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Mothers urge action on child-against-child sex abuse

Gavin Lower, The Australian News, October 18, 2008

Dianne thought she was doing the right thing when she picked up the phone to report what had happened at school to her little boy.

What she regarded as an isolated, though intensely disturbing, incident turned out to be more common than she could have imagined: Dianne's son had been confronted improperly by a fellow five-year-old in a school toilet.

The case has triggered impassioned debate over what is to be done about so-called "sexualised" intrusions on children, committed not by adults but by other youngsters.

Such incidents are becoming increasingly common, according to Freda Briggs, one of the nation's top experts on child protection. And, as Dianne's experience in South Australia demonstrates, it poses a dilemma for authorities.

This week, it emerged that the school her son attended had been the scene of 60 incidents of child sexualisation in the past three years, in which children imitated sex acts or attempted to perform a version of them on others.

The Weekend Australian understands that up to four children were involved in initiating the incidents at the school, less than an hour's drive from Adelaide.

These ranged from explicit swearing, to boys exposing themselves and performing a lewd form of "pole dancing", to inappropriate touching or rubbing.

When Dianne reported the incident to a child sex abuse help-line she says she was told nothing could be done because it involved children the same age.

"That was a real kick in the guts," she said.

Dianne, who declined to be fully identified, remains baffled by the official response. 

"For you to send a child to school and for them to be interfered with in any way and not to investigate it, how safe is it to send your kids to school?" she said.

Emeritus Professor Briggs, of the University of South Australia, said the number of reports of sexual behaviour among children was rising across the country.

While few official figures are available about how many children in Australia engage in sexualised behaviour, a 1997 report by the Children's Protection Society in Victoria estimated that 20 % to 40 % of child sexual assaults were committed by perpetrators younger than 18.

The Little Children are Sacred report, which triggered last year's federal intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities, found pornography was being used to groom children for sex and desensitise them to violence and inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Professor Briggs attributed the sexualisation of children to "a more highly explicit society than 10 years ago".

"There's much more sex on television, (Children are) accessing the internet, some fathers think it's smart to show their children pornography," she said.

"What we are seeing is the replication of pornography, sex abuse or where they (children) have seen sex. We're paying a high price for sexual freedom; our children are being damaged."

South Australian Education and Children's Services Department chief executive Chris Robinson defended the response of Dianne's son's school.

"The parents have been counseled, in some cases there have been suspensions of students, there's been a lot of work done with particular students, and some mandatory notifications have been made to other authorities," he said.

Mr. Robinson also laid some of the blame for children's sexual behaviour at the feet of parents.

"I think young children today are exposed to a lot of material on DVDs, the internet and television which is inappropriate. I don't think parental guidance is used firmly enough with young children and we see incidents like this which are very concerning indeed in young children."

Professor Briggs, who co-authored a 2003 report into the handling of sex abuse complaints by former Anglican archbishop of Brisbane and governor-general Peter Hollingworth, said she had been horrified when an early childhood centre worker told her of an incident in Queensland involving a four-year-old boy.

The child had been wandering around the centre offering and demanding oral sex, she said. But instead of his behaviour being addressed, the mother removed her child from the centre and they were never seen again.

Other worrying reports have included a "sex club" being run by three six-year-olds at a Brisbane state school which involved the children demanding and receiving sexual favours from other children. Another involved allegations of a gang of nine-year-olds at a Sunshine Coast school grooming younger children to engage in sex acts and rewarding them with lollies.

Professor Briggs said she received one call a week from desperate parents or teachers from around the country seeking help because authorities had not dealt with complaints of children sexually abusing each other.

She said that about two months ago she had called the abuse line, after parents had approached her, to report the rape of two 11-year-old boys at a rural school.

"I contacted the child abuse report line and was told that this wasn't child sex abuse because it involved somebody of the same age," Professor Briggs said.

She said people did not seem to know what to do about such cases: "It's being dismissed wrongly as early exploration, early curiosity, early experimentation and 'boys will be boys'."

Professor Briggs said the mothers of the 11-year-olds told her that when they complained to the school, they were told they were overreacting.

A spokesman for the South Australian Department of Families and Communities, which runs the child abuse report line, said calls were assessed on their merits.

"If there is a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse, the allegation is formally assessed by Families SA staff for a response, which may include referral to police," he said.

South Australian Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith issued a statement saying she had been assured the regional school and district had dealt with the incidents immediately and appropriately but gave no details.

The school's principal did not return calls.

Dianne has since moved her son to another school.

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