HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.28 pm]: I rise tonight to say a few words about National Child Protection Week, which was from 2 to 8 September last week. We know that National Child Protection Week aims to raise awareness about child abuse and that, most importantly, it is completely preventable. Protecting children, as we know, is a responsibility of the whole community and we can all play a part. We also know that if we do not deal with it, the effects of abuse can last a lifetime, and increase the risks of homelessness, disengagement from education, unemployment, physical and mental health issues, and substance abuse. This is a serious matter and we need to ensure that we are treating it appropriately.
According to NAPCAN, which is the National Association of Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, over 35 000 Australian children were proven to have been abused or neglected last year. That is an absolutely staggering number of children. Given the sheer size of this problem and the fact that it can potentially cause lifelong impacts and damage to children, NAPCAN has rightly noted that —
... child abuse and neglect represents one of the greatest barriers and threats to the wellbeing of Australian children, young people and the next generation of children and adults.
As part of National Child Protection Week, last Friday, 7 September, was White Balloon Day. Undoubtedly, all members received a lot of correspondence on that, as I did. An initiative of Bravehearts, it aims to help break the silence around child sexual abuse in particular. Many members will know that Bravehearts was founded in 1997 by Hetty Johnston following her young daughter’s disclosure of sexual assault. It has a long history of doing some really important and excellent advocacy work in the space. Some of the statistics that Bravehearts provided included the now fairly well known estimate that one in five children are sexually harmed before they turn 18, and more than 1.5 million women and almost 412 000 men in Australia experienced sexual assault before they turned 15. Tragically, the vast majority of these people knew their abuser.
Given those horrific statistics, we still have a glaring gap in WA’s system to protect children. That is due to the lack of a comprehensive system of independent oversight for all children, particularly in out-of-home care, including an independent child advocate. We need somewhere that vulnerable children can go when they have concerns about their lives, particularly about their experiences in care outside the home, such as in youth justice detention, police custody, residential care, secure care and foster care. We also need it in educational institutions. For example, concerns about behaviour management practices and the use of seclusion and restraint need independent oversight.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did excellent work in uncovering significant ongoing risks to children in Australia. I speak a lot about the commission’s work, but I cannot stress enough how important it is that we take on board and act on its findings as a matter of urgency. The royal commission raised concerns about gaps in regulation and oversight, and I quote —
... the research appears to indicate that, overall, there does not appear to be either frequent or wide-ranging engagement by oversight bodies with matters concerning institutional child sexual abuse.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People, Colin Pettit, does excellent work, but he is limited by legislation and cannot take individual complaints. Other complaint mechanisms such as the Health and Disability Services Complaints Office or the Ombudsman, although they are also doing absolutely excellent work, are not set up for dealing with children, particularly vulnerable children.
I understand that the recommendations regarding the establishment of independent oversight and advocacy that form part of the review of the Children and Community Services Act, as well as the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, are being considered favourably by government. The Premier wrote to me earlier this year, following correspondence I sent him, indicating that the government is committed to exploring the development of child advocacy models in WA. This is welcome. However, the same letter went on to note that the government is again under significant fiscal pressure and it is committed to containing expenditure growth. My response is that not prioritising the protection of children is ultimately going to be a false economy. Given the ongoing, often lifelong, costs to the community of having to address the impact of child abuse and neglect, it really makes a lot more economic sense, if that is our primary driver, to ensure that we are investing in avoiding it happening in the first place. We know that children rely on adults to protect them and we need to make sure that we put in place all the mechanisms necessary to protect them. By the time a child has experienced physical or mental abuse, effectively, multiple opportunities to prevent it have been missed.
Vulnerable children need to be given a voice and specific avenues. They need an advocate that is specifically designed to meet their needs. Establishing independent oversight and individual advocacy mechanisms is a crucial step towards making our state safe for all our children.