Child Protection - Putting Children First

All children need to feel safe and loved. They need to be nurtured and cared for and have relationships that they can trust. Sadly though, this doesn’t always happen.

Every year, more than 30,000 children are abused or neglected in Australia and often this is by someone they know.

Across our Network, our Child Protection Units provide critical support and therapy to children and young people who have experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse or neglect or may be living in a domestic or family violence situation.

This speciality service involves assessment, treatment, prevention, education, advocacy, research as well as a 24-hour response service and is delivered by a multidisciplinary team of social workers, doctors, occupational therapists and support staff.

Nicki Wickham is a Senior Social Worker and Group Work Coordinator in the Child Protection Unit at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, and runs the group work programs for children who have experienced sexual abuse, and their supporting adults.

“Sexual abuse remains a taboo and isolating subject and we know that children and young people who have been abused often feel isolated from family members and their peers but we want them to know that there is support available.”

“Children often arrive at our CPU thinking they are the only person this has ever happened to. They feel different. They feel shame, embarrassment, fear and frequently blame themselves for what someone else has done to them.

“Our group programs help to break down this and other myths about sexual abuse.”

As a group work coordinator, Nicki along with her team, has developed an extensive program of groups for children of different ages and for their parents and carers including groups for teenage girls (Walking Tall), 8-11 year olds (Mighty Me), 5-7 year olds (Superkids) and for parents and supporting adults of children who have experienced sexual abuse.

“Our groups have a strengths based focus, they are fun, and use games, music and stories in a therapeutic way. They help the younger children to develop social skills, self-esteem, resilience and strategies to help them overcome the impact of sexual abuse.”

“The young people in Walking Tall often develop strong relationships with each other as they discuss the importance of breaking down secrecy around sexual assault, escaping the guilt and self-blame they’ve been carrying, developing good friendships, and regaining control of their lives,” Nicki said.

“By the end of a group program parents and children no longer feel so alone or judged. They know that their feelings are normal. We are able to help with information around their circumstances and provide them with a non-judgemental and supportive environment in which to talk openly about their experiences, thoughts, fears and hopes.

They learn from us, and each other that sexual assault does not define children and what they will be able to do in their future lives. They feel supported and more empowered to navigate the process.”

The importance of intervention strategies, like group sessions, cannot be underestimated. Robyn Lamb is Co-Head of the Child Protection Unit at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and knows that it is time and support that helps children recover from a traumatic or distressing experience.

“Children respond differently and uniquely to abusive trauma. It can affect a child’s physical, psychological, emotional, behavioural and social development throughout their lifetime but with the right support and help from a professional, it is not impossible to overcome.”

“What is really important is that children know that what has happened is not their fault and that this is also reflected in the family’s response to the trauma.”

“How you deal with the crisis yourself and how you react to your child’s feelings and behaviour will impact on their ability to cope,” Robyn said.

Some of the strategies Robyn and her team teach children, young people and parents is to understand the behaviours and emotional outbursts that might occur in response to trauma, to put their feeling into words or through drawings, to not ask questions but rather listen and respond when the child is ready, and to find ways to help children relax and de-escalate emotions before they become overwhelming (e.g. self-soothing things like a comfort toy, playing a game or going for a walk).

Both Nicki and Robyn, and the CPU teams, play a vital role in protecting the health and wellbeing of young people and children but we all have a part to play in putting children first.

“All adults have a responsibility to protect children from harm so trust your feelings, rely on your intuition and speak out if you are concerned a child is being abused. You should break the silence. Every child has a right to be protected by caring adults,” Robyn said.

Warnings signs

Our Child Protection Units offer the following advice if you suspect a child is exposed to harmful behaviour: 

  • Listen to the child/young person and what they are saying
  • Look out for concerning behaviours (ie. mental health concerns, sexualised play, aggressive play, drug and alcohol usage)
  • Talk to someone about your concerns, this could be:
    - The Child Protection Helpline 132 111
    - The Child Protection Unit (Westmead 9845 0000 or Randwick 9382 1111)
    - For immediate concerns contact the Police 000
  • Let the child/young person know that you believe them and that you will speak to somebody to request some help to keep them safe

Want to find out more?

This week is the 30th annual National Child Protection Week (6 – 12 September) and with a theme of “Putting children first”, is aimed at prioritising the safety and wellbeing of children in all aspects of our lives.