When I first began teaching over 30 years ago, I can’t remember having any training or discussion about child sexual abuse. I’m sure that abuse existed, but it was a taboo subject that was so uncomfortable we didn’t speak about it. Fortunately, times have changed and teachers are certainly aware of abuse in 2008. We are given ongoing training in how to identify and deal with it. We also talk to the children about sexual abuse and give them strategies for dealing with it, should it happen to them. Unfortunately, all the awareness and training won’t prevent it from happening in the first place, but early reporting and detection certainly prevent it from continuing.

It is often very difficult to detect. Family members and teachers are often shocked and are in disbelief. The common response we hear is, ‘We had no idea’ or ‘We would never have picked him as a child abuser.’ Lillian De Bortoli’s article in this issue has a good summary of physical and behavioural indicators. I have had a few child sexual abuse cases in my career, one of which I identified through behavioural indicators, e.g. constant rubbing of the vaginal area and pseudo-mature behaviour (role playing intercourse). The others were disclosures by the students, themselves, and one was by a parent reporting her spouse.

One of the hardest decisions teachers and principals face is whether to report or not. As you can see from De Bortoli’s table, there are many indicators and, I must say, that these indicators can occur for reasons other than sexual abuse. We walk a very fine line when we suspect abuse. Do we ask the child? Do we refer them to the counsellor? Do we ask the parents? How far do we go with the initial interview? If we get it wrong it can be devastating for the parents. For example, if a teacher is suspected and investigated, their career is over, even if they are exonerated.

While in New Zealand, around 10 years ago, I suspected a father of sexually abusing his daughter and reported him to the student protection body. It was an extremely difficult decision at the time because I knew him quite well and I had even been over his house for dinner. We had been fishing together. His daughter’s teacher drew my attention to sexually explicit pictures she had drawn in her book and reported that she was complaining about soreness when going to the toilet. I couldn’t believe that this man was capable of abusing his daughter but knew I couldn’t approach him about the matter. We aren’t permitted to conduct our own investigations. In New Zealand, as well as here in Australia, you hand it over to the experts. The investigation found no evidence of sexual abuse and the man was exonerated but we were in a little country town. He was shunned by his wife and community when the matter became public. He had to give up soccer coaching and his involvement in scouts. The fact that he’d been cleared meant very little. I was gutted and questioned my judgement. I really felt bad about intruding into this man’s family. I was pretty sure at the time that it should be reported. This is where professional judgement comes into play. The safety and wellbeing of the child is paramount. If you suspect sexual abuse you have an obligation to report it. Yes, there will be serious consequences for the accused if you get it wrong. But, if you’re right and don’t report it, what will the consequences be for the child?

I really have no respect for people who bad-mouth the teaching profession. They have no idea how hard our job can be! I like what De Bortoli says about this difficult responsibility ‘… Importantly, it is not the responsibility of a teacher to determine with certainty that CSA has occurred as only a level of ‘reasonable suspicion’ is required for the purpose of reporting. Although the individual teacher is ultimately responsible for deciding whether the report should be made, the potentially overwhelming sense of responsibility can be moderated by discussing worrying aspects of the case with experienced, and well-qualified, professionals. Teachers should not feel alone in the decision-making process...’
Another difficult part of our job is talking to the children about sexual abuse. We have programs in schools like ‘Feeling Safe’ where we talk to children about appropriate touching and behaviour. We give them strategies for dealing with people who speak to them or touch them inappropriately. Once again, this has the possibility of going wrong if it is not handled properly. Although the teachers are trained, their level of experience or own personal agendas (they may have been abused) may impact on the delivery to the students. On a couple of occasions I have had irate parents in my office because the children had gone home and refused to be dressed or be bathed by their parents after their teachers had spoken to them about appropriate touching. One child actually told her father that the teacher said he shouldn’t be giving her cuddles or kisses. My experience is that, most times we get it right, but when we get it wrong, we can cause unnecessary trauma to both children and parents. A common result, when we get it right or wrong, is that the family disappears without any notice and turns up somewhere interstate. Some parents see schools as ‘Big Brother’. I had a child who missed school for three weeks because he had come off his bike and was covered with bruises. His parents were paranoid that I would contact child protection services if I saw the bruises.

I have spoken about teacher training and student instruction in Child Sexual Abuse, but an area I think needs to be developed is ‘Parent Training.’ I mentioned earlier a disclosure where a mother had informed me that her husband was abusing their daughter. Apart from the obvious trauma to the child, there was a significant trauma for the mother. She was a mess and desperately needed counselling. She spoke of having no idea at all of what was going on. She only found out when she walked in on the father and daughter. She felt guilty and blamed herself for what had happened. Some of her thoughts were … ‘If only she had been a better wife, this may not have happened… If only she had recognised the signs earlier’. The child was eight years old and didn’t seem traumatised at all. She may have thought that this was normal behaviour for a father. Who knows what he told her? I know there was further trauma for the child when the father was removed from the house and denied access to his daughter. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to see her dad.

I think that a significant step in preventing child abuse is to establish a culture of open communication. Talking about sexual issues is still taboo in most families. My personal view is that, if the child is old enough to ask the question, we should give an answer. Skirting around or avoiding discussion simply maintains the cloud of taboo. Communication culture must be grounded in fact. Telling children myths like ‘If they don’t stop it they’ll go blind,’ is irresponsible. We need to discuss sexuality factually and establish guidelines for what is appropriate behaviour. The children aren’t likely to get these insights on their own. If adults don’t give them the facts then they’re likely to get their misinformation from their peers or worse, those who wish to abuse them.

The table of indicators that De Bortoli has set out should be given to all families, not just those we suspect. I would love to offer parent forums or information evenings on the topic, but I know that most parents would feel self-conscious about attending. We don’t want to create a ‘Big Brother’ culture where we all become obsessive about touching children.

Some teachers are scared to put their arms around a distressed child (and with good reason). I believe that we should encourage appropriate touching, rather than discourage touching altogether e.g. I still give children a hug when they fall over or when they come up to me first thing in the morning.

We must clearly delineate between appropriate and inappropriate. Most adults do not sexually abuse children. If we make touching children off limits we are giving children the message that all adults are abusive. As teachers, however, we have to be practical. It may be appropriate to give a distressed child a cuddle, but make sure it’s always in plain view. A small minority has ruined it for the vast majority of us who always does the right thing.

Miro Martin is a school principal with decades of experience in the education system both in Australia and New Zealand