Australia is fast developing one of the most robust legal responses to child sexual abuse in the world.
A key part of Australia’s legal response is the further development of mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse. These laws require designated professionals who work with children to report known and suspected cases of child sexual abuse to government child protection agencies. The laws help to identify cases of sexual abuse that would otherwise remain hidden. They also enable health rehabilitation and protection for the child, promote criminal justice, and assist in preventing further abuse.
Professor Ben Mathews has worked in this field since 2004 and has completed innovative legal, theoretical and empirical studies that are internationally recognised. His research has been published in leading international journals, and he has worked for the Australian Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and for international agencies including the World Health Organization and the Council of Europe. His work has informed the design, development and implementation of these laws in Australia and overseas. He has also designed educational programs for reporters, for delivery in person and online.
In 2019, Professor Mathews travelled to London to give two keynote presentations at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and to parliamentarians in the House of Lords. He discussed what mandatory reporting laws are, how they operate, why they are needed, their effects on case identification, and requirements for optimal implementation and monitoring.
The United Kingdom is yet to introduce mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse. In contrast to Australia’s system, the UK relies on members of the community to voluntarily report. The IICSA is considering whether to recommend the introduction of these laws in England and Wales.
Professor Mathews told the UK Inquiry there are five key components in a robust legislative response:
- mandatory reporting laws to be clearly drafted;
- they must apply the duty to appropriate groups of professionals who work with children;
- mandated reporters must receive high quality education and training about all aspects of the duty;
- government intake and response agencies must be adequately resourced;
- ongoing monitoring must occur to identify areas where improvements can be made.
“Australia’s system is not perfect, but it is paving the way as one of the best.”
Professor Mathews’ research has found that jurisdictions with mandatory reporting laws consistently identify far more cases of sexual abuse that are otherwise likely to remain hidden. As identified by the Australian Royal Commission, it is well-known that sexual abuse occurs in secret, with children often unable to tell anyone about their experience.
However, even with these laws, many cases will not be disclosed.
“Even though we now have a higher number of reported cases, they remain the tip of the iceberg,” said Professor Mathews. “Many cases cannot be detected by professionals, and are not disclosed by the children. The true prevalence of child sexual abuse in the population is much higher than shown in official child protection statistics.”
Important gaps in knowledge still remain in understanding the prevalence and lifelong health effects of child sexual abuse, and its interaction with other forms of child abuse and neglect. Professor Mathews is currently leading an international team to conduct the Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS). The ACMS will survey a random sample of 10,000 Australians to identify the prevalence and long-term health effects of all five forms of child maltreatment: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence. The ACMS is supported by a $2.3 million grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council. It will conduct the survey in 2021.
“This funding allows us to do what has never been done in this country before. We will be able to identify what proportion of Australians experience each form of child maltreatment, and multiple types of maltreatment. We will also ascertain the mental and physical health effects of these experiences through the lifespan and other important information. We will then use these findings to work with government agencies and community organisations to inform better legal and public health interventions so that as a nation we can better prevent, identify and respond to child maltreatment.”
You can find Professor Mathews’ presentations that he delivered in the UK here.
If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
Headspace 1800 650 890
ReachOut at au.reachout.com