Help Fight Child Abuse

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Melbourne community centre, Ariel* picks up a white cloth doll, slowly wraps her fingers around its sausage-like arms and places it on her knee. “Do you want to decorate it and make your doll exactly how you want it to be?” asks a woman perched at Ariel’s eye level. Tentatively, the seven year old with matted hair and hollow eyes reaches into a cupboard stacked with bric-a-brac and pulls out red plastic sunglasses that she fits carefully onto the doll’s face. Then, clutching a tiny fistful of black tulle, she fashions her doll’s hair in the style of a mad professor. A rare smile crosses her face. All the while, the woman is talking gently, breathing softly and watching intently. It is one of the few times in Ariel’s traumatic young life that she has felt safe. She is calm. She has made something and it is hers to keep.

Ariel is just one human face of a heartbreaking statistic. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports that there were 237,273 notifications of potential child abuse and neglect in Australia in 2010–11. Nine years ago, marie claire launched a campaign calling on all Australians to help stop child abuse in our community. Despite an outpouring of support, little has changed. According to the AIHW statistics, every two minutes someone reports that a child has been abused, and the number of children living in care has almost trebled from 13,979 in 1996 to 37,648 in 2011.

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Now, in a bid to change the lives of abused children, the Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF) has launched the Heartfelt Art Therapy Program. At the core of the initiative is a collection of handmade corduroy or cloth dolls that, despite their basic soft toy appearance, are actually meticulously designed therapeutic tools.

Over time, ACF counsellors use the dolls to help children talk about the abuse they’ve suffered. They introduce the child to their doll and encourage them to spend time holding and enjoying it. “They get to own it, so that’s theirs and they get to choose a colour,” explains Angela Weller, manager of the ACF’s Melbourne centre. “We’ll say, ‘This is a little project for us. This doll is for you to have and we are now going to decorate it.’ Kids love to do that. We might say, ‘Do you want to make it like you?’”

Then, choosing from hundreds of arts and crafts items, the children begin to personalise their dolls. “We are trying to get them to be more attuned to smell and hearing, because it helps them to feel calm,” adds Weller. “Children hold those stories [of abuse] very protectively in their hearts. They have the opportunity to tell their stories, so they feel it’s not their fault and don’t feel scared anymore.”

Weller says there is “something remarkable” about the way the children recover: “I see the change in kids who start to come alive again. They feel safe and as though they can trust people, and they can feel like they are worthwhile.”

This year, the doll initiative and other creative therapy programs are being boosted by a $200,000 donation from Gucci. The Italian fashion house has also released the limited-edition Sydney Collection, proceeds from which go to the ACF, which “has created a program to help bring back the smiles of children taken away [by] abuse”, says Gucci International creative director Frida Giannini.

“This can only inspire all of us in our work. It is the work of this foundation that helps bring the enjoyment of life back to these children. We can make a difference.”

One of the first steps towards that difference is to help kids reconnect with their five senses, says Dr Joe Tucci, the ACF’s CEO. To that end, most of the dolls are filled with wheat, which can be warmed up. The ACF is also working on adding fragrances and voice recorders to the dolls.

“A lot of kids get stuck in a cycle where memories of abuse flood their everyday life,” points out Dr Tucci. “They lock away those feelings and experiences that were part of their past and they never access them. Creative therapy helps unlock that.”

When it comes to some children, it takes a very big key. “We had a boy whose mother dropped him off at his dad’s place because she didn’t want him anymore,” recounts Weller. “He knew his dad was home as he could see his car and hear the shower. He rang the doorbell again and again and tried to get in. He sat on his father’s doorstep for three hours. Eventually he gave up and went next door and said to the neighbour, ‘I’ve got nowhere to go.’ He went to foster care.”

It’s a tragic illustration of a message Dr Tucci wants the wider community to heed. “We know, unfortunately for victims of abuse, that the community doesn’t want to confront the issue,” he asserts. “We believe it’s somebody else’s problem, it’s happening in somebody else’s neighbourhood, in someone else’s family. The result of that is that people rate child abuse as a community problem lower than problems with footpaths and roads.”

Gucci’s contribution means that, this year, another 100 children will be able to begin their recovery from abuse, but, notes Dr Tucci, community indifference means many will miss out. “There are lots of children out there who don’t have access to therapy to help them recover. Gucci’s support will give more children the opportunity.”

So when is a doll not just a doll? According to Dr Tucci, when it helps kids begin to rebuild their sense of self: “[The dolls] give kids an opportunity to rewrite the story of their life in a way that it’s not defined by the abuse, it’s defined more about hope and courage and love. It is wonderful.”

Our children deserve to be safe in all the places they live, study, work and play. However, because there’s no uniform national approach to the Working With Children Checks that screen for people with a previous record of offences against children, dangerous offenders are slipping through the safety net.

“Children should be afforded the same level of protection no matter where they live,” says the Australian Childhood Foundation’s (ACF) Dr Joe Tucci. The consequences of not being uniformly vigilant, he says, can be horrendous. “Because of the access to children, one person in an organisation can exploit and hurt so many children.”

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In 2009, federal, state and territory governments made a commitment to work together to develop a nationally consistent approach to screening people who work with our children. Three years later, very little has been achieved, needlessly leaving children vulnerable and exposed to predators. “There has been a lot of talk from the federal government and the states on this issue – but action has stalled,” observes Dr Tucci. “Parents need the confidence that the systems in place will red flag somebody who could be dangerous to their children. What works are simple, effective policies and procedures that screen people out who could be a risk to children.”

The ACF and marie claire are demanding the federal government make it a priority to drive, develop and resource a national approach to Working With Children Checks across the country. “The ACF is calling on the federal government to step up and galvanise all state and territory governments into action to work together and implement a national approach to Working With Children Checks,” says Dr Tucci. “It’s time to stop talking and make the protection of our kids a national priority.”

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