Time for other options on preventing sexual abuse of children?

Yvette Strawbridge’s son died when he was 25 years old.

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He took his own life in 1994 after he could no longer live with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child and teenager from a neighbour.

His parents had no idea why he killed himself until another sexual offender mentioned their son’s name to a police officer in 2011.

That offender, however, was also a victim – of the same man.

As is often the case, the abused became a perpetrator, and Yvette Strawbridge, despite the pain she and her family endured, reached out to him in prison and his mother.

She told a first-of-its-kind symposium in Perth that offenders need help before it becomes too late.

“I have a belief in birth being an original blessing, not an original sin. And so when something happens to compromise or shape an individual’s early life negatively and then their behaviour is deemed to perhaps be sexually abusive, they need a level of compassion, understanding and appropriate treatment, just as we currently provide for domestic violence, drug and alcohol abusers.”

Yvette Strawbridge is a former nurse who became a counsellor.

She told the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Symposium her son’s fellow victim had tried to get help after he first offended but was never asked if he had been offended against.

“From a professional, clinical counselling perspective, I, and others, believe it is critical trauma experienced particularly in childhood for whatever reason is recognised and identified as such, appropriate support and counselling is offered and made available to enable healing to occur.”

Psychologist Christabel Chamarette spearheaded the symposium, which heard from psychologists, former police officers and child-protection specialists.

She says the root causes of most sexual offending need to be addressed.

“We need to look in a more detailed way at child sexual abuse and how to prevent it in our community beyond the stereotyping and stigmatising and the criminal-justice-system emphasis to actually healing for families and support for families where child sexual abuse has occurred or might occur, to give people an option of getting help beforehand, before offending happens, rather than long years afterwards.”

Christabel Chamarette says society needs to shift its thinking as it did with drug and alcohol abusers, as well as victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.

She says offenders who find children sexually attractive are actually rare.

In her experience, Ms Chamarette says, young teenage boys who sexually abuse family members are the most common offenders.

She says a variety of factors, including the development of their sexual awareness, past abuse or undealt-with trauma, and emotional immaturity leads to the offences.

“One of the things that people find difficult is the recognition that, if we don’t get offenders proper help to prevent them offending, we’re actually leaving it to their victims to keep themselves safe. The earliest intervention you can get is in the mind of somebody who might be at risk of doing something. We need to make a society where people can know how to ask for help and get help before it’s too late, before they’ve actually offended.”

Western Australia’s Chief Justice Wayne Martin also attended the symposium.

He says the courts continue to hand out heavy punishments for child sexual-abuse cases but the number of known offenders continues to rise.

“Oh, it is a sensitive subject, but it’s a very important subject. I think one of the things that people who don’t work in the system don’t understand is just how big an issue this is within our community. It’s a very significant problem. The numbers continue. And, of course, we’re probably only seeing about one in 20 of the cases that actually occur, because report rates are very low in this area for lots of reasons. So, it’s a big problem that we need to be conscious of and address effectively in order to protect children. That’s really what it’s all about.”

The Chief Justice says he does not shy away from punishing offenders but there should preventative, rehabilitative and therapeutic services as well.

“I think Australians do have an understanding of complex social problems, and I do think we can respond to them. I think some of our health models in the past have been pretty good. If you look at smoking, AIDS, things like that, we have developed very good and effective health models, and, if it’s right that a lot of these perpetrators have previously been victims, then one way of reducing the risk of further reoffending would be to adopt a therapeutic approach at least until offences have been committed, after which you have to have a combined approach, both a therapeutic and a punitive approach.”