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Act for Kids teaches children to speak up to fight abuse

Sadly, child abuse and neglect are significant problems for children in Australia. In 2013–14, more than 300,000 reports were made to child protection authorities and in nearly 41,000 of those cases, abuse and/or neglect was substantiated. This means there was a report about a child at risk of harm every two minutes, and the harm was substantiated every 13 minutes.

Most people understand the results of physical and sexual abuse. Less understood are the developmental impacts of relational trauma; that is, the kind of trauma that occurs as a result of people you know, trust and love hurting you. Brain imaging research shows that children’s brains don’t develop as they should if they are exposed to violence and fear, are physically and/or sexually molested, or their social, emotional and physical needs aren’t met. This can result in speech and language impairments, poor attention and concentration and difficulty learning. Children’s social and emotional functioning can be severely impaired. They are labelled naughty kids and are not able to regulate emotions or behaviour, especially at school.

Without intervention, children who have been abused and neglected grow up to experience lifelong social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. They may not find a job or be able to maintain relationships. They often have mental health and substance use problems. The cost to individuals, the community and our economy is huge.

While the responsibility for stopping abuse sits with adults, we can empower children and young people to speak out and ask for help. Act for Kids is a not-for-profit organisation that works to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect. Being passionate about prevention, Act for Kids has developed a protective behaviours program for 5- to 7-year-olds called Learn to be Safe with Emmy and Friends. The program is delivered free in schools in five, one-hour sessions over five weeks. Children learn to identify when they feel safe and unsafe and what situations are unsafe. Most importantly, they are empowered and taught to speak to a trusted adult and tell them what’s happening.

Act for Kids has delivered the program to more than 10,000 children and it is being evaluated through an Australian Research Council Linkage project with Griffith University. Preliminary results show young children readily learn what to do and when to ask for help. Act for Kids will launch the program nationally in 2016, with generous philanthropic support.

Dr Katrina Lines is executive director of services with Act for Kids, a not-for-profit organisation providing prevention, early intervention and therapeutic programs to children who have been abused, or are at risk of abuse and neglect.

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