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Child abusers not all ‘monsters’: experts

Labelling people who sexually abuse children as monsters and demonising them does not help protect child victims, say experts who argue there is not enough focus on prevention.

Emphasising the most horrific cases to get the public’s attention has backfired by conveying the impression nothing can be done to prevent abuse, an inquiry has heard.

US child protection expert Dr Elizabeth Letourneau says the language used to highlight the problem also conveys a level of impotence.

“It’s so bad and it’s so awful and these sex offenders are so different from us, they must be monsters and the only thing we can do to address them is after-the-fact criminal justice interventions: lock them up for as long as possible and if they’re let out monitor them and restrict their access in every possible way to children.

“That has proved to be a real failing I think.”

The director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse said 90 per cent of community resources go to after-the-fact intervention and almost none to the prevention of child sexual abuse.

“We’ve convinced folks that it isn’t preventable,” Letourneau told the child abuse royal commission on Monday.

Child protection specialist Karen Flanagan of Save the Children Australia said more money needs to be spent on early intervention, instead of increasing mandatory reporting or employing more frontline child protection workers.

“Demonising people who sexually abuse children doesn’t protect children either,” Flanagan said.

“The longer we try to name and shame or lock them away or keep exposing them in the media; I have spoken to men who have sexually offended again to get back into prison because they needed to be safe and that was the only way.

“That surely cannot be a good strategy.”

Child abusers are normal-looking people and it is a myth they can be easily identified and excluded through screening, the commission’s 57th and final public hearing heard.

Letourneau said viewing them as monsters put “blinders on” when it came to behaviour from a friend, relative or colleague that would be a red flag if it involved a stranger.

“It makes it almost impossible to consider the possibilities of prevention and it makes it very difficult to identify people who are engaging in concerning behaviours but who are people that we know and love or like.”

The commission heard most adults who sexually abuse a child in an institutional context already have close contact with the victim before the abuse but the myth of ‘stranger danger’ remains.

Professor David Finkelhor, director of the US Crimes Against Children Research Center, said there is great panic over the internet and ‘stranger danger’ has returned with a vengeance.

“We have this fear about stranger attacks and so it’s just very hard to think about the people next door. It’s something that we’re not going to ever erase from people’s kind of alarmist tendencies.”

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