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Facing The Dear Children Hidden In The Headlines

19/01/2016 5:09 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Depressed child sitting at weargered sidewalk. Fine noise applied.

At least a few times a week, new child abuse cases are revealed in the media. The details are always horrifying and usually involve neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse, exploitation, serious injury or death.

How adults can treat children in such ways defies the understanding of anyone who is not a narcissistic, criminal psychopath. If this is how we, as adults, feel about the stories, we can only imagine what it has been like for the children to live those details, every day, often at the hands of the people who are supposed to be their caregivers. Their brave suffering is why I read and research every story that comes to light.

I don't do it enthusiastically. Usually I'm going about my day and then I encounter another headline: "Father imprisoned for sending wrong lunchbox containing illicit drugs to preschool" or "Child's body found in suitcase dumped on roadside" and I am not sure I want to know what happened. But I force myself to read what has been written and I follow up months later to see if new information has been released.

I have friends who question why I "do it to myself" and angrily change the topic when I try to tell them about it. I get it -- people are busy with their own families and they do not want to think about their offspring in a similar situation. But as much as they do not understand my interest, I find their intentional ignorance bemusing.

The way I see it, these children never had a choice. Some of these beautiful, innocent souls are dead because of how they were treated. So, surely, I can be strong enough to read the general details (because we certainly do not get the most graphic ones) that have been published about what happened to them. Surely, I can bear to watch that CCTV footage of a father pouring water on his baby's head and hitting his toddler son's face into a table at a café -- because that thirty seconds demonstrates the smallest fraction of what those children endure every day.

So I watch and I read and I cry. They must have been so hungry, so scared. They must have had injuries, and been in so much pain. They must have been confused, nervous, worried. They must have witnessed so many things that many adults are never forced to see; violence, verbal abuse, drug and alcohol abuse... directed not only towards them but also to their siblings or one of their parents. Maybe they were removed from their homes and abused in foster care. Perhaps they were removed and sent back, repeatedly, for years.

Some of them were used in vicious games of revenge against the other parent. Some of them died as a result of their treatment. Others are in specialised care that will give them a small chance to recover from their trauma.

When I read the appalling details, I want to rescue each child. I want to hold them, feed them a big bowl of pasta, bathe their bruised skin, put them in fresh pyjamas, sing to them and cuddle them as they fall asleep, safe in their own comfortable beds. But I can't do that.

So at the very least, when I read of their suffering, I can acknowledge them in my heart. I will not turn my face away and say: "It's too hard to see or hear about what happened to you. I'm not brave enough." These children were so brave. They deserve more from us than that.

Ignoring child abuse stories is a massive disservice to everyone. Putting our blinkers on and pretending it doesn't happen just perpetuates the cycle -- because, in most instances, these crimes are committed in the context of a cycle of abuse.

An example I always think of is the case of six-year-old Keisha Weippeart. Her mother, Kristi Abrahams, had the most horrific and violent childhood. She witnessed her alcoholic father beat her alcoholic mother for years until the woman developed a seizure disorder due to the brain injury. Kristi then, at age 10, witnessed her mother die from one of those seizures.

To put it bluntly, darling little Keisha never stood a chance. And neither did Kristi, who simply did not have the inner and physical resources it takes to not repeat the mistakes her parents made. No constant role model. No financial resources. No education. No support.

Many child abuse perpetrators are in the same position. It is not an excuse, but it provides context. And if we understand that context, we can try to do something about it.

In many cases, concerned adults had reported the neglect and abuse, countless times. Some of the children were removed and unintentionally put into abusive foster homes, or spent too little time in loving foster homes before being returned. In general, the relevant authorities did the best they could. But obviously, it wasn't enough, because none of the key people who could make a difference were given enough to work with.

As you become informed of the details of the individual cases, it becomes clear that the authorities, such as the police and family services, need significantly broader powers to intervene and to represent children, and to support and guide families. There is a dire requirement for more caseworkers, and extensive funding, especially for emergencies. Processes need to be improved to find the best foster carers possible. Parents need better access to family education and support networks.

This is Australia in 2016; children are dying and their futures are being ruined from the prioritisation of resources away from where they are so desperately needed most. We need to arm as many as possible with the tools to honour every child's right to live an abuse-free life.

Change is definitely on its way, thanks to advocates such as Rosie Batty, who have increased awareness of the causes behind family breakdowns and violence. But an end to the abuse epidemic cannot happen unless we acknowledge the faces behind the headlines.

We need to be brave enough to read the stories of these defenseless children. We must remember that this is happening every single day. And we must promise those who are already victims that their stories are not forgotten.

What happened to them, matters to us.

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