flags. And as I sort of mentioned before, you know, not being definitive indicators that the child has been sexually harmed, but just keeping an eye out for things like physical signs. So these are signs that are obviously a little bit more likely to indicate that a child has been sexually harmed. So things like vaginal or penile or anal soreness or discharge or bleeding, you know, that can be quite an obvious sign. Any marks or injuries to their bodies, particularly around their buttocks or breasts or lower abdomen areas, can be quite strong signs that a child’s been sexually harmed. But there’s also there’s other signs. So you got your emotional, your psychological signs that a child might have been harmed. And, you know, you might see a child who is normally very outgoing and lots of friends and is always seeing social suddenly starting to become quite withdrawn. And that is a common thing for perpetrators to do with the child when they’re grooming a child. And that is to try and separate the child from their normal friend groups because it lessens the likelihood that the child will speak out. So often that can be a sign that something’s going on there. Children who show sexual knowledge that is outside of what is expected for them at their developmental age. Recurrent nightmares is a huge thing with children and that fear sometimes of of going to sleep. Having the lights turned off. Certainly things like self harming, particularly in adolescence, is a huge sign that something traumatic is going on in that child’s life.
And we also have those behavioural signs. You know, children who’ve been sexually harmed often regress in their developmental milestones. There’s increase in conduct problems in children. They often demonstrate, I guess, fearful or anxious behaviours or avoidant behaviours with certain people or certain things. And again, in adolescence, risk taking behaviour. So acting out sexually, promiscuity. Sometimes those behaviours in adolescence can be a sign that that child has been harmed. And I guess there’s also social signs. As I said before, you know, kids who are distancing themselves from their friends or even their family. Kids who might be fearful of being alone with a certain person or with a type of person. All of those sorts of things are those little indicators to keep an eye out for. And as I was sort of explaining, or everyone was probably just thinking, oh, that could mean anything. You know, that could be a child just going through adolescence. But I guess that’s for us why it’s so important to sort of think about it like a jigsaw puzzle and to use those signs just as a way of opening up a conversation with a child or a young person that, you know, you’ve just noticed some changes in their behaviour or they don’t seem to be quite like themselves. And just having that really strong level of communication with kids and young people so that they know that you’re a safe person to speak to.
Sophie Guy [00:37:31] That’s been a really good conversation. Thank you. I’m thinking to wind it up soon, but I just ask if there’s anything that we haven’t touched on that you feel it would be important to share about this topic?
Carol Ronken [00:37:46] I think perhaps the online world is one of those increasingly important issues for us to be looking at and considering. And I think that COVID and the levels of isolation that we’ve all sort of experienced have presented new risks and challenges in this space. Some of the early research is sort of showing that offenders are going online and they are asking for tips that with other offenders around how to groom kids online. So for for many, there is definitely these increased opportunities for offenders because they know children are online more. So going online themselves and trying to talk to children and contact young people through things like social media sites. We’re seeing an increase in that. And of course, parallel to that is there’s increasing vulnerability in children and young people during this time. So when we are in isolation and children weren’t going to school, and I know in Victoria that’s still the case. Kids socialisation is now happening more and more online. I mean, it was already happening, but through this pandemic kids have been relying more on social media and sites and apps to be able to talk to people, to meet people and to socialise more broadly. So they’re online more often and offenders are taking advantage of that. So I certainly think that understanding those risks, that this isn’t just like a off-line real world problem, it is happening online in greater and greater measures. And as parents, we need to have those discussions still with kids around staying safe online and thinking about the person who you might be talking to online might not be who they say they are. So I definitely think that the online space is something that we do need to talk about more. And as I said, it’s becoming more of a pressing issue for us.
Sophie Guy [00:39:36] Are there some good resources, online resources or websites that people can go to understand the issue of child sexual harm online?
Carol Ronken [00:39:46] Yeah, look, definitely. Look Bravehearts website is always a really good starting point. We have lots of fact sheets on there and information sheets for parents and carers. There’s information around any of the webinars or training opportunities that come up through Bravehearts on there. So certainly that’s there. In terms of this online stuff, I cannot recommend more highly the office of the eSafety Commissioner’s website. They have some amazing resources for parents and carers, as well as young people around staying safe in the online space. So I definitely recommend that. And, you know, there are so many other organisations and sexual assault services out there. Here in Queensland, you’ve got the Daniel Morcombe Foundation and they are increasing their presence right across the country. And they do some amazing work around education based on on Daniel’s story. And they’re in South Australia, you have the wonderful Carly Ryan Foundation, which was set up by Sonya Ryan. Carly was the first young person in Australia to have been groomed online, and she was murdered in Adelaide a number of years ago. And Sonya does a lot of work through that foundation speaking in high schools and sharing Carly’s story, what happened to Carly.
Sophie Guy [00:41:01] Right. That’s good to know. I hadn’t, I wasn’t familiar with that story. It’s been a really, a really interesting and great conversation and you’ve just got such a wealth of knowledge and I really appreciate you spending the time today. So thank you very much for joining me on this episode today, Carol.
Carol Ronken [00:41:19] Look, it’s been an absolute pleasure. And please feel free to reach out to Bravehearts or to myself if you need any more information or if there’s anything that we can do to assist.
Sophie Guy [00:41:28] Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Carol Ronken [00:41:30] Thanks. Sophie.
Narrator [00:41:33] Visit our website at www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Emerging Minds. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.