‘The last social taboo’: How an unspeakable crime against children remains largely hidden

Former police officer Chris O’Connor warns that child sexual assault in the home is a taboo society must break.(Background Briefing: Tracey Shelton)

Former detective senior sergeant Chris O’Connor joined the police force because he “didn’t like bullies, particularly sexual bullies”.

For 36 years — fuelled by the love and protectiveness he felt for his own kids — he dedicated his career to protecting children from sexual abuse.

But as an officer of Victoria Police Child Exploitation Unit he soon learned that the biggest threat was not the stereotypical predator lurking near playgrounds most children are warned about.

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains material some readers might find distressing.

Instead, what he calls “the number one challenge for society” lies closer to home and is so shrouded in secrecy that it usually goes undetected.

“Incest — intrafamilial sexual assault — is the last standing social taboo, and it’s very much in the dark,” said Mr O’Connor, who also headed the state’s Child Exploitation squad for a decade.

Policing a crime that takes place within the confines of family, in the most private of settings, is thwarted by silence and denial.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of the 1.4 million Australian adults who were sexually abused as children, only a small minority were first abused by a stranger.

Almost 85 per cent were abused by someone they knew, most often a close family member or even a parent.

Mr O’Connor retired from the force in 2013, but the emotion in his voice when speaking about the apathy surrounding incest reveals the horrors of the job didn’t stop when his pay cheque did.

Intrafamilial sexual abuse typically starts at a much earlier age than other forms of sexual abuse, Mr O’Connor explained, and can continue for much longer.

In recent years, taboos over other forms of sexual assault and domestic violence have been brought into the spotlight by socially driven campaigns that opened conversations and drove political will and change.

“We had a most thorough royal commission into institutionalised sexual assault. We’ve had parliamentary inquiries into combating rape in Victoria,” Mr O’Connor said.

“Where has our inquiry into intrafamilial sexual assault occurred? The answer is it hasn’t, and yet it’s one of the most pervasive, soul-destroying and developmentally disaffecting types of crime that could ever be brought on a child.”

An unspoken suspicion

Mr O’Connor said older siblings were frequently involved in the incest cases he dealt with, but that was something most parents did not want to think about.

An abused child might be surrounded by adults who fear something is wrong but hope they’re mistaken.

“It’s not uncommon for a mother to know or sense that something is happening,” he said.

“Or indeed, be told by a child that something is happening and not do anything to assist the child, beyond perhaps yelling at the husband or the brother or the uncle or the grandfather.”

Annie, whose name has been changed for legal reasons, tried many times to tell her mother about the abuse she said she suffered at the hands of her older brothers.

She said she did not know exactly when it began, only that it was already happening from as far back as she could remember.

“My mum, I don’t know, maybe she had trauma that I don’t understand, but she kind of took it as my fault,” she said.

Annie said she also experienced abuse at the hands of her father and grandfather, who “encouraged the boys to be rough with me”.

She said there was also extreme physical violence from both her parents.

Seeing her now with a loving family of her own, playing on the floor with her young daughter, it’s hard to imagine the horrors she lived through.

The scars that riddle her body — some from abuse and some from self-harming, which became her coping mechanism as a teenager — serve as a constant reminder.

She wears long sleeves and pants to cover them.

As an adult, Annie obtained her child services file, which documents numerous reports of abuse despite being heavily redacted.

Annie tells the ABC of other incidences, which like many cases of this nature were impossible to independently verify.

But the file makes it clear her claims of abuse were reported over many years until finally, just before turning 12, Annie was taken from her family and placed into foster care.

“In just about every placement, I can honestly say there was always someone that was unsavoury not too far away,” she said.

Annie frequently fled placements and acted out as she struggled with mental and psychical health issues as a result of the trauma.

Vulnerable to further abuse

According to Mr O’Connor, past efforts to warn children of the dangers of abuse — such as the Stranger Danger campaign of the 1990’s — have often left children with a false sense of who they should be wary of.

Many of the men and women who spoke to the ABC about abuse by a parent or close relative said they were taught in school it was something committed by strangers in dark alleyways.

It took them years to realise what was happening to them at home was also abuse or something they had a right to say no to.

“The first line of defence is for the child to protect themselves — to be aware that they are in control of their body,” Mr O’Connor said.

“We know that well over 50 per cent of all child sexual assault, including intrafamilial, the offenders would have backed off if the child would have shown some sort of distaste and dislike, fear, scare, anger.”

This comment can be difficult to hear, but if a child has never been taught they have a right to say no to an adult, no matter who that adult is, maybe they won’t.

According to Michael Salter, an associate professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales, children who are already being abused at home become extremely vulnerable to opportunistic abuse elsewhere.

Annie was no exception. She said she experienced abuse by family friends and even a stranger who lured her into a house during one of her attempts to run from institutional care.

She said the continuous abuse convinced her it was all her fault.

“If I wasn’t a bad person, then my brother wouldn’t have. If I wasn’t a bad person, then maybe my parents would have kept me and looked after me and protected me,” she said.

With no loving and responsible adult to guide her, Annie remained vulnerable to abuse well into her adult years.

She said her brothers and father continued to seek her out and abuse her even after child services intervened.

But eventually Annie did find help. It took many years of therapy and hard work to heal, along with the support of a handful of people who believed in her.

According to Dr Salter, for thousands of others the sexual abuse they experienced within the home as children never ended.

“I would say that probably for the victims that I speak to, I’d say between a third to half of the female victims have continued to experience abuse within the family over the age of 18,” Dr Salter said.

“We are talking about thousands of people across the country who have been impacted by prolonged incest. Without question, we are talking about thousands.”

The difficulty of breaking free

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SOURCE: ABC News Background BriefingBy Tracey Shelton