The prevalence of family violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities
Accurate statistics about the incidence of family violence in Aboriginal communities are scarce (Bolger 1991). Although the statistics that are available are imperfect, ‘they are sufficient to demonstrate that the occurrence of violence in Indigenous communities and among Indigenous people ‘is disproportionately high in comparison to the rates of the same types of violence in the Australian population as a whole’ (Memmott, Stacy, Chambers & Keys 2001: 6). O’Donoghue (2001) illustrates the extent of the problem of family violence, noting that many Indigenous children are growing up in communities where violence has become ‘a normal and ordinary part of life’ (O’Donoghue 2001: 15).
Ferrante and colleagues (1996) suggest that Aboriginal women living in rural and remote areas are one and a half times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence than those living in metropolitan areas and 45 times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence than non-Aboriginal women.
While there are few figures available from Western Australia, available data from the Northern Territory indicate that there are around 6000 incidents of assault on Indigenous women in the Northern Territory per year. That is, approximately one-third of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous female population is assaulted each year. Weapons are reported to be used in around 50-60% of Indigenous attacks between spouses (Memmott et al. 2001).
There would appear to be a clear need for more extensive and consistent assessment of the nature and extent of violence in Aboriginal communities. However, Hatty (1988, cited in Bolger 1991: 23) suggests that ‘we should give up our preoccupation with the incidence of domestic violence’ as there will always be a dark or hidden figure of crime of this type. Rather than attempting to develop a precise estimate of the extent of violence in Indigenous communities, she argues that time and resources would be better spent focusing on the nature, structure, history and dynamics of such violence (Memmott et al. 2001).
There is little information available on the prevalence of child abuse in Australia generally, or for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children specifically. The most reliable statistics available are the national child protection statistics that have been collated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) since 1990. These statistics suggest that the number of child protection notifications in Australia is increasing every year, with 115,471 notifications being made in 2000/01, 27,367 of these being cases substantiated or confirmed as child abuse (AIHW 2000/01). The statistics also reveal that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are significantly over-represented in the protection and care system of all states and territories (AIHW 2000/01). This trend has been evident each year since the first collation in 1990.
However, it must be noted that the AIHW statistics only deal with cases of child abuse which were reported to authorities and are an underestimate of the incidence of child abuse across the nation. There is a ‘flaw in the current statistics regarding child abuse or child sexual abuse, due to the [perceived] lack of response when cases are reported. Many Aboriginal women believe that “it is no use reporting because they don’t believe you anyway”’ (Robertson 2000: 100).
It has been suggested that incidents of sexual and physical abuse of Aboriginal children are often not being reported to authorities ‘…due to lack of assistance from police or fear of reprisals, or shame’ (Robertson 2000: 101). There are several other factors which lead to the under-reporting of child abuse in Aboriginal communities and this includes the fact that many communities are located in rural or remote areas of Australia where surveillance and contact with child health or welfare professionals are at a minimum. There has also been some concern that government agencies have been reluctant to intervene in Aboriginal communities for fear of reprisals from the community and media and therefore ‘relied upon cultural politics to justify inability to intervene’ (Robertson 2000: 91).
Further, the Queensland Women’s Taskforce found anecdotal evidence to suggest ‘that sexual abuse of young males is increasing, and remains largely unreported, because of the hidden nature of male to male sexual attacks and the shame that is often expressed by victims’ ( Robertson 2000: xv).
Overall then, with regard to child sexual abuse, it has been found that ‘whether by coercion or rape, the incidence of sexual abuse of minors [is] indicated to be far more frequent than is commonly acknowledged’ (Robertson 2000: 182).
Since 1996-97, the rates of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children where abuse has been substantiated has increased in all states except Tasmania and the ACT. In all states, cases involving Aboriginal children are more likely to be substantiated than cases involving other children. The total number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children subject to substantiations in Australia for the 2000/01 period was 3004. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children comprise 2.7% of children in Australia, yet constitute 20% of those placed in out-of-home care (Cuneen & Libesman 2000). As of June 2001 there were 4,073 Aboriginal children in out of home care. It has also been suggested that the rate of sexual abuse of young Aboriginal girls who are in the Juvenile Justice system is around 80% (Atkinson 1990).
In Western Australia, in the period 2000-2001, Aboriginal children were 7.6 times more likely to be the subject of substantiated child abuse cases than children from other cultural backgrounds. The total number of Aboriginal children on care and protection orders in WA at this time is 355 (with Aboriginal children in WA being 7 times more likely than other children to be on care and protection orders). Aboriginal children were more likely to have been the subject of a substantiation for neglect than other children (AIHW 2000/01).
At the time of the AIHW report there were 456 Aboriginal children in out of home care with 79% being placed with an Indigenous family or relative and 21% (97 children) being placed with neither an Indigenous family or a relative (a key facet of the Aboriginal Placement Principle).