We are becoming more familiar with stories in the media of what can happen to children in our street, our town, our country, on our watch.
Recent inquiries into child sexual abuse have focussed the public spotlight on a topic our communities have been historically far too reluctant to deal with.
Sadly, the most typical scenario when child abuse happens is not a one-off experience. And it’s often not the ones that end up on the front page.
It is the baby who has learnt to stop crying because no-one will come and pick her up, change her nappy or rock her to sleep.
It is the night-after-night of a child cowering under the bed so she can close her ears when daddy hits mummy.
It is the eight year old boy who flinches before he gets hit across the head – yet again.
It is the 13 year old girl who has lost contact with her mum and her brothers when she was removed from home after she told someone what mum’s new boyfriend made her do.
It is the many children who have experienced all of these traumas and more.
Berry Street cares for, teaches, and helps in many other ways, children who have suffered trauma and wherever possible, works with their families to prevent it from happening again.
Experience and the latest research shows that the impact of chronic abuse and neglect is manifold. Many consequences are self-evident.
We have seen that when a child hasn’t experienced love it doesn’t come easy for them to love themselves, let alone love or trust others.
When a child hasn’t been read to, heard soft words of comfort when he falls over or cries of joy when she takes her first step, she hasn’t learnt to feel safe and secure. In fact she may not have learnt how to learn at all.
A child who has only known a chaotic and unsafe home may naturally default to ‘fight or flight’ when he gets anxious or stressed at school.
Research shows that child abuse and neglect is often associated with mental health problems, learning difficulties, relationship difficulties, substance abuse problems, sleep difficulties and difficulties in forming friendships, to name a few.
Research has also found long-term implications of childhood trauma into adult life such as autoimmune disease, heart problems and diabetes.
Nonetheless, the potential ramifications of child abuse and neglect are not inevitable. Both research and our experience continues to show us the amazing resilience and strength we see each day in the lives and actions of children, families and carers.
However, children are not born resilient. In fact, the human child is born completely dependent on the adults in his life to care for every need.
Forming strong connections with caregivers helps children build emotional resiliency and reach their potential later in life.
And so we see the power of relationships, even amongst hardship and pain. There’s the power of the teacher who pays attention and really listens, the foster parent who demonstrates day after day that they truly care, the sports coach who believes in being the best you can be.
Counselling therapy can also help make sense of difficult and fragmented memories.
All children deserve a good childhood, one where they can feel safe, nurtured and they can grow up with hope for their future.
It’s their right, but it’s our collective responsibility as a community.
If you’d like to help us provide good childhoods, visit berrystreet.org.au
Sandie de Wolf AM, CEO, Berry Street.