The distraught mother of a four-year-old boy allegedly sexually assaulted on repeated occasions by a classmate at kindergarten has spoken out in a bid to spark action on child-on-child sex abuse.
In an interview with The Weekly Online, Sarah* told how her son Jack had revealed that another four-year-old boy had penetrated him orally and anally – and on one occasion, lured him into a tent and held his hand over Jack’s mouth while he pulled his pants down.
“For five months afterwards, he was having night terrors,” Sarah says. “He was afraid to go to the toilet, he had a fear of [defecating] and going to bed… He was four-years-old: it broke my heart.”
Sarah says staff at the public kindergarten in regional Australia failed to take the alleged incidents seriously when she reported it last year, suggesting it was simply “inappropriate play”. It has since emerged up to 15 other kids were involved in sexual contact with the same boy.
Jack’s case shines a light on the growing problem of child-on-child sex abuse in Australia.
Dr Freda Briggs, emeritus professor in child development at the University of South Australia, says the issue has become a significant problem in Australia since the turn of the century, likely fuelled by early exposure to pornography or sexual abuse.
“The problem is,” she says, “teachers and social workers generally haven’t been trained to differentiate normal sexual curiosity and experimentation from behaviour that indicates that a child is replicating his own abuse or inappropriate sex that he has seen.”
Teachers tend to respond emotionally or by punishing children, she says, which sends the behaviour underground and into the realm of “behind the bushes using secrecy and threats”.
“The risk is that if the child enjoys the sense of power he gains from sexually abusing others, the behaviour can become habitual,” she says. “It may start out with one child in a class and there is then a risk of it spreading.”
This is exactly what has happened among some kids who attended the same kindergarten as Jack last year, observes Lisa, another mother of a child who was in the same class.
“It’s not just [the boy who allegedly sexually assaulted Jack],” she says. “They’ve been prematurely sexualised and that’s not something we can undo easily. I can’t understand why it’s not being taken more seriously.”
Sarah says she did not want the boy who reportedly instigated the sexual assaults against her son to be victimized nor the subject of a witch hunt – but she did want an investigation into what occurred, plus counselling and safeguards to prevent it happening again.
Instead, she says she was advised to stay silent to avoid compromising the case, given out-of-date resources for support services and ended up paying for private counselling for Jack and the family. Later, she heard of rumours among parents that she was over-reacting and making things up.
Jack, meanwhile, was revealing more details of what had allegedly happened to him in various incidents at kindergarten.
“While we were in the car, [Jack] told me how [the other boy] stuck his finger up his bottom and pushed it in and out,” she says. “I pulled the car over and I threw up everywhere. Up until then, I hadn’t realised penetration had occurred.”
Police tend to have limited involvement in such cases because children who are under the age of ten can’t be held criminally responsible. However, the issue is within the remit of government child protection, family support and education services.
Sarah and Jack’s father raised concerns when their usually happy son was reluctant to be left at kindergarten earlier last year – but were assured he was ok, Sarah says. After a reported incident of inappropriate touching came to light, they say they were again reassured by staff.
“[Jack] was coming home hysterical, he wouldn’t calm down and he was hiding under the bed,” she says. “He wouldn’t talk about it. I knew then my child was not ok.”
It wasn’t until Jack was in the bath and tried to touch his brother’s penis in May last year that he disclosed what had been happening to him at kindergarten.
Since then, Sarah has pursued and had meetings with various education officials, health and welfare staff, politicians and advocates. She’s received an apology from a politician and a leader of the state education department. However, she is angry and disillusioned by what she perceives as a lack of meaningful action.
“It’s really disheartening,” she says. “The school tried to brush it under the carpet.”
She’s currently awaiting the results of a formal review into her son’s case. It’s understood the boy who instigated the sexual activity was eventually put under one-on-one supervision after it was reported to authorities.
Speaking to The Weekly Online, a local Department for Education and Child Development spokesman says teachers and child protection professionals have been responding to incidents and working with parents when cases are identified.
“The apparent increase in inappropriate sexualised behaviours among children is of significant concern for everyone involved in child wellbeing," the spokesman said.
“In response to the increasing prevalence and complexity of these behaviours the department has updated procedures to ensure the response by individual staff and the agency is timely and appropriate.
“In addition, every member of staff including school, preschool, child protection and corporate office employees undertakes mandatory Responding to Abuse and Neglect training every three years.
“In relation to this incident senior staff are providing ongoing support to the families involved and the broader community. This has been taking place for the past ten months and will continue.
“The department believes education and awareness by staff, parents and the broader community is essential to making sure that the right outcomes for children are achieved.”
Jane is another mother whose child has reported sexual abuse by another child.
In her case, she tells The Weekly Online, she and her two children were among guests at a friend’s property in a popular seaside town in October last year when a nine-year-boy allegedly forced her then five-year-old daughter Abby into performing oral sex.
It was a month ago, Jane says, when her daughter opened up about what had happened. The boy had reportedly threatened to “punch her eye out” if she told anyone about the alleged assault.
“While we were there, there were five kids all running around together,” she says. “The nine-year-old boy said he wished he had a little sister and made [Abby] his special friend. I remember at the time thinking there was a bit of an age difference but he was a kid, he was pre-pubescent.
“[Looking back] it was grooming behaviour. It makes it more creepy.”
Jane is furious that police and social services aren’t taking any action on her daughter’s case. Her friendship with the friend whose property they were staying at has broken down – and she says the mother of the nine-year-old boy has dismissed the incident as a misinterpreted joke.
“The thing that really frustrates me about this response [from authorities],” says Jane, “is that it’s being treated like it’s not important – it’s like it didn’t happen. I don’t expect a nine-year-old to be locked up but I would like it to be investigated – if anything just to stop it happening again.”
Back in Sarah’s town, the emotional stress and ripple effects resulting from Jack’s ordeal has taken a heavy toll.
She quit her job to take care of him after he revealed the alleged abuse. “I felt so guilty,” she says, of her sense of having being unable to protect him.
Her relationship with Jack’s father collapsed as they struggled to cope in different ways. The family is struggling financially and, she says, and she feels ostracized in her town.
“It’s had a catastrophic effect on our community,” she says. “People are judging and avoiding the conversation. It’s taboo. I put on a brave face as well. Otherwise I would just break down and cry.”
Today it’s a 120km commute for Jack, now five, to attend school in a different area. While Jack’s had counselling and is reportedly doing well, there have been reports that former classmates who’d also been targeted have been acting out in sexually inappropriate play this year.
A fear that will continue to haunt Sarah and Jack’s father is the question of what impact the alleged assaults will have on Jack later in life.
What is fortunate, however, is that Jack has received early intervention and support.
“If you can get children help early,” says Dr Briggs, “there’s a good chance you can do something about it. But if you ignore it, it can cause serious long-term harm.”
*Names changed for legal reasons