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Research released today by Bravehearts shows the majority of survivors of childhood sexual assault remain gripped by guilt and fear and do not disclose the abuse until later in life, with men less likely to disclose than women.
Released on the organisation’s 21st annual White Balloon Day, the data shows 53.5 percent of survivors chose not to disclose until years later, with the average age for males 20 with women aged 19 before talking about the abuse suffered as a child.
The data was obtained following an evaluation of the National Sexual Assault Disclosure Scheme (SADS), a platform developed by Bravehearts for adult survivors as a means to anonymously and officially report offenders to authorities without disclosing their own identity.
Bravehearts Founder, Hetty Johnston AM, said giving victims an avenue to break the silence was essential to protect other victims from potential harm.
“The people best placed to know the identity of the offenders are their victims; they are the key people with the knowledge to protect other children from the same fate,” said Mrs Johnston, who is today hosting a White Balloon Day event in Brisbane, attended by the Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Federal Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
“Offenders rarely, if ever, only offend against just one child, or just once. It is the victims that hold the key to protecting the next generation of children by letting authorities know who the offenders are. We must encourage and support victims to report and then support and thank them when they do.”
Police data showed that investigations were launched in the majority of cases where a SADS participant permitted contact with Police and where multiple victims of the same offender were able to be identified and that several arrests had been made.
“An encouraging aspect of this evaluation is that the majority of participants who had been in contact with police as a result of their participation in SADS reported some sort of positive outcome as a result,” said Mrs Johnston.
“What we know is that SADS protects victims while still providing the effective identification of offenders.”
Bravehearts criminologist, Carol Ronken, said the research indicated the ‘enormous barriers’ survivors had when disclosing.
“The impacts of child sexual assault typically mean that the victim does not disclose until they feel safe to do so and this frequently does not occur until some time has passed,” she said.
“In many cases, the victim feels completely disempowered by the offender, and the psychological impact of this crime have far-reaching consequences. The shame and guilt can often mean that survivors are unable to disclose until parents have passed away, while many survivors are simply not ready to disclose as they may still be processing the psychological trauma.
“Many victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and while they’re aware of the harm they experienced, they disassociate themselves from any reminders of the traumatic event.”
Research indicates that males are less likely than females to disclose and also take longer to do so, with 45 percent of men and 25 percent of women taking more than 20 years to disclose the abuse.
Where the perpetrator is a relative, research shows an even more prolonged process. A Criminal Justice Commission analysis of Queensland Police Service data found that of 3721 reported offences committed by relatives: 25.5% of survivors took 1-5 years to report the acts; 9.7% took 5-10 years; 18.2% took 10-20 years, and 14.2% took more than 20 years.
Ms Ronken said following a long history of female victim-focused child sexual assault research, more recent studies have specifically examined the experiences of male victims and survivors – who were less likely to disclose.
“Despite the established benefits of supportive disclosure for both men and women, research has found that female victims and survivors are generally more likely to receive positive support and reactions from their families, and are also more likely to receive counselling and other professional support than male victims,” she said.
“Overall, however, the majority of adult survivors reported experiencing positive and negative outcomes as a result of the disclosure process, including the ability to heal, to gain support and to be validated, while also facing disbelief and lack of support, relationship and family breakdown, and poor emotional health.”
In line with previous research, the reported offenders were most often family members; particularly fathers and father figures. In other cases, the offender was someone known to the family, including family friends and neighbours. Only two of the reported offenders were female.
Men are less likely to disclose which can lead to mental health issues, including suicide.
A Bravehearts client survey found that 42.7 percent exhibited aggressive behaviours; 37.8 percent experienced nightmares; 32.8 percent were fearful and avoidant; sexualised behaviours (29 percent); suicidal ideation (15.8 percent), while 11.3 percent self-harmed.
In the 2016-17 Financial Year, Bravehearts delivered 4297 counselling sessions to 1783 clients. More than half of those were adults (986) with the majority of clients aged 26-45 years.
SADS currently operates in all jurisdictions across Australia and provides adult survivors with a safe and non-confrontational means of officially reporting historic cases of child sexual assault. Through SADS, survivors can report their experiences anonymously to police, while receiving support from Bravehearts’ specialised case management and counselling staff.