Hard News by Russell Brown


Not such as to engender confidence

I shuddered when I read that under John Howard's blitz on child sexual abuse in aboriginal communities, all aboriginal children are to be subject to compulsory medical checks - which will include examination of the anus and genitals. I shuddered because it reminded me of a particularly horrible episode of abuse hysteria in Cleveland, England, in which a bogus "anal dilatation test" was treated as conclusive proof that children had been sexually abused. Cleveland is not an isolated story.

The Australian federal government is acting on an official report into child abuse in aboriginal communities - but has substituted many of the report's recommendations in favour of its own solutions, including the compulsory medical checks. The potential for just that one part of the programme to go terribly wrong ought to be obvious. And, indeed, it is obvious to at least one expert:

Dorothy Scott, the director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia, and an expert adviser to the Northern Territory inquiry that produced the explosive report on child abuse, said such checks involved examining a child's genitals and anus.

She said the prospect of such mandatory checks left her "lost for words" and demonstrated the "lack of child protection expertise" in the Government's response to the Little Children are Sacred report.

"I hope the Government will not be asking doctors to force this upon children," she said, adding that examinations for sex abuse should be conducted only when there were grounds to suspect a child had been sexually assaulted, and where the examination would lead to protection of the child.

Professor Scott said the inquiry made 97 recommendations but mandatory checks for sex abuse was not one of them.

It's an indication of how poorly considered this very prominent part of the policy is that the aboriginal affairs minister already appears to be having second thoughts. The effect is hardly such as to engender confidence in the rest of it.

Panic in the targeted communities may not be warranted, but according to some reports, it has already taken hold:

Lesley Taylor, one of the Territory's most experienced child abuse workers, said: "They are scared stiff … This is creating very stressful environments that could lead to even more children being at risk."

Sixty to 70 communities will be targeted, and small teams of police, military and government officers will begin arriving today to audit people's needs. They would be replaced by teams who would stay to meet those needs, Mr Brough said. Public servants will oversee the programs, with a manager in each community responsible for what happens.

This is understandable. There are mothers alive in those communities who experienced their babies being stolen from their arms by the government. And yet, there can be no doubt of the critical nature of the problem, as laid out in the report, Little Children Are Sacred. It should also be noted that a senior aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, has had input into the strategy. But for all that Pearson is being declared a champion against the Howard-hating left by the likes of Tim Blair, a proper reading of his much-quoted ABC interview suggests that he is not entirely confident in the federal government's response:

You know, the big danger for the Government, I think, is that they can't go marching in like cowboys. They've got to go marching in with humility, with support, not with arrogance, and they've got to enjoin the Aboriginal people of that community. Because you talk to me about one community that does not have within it sober grandmothers, sober mothers, sober men who are concerned about these problems and who would not welcome relief for their children and for their community.

Unfortunately, one of the first intervention visits appears to have been conducted in an arrogant and secretive fashion, with community leaders not even notified of the visit, let alone consulted, and officials trying to stop journalists taking photographs. Again, the effect is not such as to engender confidence.

The sexual abuse in these communities is associated with social breakdown, and the abandonment of norms. It happened amongst refugees in Australia's isolated detention camps. In fact, it is not going too far to say it was facilitated by the Howard government, through its refusal to change its policy when multiple whistleblowers went public.

So in the circumstances, it is hard to credit that the sweeping programme, which sidelines communities from their own welfare, is not a political move by a government in poll trouble (even Pearson more or less says so). This government has been known to pull campaign stunts involving, in Howard's words, "sickening behaviour towards children" before. The new intervention has already been characterised as "black children overboard". Doubt is less a matter of hating Howard than bearing in mind the brutal political cynicism with which he has acted in the past.

The implicit rollback of land rights in the intervention is also alarming. No Right Turn notes that a similar, smaller federal intervention in one aboriginal community soon went off the boil and was eventually basically a disaster.

And this story from last weekend's (British) Observer amply details the background of official neglect and underfunding that Howard is not acknowledging while he sends in the army on these communities. It also notes budding self-governance of a sort that might well be erased by the federal intervention.

And yet, it seems clear enough that something big had to be done. Whether Howard's government is doing the right something, and with what motivation, remains to be seen.

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