Are we doing enough to protect children from abuse?
This question has recently arisen with the case of Bill Spedding, a washing machine repairman who police have named as a person of interest in the disappearance of toddler William Tyrell from the small NSW town of Kendall in September last year.
In a twist to the case, Spedding has been charged with child sex offences dating back to 1987. While these charges are not related to William’s disappearance, they have certainly attracted increased attention due to his status as a person of interest.
And it has now been revealed that three boys were living with the man and his wife until very recently when he was arrested for the child sex offences from 28 years ago.
As a result, the NSW Ombudsman is investigating why the children were allowed to live with Spedding, despite authorities reportedly being aware of the allegations.
When children are involved
Removing a child from its family due to harm or neglect, or the risk thereof, is a serious and difficult decision. The need for the child to be safe from abuse and receive the necessities of life is, of course, essential.
But the situation must be balanced against the harm that may arise by removing a child from its parents and placing them in foster care – where they may feel lost, abandoned and could potentially be subjected to further abuse.
In 2012-13, there were 272,980 notifications of child abuse across the country, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Of this total, only 122,496 cases resulted in a finalised investigation. The final number of substantiated claims was 53,666.
But the disparity between the original figures that were notified and those claims which were substantiated raises more questions than it answers.
Does the difference mean there is also a need to protect alleged abusers from false accusations?
While protecting children from abuse is vital, it’s also of importance that we don’t make assumptions of guilt without evidence, or punish people who haven’t been proven guilty of a crime.
An incident reported by a child is one side of the story. With the increase in highlighting child abuse and raising awareness amongst children, it is easy for some children to be confused about what constitutes “right” and “wrong” touching.
A smack on the bottom or a touch that hurts does not automatically add up to abuse. It can be difficult to explain the differences to children, particularly young children.
Reporting of allegations is important, but it is also just as essential to acknowledge that it is only a claim and that many claims turn out to be unsubstantiated, for a range of reasons.
From the perspective of child welfare agencies
Mandatory reporting has been legislated across Australia. In NSW, if a person of a particular occupation suspects on reasonable grounds that a child is at risk of significant harm, then they must report it.
Mere allegations as such do not need to be reported in every instance, however. An allegation must be accompanied by the adult having reasonable grounds to suspect the abuse is occurring.
With such serious accusations, an investigation by itself can have major consequences – regardless of the outcome.
For a person such as Bill Spedding, the allegations of abuse are now known nationwide. It is very likely that members of the public will already have made up their minds. And the case hasn’t even been to trial.
We do have to protect children. But the ramifications an investigation can have on a person’s life, including their family and employment, can be immense.
Is there a better way?
What’s the best way then, to protect our children while still believing that all people are innocent until proven guilty? Mandatory reporting is important, that is clear. But perhaps a system of mandatory reporting, combined with a non-disclosure policy for all child abuse cases until the case has been to trial and decided, is needed.
Or is it a case of ensuring that the media doesn’t publish names and photos of the accused until the trial is finalised, to protect the integrity of the case and the reputations of those involved?
While some may think protecting a suspect is not right, what if they are innocent?
Will their innocence be accepted if they are found to be not guilty of an offence at trial, or will the public just assume they “got off” due to the efforts of a crafty criminal lawyer or a fault in the system?
Protecting our children from perpetrators versus protecting the legitimate interests of those who are accused is tricky, especially with the media intent on assuming guilt as soon as an allegation is made. But it seems only just that a person should be assumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law, and that they should not be dragged through the mud until and unless there is a finding of guilt.
If you’re facing allegations or charges relating to abuse, a criminal lawyer may be able to assist.