Why Society Should Compel Mandatory Reporting of Sexual Abuse

02 April 2014
Media storm erupted today, with columnist Joe Hildebrand labelled as an insensitive jackass for voicing his support for laws which could potentially see parents jailed for failing to report their partners for abusing their children. Mia Freedman chimed in her support for Hildebrand, and I found myself wishing it was someone, anyone, other than this universally reviled pair supporting the law. For, having been on all sides of the fence I agree with them, kind of, and the furore raises some difficult issues we don't as a society much like talking about.

Let's start with a look at the proposed law. It does not target mothers, or abuse in general; it is proposed in reaction to the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, making it a crime to fail to disclose child sexual abuse. And who could disagree with that? Well, plenty, it seems, to judge from the many dissenting voices who raise the spectre of an abused partner too afraid to report. But leaving aside Hildebrand's insulting and paternalistic "why doesn't she just leave?" comments, whilst I would be extremely unhappy to see actual fines or jail time, I believe parents, along with everyone else, should be compelled to disclose sexual abuse to the authorities. We should all be mandatory reporters.

Stopping child sexual abuse must take precedent over other considerations. How does a mother failing to speak up about the rape of her child help that child in any way? Ever? If your child is being sexually abused and you don't report it to the authorities, how do you imagine it will stop? Do you hang in there and hope everything goes away? There is far, far too little research into domestic violence and partner homicide in this country. But is disclosing or threatening to disclose sexual abuse a factor? Is fear that the partner will murder their children and themselves a fate in not disclosing? Whilst the rate of domestic homicide is far too high (any number above zero is too high, of course, but in Australia it is at epidemic proportions), it still cannot possibly account for the reticence to disclose sexual abuse. What, then, is the alternative fate that child sexual abuse is seen as preferable to?

Presumably, prosecutions for failing to report abuse would only take place once a conviction for the original abuse was recorded - so in opposing the law, we are in a sense saying it is better for children to be sexually abused than their parent face prosecution for failing to report it. 

We live in a shitty world, where people of both sexes do shitty things. Fear obviously accounts for a huge chunk of the reasons to not disclose child sexual abuse within families. But sometimes the fear can be more subtle than fear of death. There's also fear of losing the family home, fear of relationship breakdown, fear of abandonment, scorn, divorce. And in a shitty world, some mothers welcome the sexual abuse of their child as it takes the pressure off them. Some simply turn a blind eye. In my work I'm aware of more than a couple of cases where the father or step father is released from jail following a sentence for child sexual abuse, and the mother has welcomed the abuser back into the home, forcing the victim into the foster and welfare system (and, especially if the victim is in their teens and unless they get lucky with a refuge spot, on to the streets). It happens. It happens. And not all sexual abuse happens in the context of generalised family violence. Painting all women in these situations as passive helpless victims is at best over-generalising, at worst demeaning. 

"Why are we blaming women here? Why not focus on the perpetrator, send them to jail instead of the victim?" This seems like a completely reasonable and fair statement at first, but masks the fact that so often, convictions cannot be obtained precisely because the victim or parent of the victim refuses to testify and there is little other evidence on which to proceed. 

I don't have easy answers here. I don't have a magic solution. In cases of domestic violence it is too easy, and wrong, to say "why doesn't she just leave?", when the most dangerous time for a woman escaping a dangerous relationship in terms of risk of death is immediately after making the break. But there's a lot more going on with sexual abuse. Protections for informants to be put in place, refusing bail, if that's what needs be. But stopping child sexual assault has to be the main priority. There is something to be said for compelling reporting of sexual abuse, and I just can't get onboard with a feminism that "protects women" by throwing their children under a bus to remain in situations where they are being sexually abused. 

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