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It pays to prevent child abuse: CFM
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It pays to prevent child abuse: CFM

Australia’s justice system shows a national failure on the issue of child abuse and maltreatment, according to the Chief Federal Magistrate (CFM).

John Pascoe AO CVO delivered a keynote yesterday (18 March) at the 6th World Congress on Family Law and Child’s Rights in Sydney, which runs from 17-20 March.

His speech entitled ‘Counting the Cost of Abuse and Neglect’ detailed the wide-ranging impact and consequences of child maltreatment, and offered a perspective from the Federal Magistrates Court, which deals with the vast majority of family law matters in Australia.

“A failure to prevent or respond appropriately to child abuse and neglect leads not only to considerable costs to the child, but also costs to the community as a whole,” said Pascoe, describing economic costs associated with medical treatment, lost productivity, disability, decreased quality of life and premature death.

“I do not think it is a hyperbole to say that, as a nation, we have been failing our young people on this issue. The consequences of failure are seen in the justice system ... this is simply unacceptable.”

In 2008, Access Economics estimated that the annual cost of child abuse and neglect for 2007 was between $3.5 billion and $5.5 billion.

“[This] makes a very compelling case for increasing government expenditure on preventative measures,” said Pascoe.

Although proper statistics have never been collected, Pascoe said there appears to be a “very high percentage” of parents who appear before the family courts who have been the victims of childhood maltreatment which, in turn, affects their capacity to effectively parent their children.

Studies have shown that childhood maltreatment can make the victim more susceptible to abuse as an adult or at risk of becoming a perpetrator.

The past year has also seen an upward trend in reported cases of child abuse and neglect; 2011-12 saw a 20 per cent increase on the pervious year, reversing what had been a long-term decline, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

“Despite all the recent publicity concerning the Royal Commission into institutionalised child sexual abuse, it would appear that elements of the problem still remain hidden,” said Pascoe, adding that the family courts are not equipped to deal with these types of abuse.

“Assessing the risk of child abuse and neglect often has to be done with ambiguous evidence, children who have a limited ability to articulate their allegations, and the possibility that a party has fabricated the evidence to strengthen his or her case.”

Rather gloomily, the task of deciding the necessary measures to protect the child has been described as requiring ‘finding the least worst alternative’, he added.

Despite this, child abuse was ranked thirteenth among the community’s issues of most concern, placing it behind public transport and economic recession, in a 2010 Australian Childhood Foundation study.

“This attitude must be addressed if there is to be a substantial decline in child maltreatment cases,” said Pascoe, adding that the COAG-endorsed National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and its National Child Protection Week initiative go some way to addressing the problem.

Pascoe said the World Congress is a unique opportunity for those who are involved in the rights and protection of children, to come together and learn from others who are leading international experts in this field.

Other key family violence sessions at the World Congress include: ‘Court generated conflict and its impact on children’ and ‘Evaluating Sexual Abuse Allegations in the Family Court’.

Key speakers and contributors include: The Hon. Chief Justice Diana Bryant AO, Family Court of Australia; Lord Justice Sir Mathew Thorpe, head of international family justice for England and Wales, and Dr Helen Durham, head of international law at Australian Red Cross.

Patron of the Congress for 2013 is Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. 

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