There is no surer way to get an argument than to start a debate about Dennis Ferguson and people who sexually abuse children. The two recent items that Crikey has published on the topic quickly moved to the top of the most discussed list.

Before I mention a bit more about that, I wanted to draw attention to a national online survey being done by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN). It is a key part of a campaign aimed at bringing the reality of child abuse further into the open, to gain more insight into public perceptions about the sensitive issue of child abuse and to provide an opportunity for people to contribute to the development of workable prevention strategies.

It only takes about ten minutes to fill in the survey, so if you’re concerned about the issue, click on the link — they’re trying to get to 50 000 people to do it. They’re up over 11 600 at the moment.

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Given the media frenzy regarding Dennis Ferguson, it is ironic that there is still such a need to bring the reality of child abuse out into the open.

It is often pointed out that the vast majority of sexual offenses against children are carried out by family members. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the minority of other offenders, such as Ferguson. But it does mean we should make sure we’re not just picking on easy targets while ignoring the bigger problem — something spin-focused governments and law and order tub-thumpers are very adept at doing.

Queensland went through the same period of neighbourhood vigilante fervour towards Dennis Ferguson over 12 months ago. I wrote a few posts on the topic then. Very little has changed, except that in the interim Ferguson was found not guilty of the charges that he had been facing around that time.

The key point, as made in this Crikey piece is that it

is counter-productive in terms of the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. And most importantly it may also militate against progress towards reducing the future incidence and severity of sexual offending.

As virtually everyone quite rightly insists that it is the interests and rights of children that they are most concerned about in these situations, it would be preferable if we focused on what responses are most likely to reduce the risks of further harm to children, not what responses feed our sense of outrage and disgust. That goes double for political and other community leaders in the media.

Child protection work is amongst the most difficult of fields, but even with that caveat, the dismal state of the child safety systems in most states is a clear sign that perhaps our society doesn’t give as much priority to protecting children as we like to think we do.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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