Child sex, physical abuse rates soar

The number of children suffering serious abuse has skyrocketed, according to the Child Protection Unit at The Children's Hospital Westmead.

Unit co-head Robyn Lamb said the number of abused children during 2020 had been unprecedented.

"I've been in this job for 35 years. Have I ever seen it this bad? No, this is probably where we are at a peak in terms of what is coming into the unit in terms of the complexity of cases," she said.

"This year, total referrals into the unit is 1578 to date, which is an increase on last year."

Many children assessed by the unit in the last quarter have been taken into foster care.

"Our after-hours callbacks have increased dramatically, and sadly the assumptions of care have risen dramatically. In the last quarter it virtually doubled from July to September, it's absolutely devastating."

The 31-year-old mother of the boy and her 20-year-old boyfriend were arrested at the home and charged with domestic violence offences. The child was placed in foster care but the case rocked staff at the hospital.

Robyn Lamb, co-head of the Child Protection Unit, says abuse has been worse during the pandemic.
Robyn Lamb, co-head of the Child Protection Unit, says abuse has been worse during the pandemic.

"Those sorts of cases have a huge impact on all of the staff, When you see some of the children who have experienced the physical abuse," she said.

"The impact of the physical abuse remains forever but it is the emotional scars that you can't see, they are the ones that impact mostly on kids after this."

The unit specialises in children who are the victims of physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect.

"This year has been an incredibly stressful year for everyone, I put it down to some of the impacts of COVID," she said.

"There has been a lot of employment stress and financial stress and the stress of people being so close during the lockdown, so families that might have been coping on the edge, have been tipped over."

Of great concern was the level of sexual abuse witnessed by the unit.

"We are seeing an increase of cases of adolescent sexual abuse where boys are assaulting girls. We talking about 13 to 17 age group. I feel we have seen a rise in that," Ms Lamb said.

She said early access to pornography and the skewed portrayals of women and consent are contributing factors in this rising abuse.

"I think it is a very significant contributor to the issues we have got," she said.

"We are understanding kids are accessing porn as young as eight and getting completely the wrong idea of what a relationship is and what a consensual relationship is or how women should be treated in an equal partnership - there are some very big issues around access to pornography.

"We are exceedingly busy, we have 21 children on our waiting list for counselling, which we have never had such a long wait list for sexual assault counselling."

In the past year to June 2020, 107,353 children in NSW were reported at risk of serious harm.

This year's Barnardos Christmas appeal features the horrifying true story of two NSW-based sisters aged 10 and eight who were recently taken into temporary foster care after their stepfather was charged with sexually assaulting the girls and filming them.

Barnardos CEO Deirdre Cheers said the sisters were "at the extreme end" of abuse.

"The mother had a substance abuse problem and was often not present and she was afraid herself as he was violent," she said.

"In the last quarter we have noticed a steep rise in the number of requests. It is the beginning of the aftermath of COVID."


Originally published as Child sex, physical abuse rates soar