Prevent assault, rather than investigate later

People found innocent in court are fully exonerated, and should be treated that way, CLA’s Rex Widerstrom says. With the hideous offence of sexual assault of children, it is better to focus more resources on programs to prevent the crime rather than to concentrate on police task force investigation after the event, he says.

Hannah McGlade of Aboriginal Family Law Services in WA is right to suggest that better ways need to be devised to protect children from the dangers of abuse, both physical and sexual (“Efforts fail to stop child abuse”, The West p 29, January 7 – 8, 2011).

But when she writes “…WA police have established task forces throughout the state and investigations have resulted in the prosecution of many Aboriginal child sexual assault offenders. Consistent with the high attrition or fall-out rate… the majority of cases were dismissed”, I cannot help but read into that the implication that guilty men have been set free, rather than the equally plausible explanation that innocent men have been charged with offences they did not commit as a result of an understandable desire on the part of those working with the effects of child abuse to do something about the problem.

My observations and experience suggest the WA Police take a “throw it all at the courts and see what sticks” approach to allegations of a sexual nature, which ignores the destructive effect that has upon the life of the accused and almost certainly accounts for the high attrition rate.

Such is the hysteria which surrounds the issue, an arrest may be triggered by little more than an unsubstantiated allegation. With, usually, little or no forensic evidence to support either verdict, the accused is placed in the invidious position of proving a negative. Fortunately the judiciary continues to insist that the prosecution meet its burden of proof, but for those who are set free – often after long periods in prison on remand – there is still the usually unfounded feeling amongst many in our community that “where there’s smoke…”. Often, by the time their name is cleared, their relationship with their partner –and sometimes, tragically, their children – has disintegrated. As I heard one accused ask a judge upon his case being thrown out before it even got to trial, “Where do I go to get my life back?”.

It is unfortunate that Ms McGlade seems fixated upon punishment. She would serve Aboriginal children far better if she were to turn her obvious influence and erudition to seeking to have the government restore proven programs which help prevent a would-be offender ever harming a child. Such a program, Safecare, ran in WA and had independently verified success in deterring offending while, where possible, keeping families together. Nonetheless, its funding was axed by the state government.

To adapt Blackstone’s famous aphorism, it is surely better that 10 potential offenders be kept from offending than one guilty man be imprisoned.


Rex Widerstrom
Civil Liberties Australia WA

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