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Research identifies four dimensions of risk of child sexual abuse in institutional settings

19 June 2017

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released a new research report that identifies four dimensions of risk of child sexual abuse in institutional settings.

Professors Patrick Parkinson and Judy Cashmore from the University of Sydney were contracted by the Royal Commission to establish a means of differentiating between types of institutions in terms of level of risk of child sexual abuse according to their characteristics and the services they provide.

The research report, Assessing the different dimensions and degrees of risk of child sexual abuse in institutions, proposes situational, vulnerability, propensity and institutional risks as the four main dimensions.

  • Situational risk provides potential perpetrators with the opportunity to be alone with a child or form relationships that involve physical contact or emotional closeness. This can lead to grooming and unlawful sexual behaviour. The research suggests that residential institutions of all kinds including juvenile detention, immigration detention centres, residential out-of-home care and boarding schools carry an elevated situational risk.

  • Vulnerability risk arises from the characteristics of the children present in the institution. The research suggests that the main factors influencing vulnerability risk are the ages of the children, children with disability, children with prior experience of maltreatment and children with an incentive to remain silent.

  • Propensity risk arises from a disproportionate clustering of adults with a propensity to abuse children or children with harmful sexual behaviours.

  • Institutional risk takes into consideration characteristics of the institution that may make abuse more likely to occur and less likely to be identified and responded to effectively. The research suggests that these characteristics include institutions placing greater importance on the protection of reputation than on the wellbeing and protection of children. Other characteristics include a culture of not listening to and respecting children.

The report concludes that situational risk is a precondition for sexual abuse while vulnerability risk makes it more likely that a child will be targeted. The research suggests that an institution with a low situational risk can starve even the committed sex offender of opportunity or greatly increase the likelihood of detection.

When propensity and institutional risks are added to the other two risks, it increases the child’s chances of being abused and that the handling of a disclosure of abuse will be inadequate, leading to continuing abuse of that child or other children.

Royal Commission CEO Philip Reed said the Royal Commission has learned a great deal from its public hearings, private sessions and research about the factors that have influenced risk in institutions.

“This research is another important step in helping to better understand risk in institutional settings,” Mr Reed said.

Mr Reed said this research will help inform the Royal Commission’s final report, which will be delivered to government in December.

Read the report.

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