According to a whistleblower, some of the state’s most vulnerable children are still being groomed and abused by sexual predators in Shepparton. The ongoing abuse has been revealed by a whistleblower concerned that more young girls in care and in the community will fall prey to the group of males responsible.
The News understands the predatory behaviour is well known within the child protection sector and involves a commercial property in Wyndham St where the grooming occurs. “A lot of young people, including their friends, come and go from the premises,” the whistleblower said. “The boys in their peer group are aware of it, and what goes on, the girls are allowed in, the boys aren’t. “Some of the kids have described a back room that has couches and a television, girls have been taken back there.”
An issue for authorities, including police, is the abused girls’ reluctance to make a formal complaint. “These are people that have been failed time and time again by the system, they don’t come forward,” the whistleblower said.
“There is a stigma and shame as well.”
Shepparton Police Detective Sergeant Alison Lewis said when a report was made to police an investigation was commenced in accordance with the relevant legislation and policy. The whistleblower said the abuse followed a familiar pattern, with underage and vulnerable girls befriended with offers of work, cigarettes, money, and other goods. Inevitably the cycle turns to sex, including one case of a girl being prostituted and falling pregnant to an unknown father.
“They groom them for quite some time, a few months, promising to protect them. When the other side of it comes out, they say how amazing they are, how they have no-one, and to ‘look at all the things we’ve done for you’,” the whistleblower said.
“It is disgusting, I don’t know how else to describe it. “I’ve seen a lot of drug use come in as a consequence and family and friendship relationship breakdowns. They are part of the trauma these predators cause.”
While the primary connection is with one person, the whistleblower says the girls are “handed around” a group of men. “They accept it because they want to be accepted by them, but when you are talking about a 15-year-old child, there is no argument about consent, it is predatory behaviour and abuse.”
The whistleblower alleges that poor record-keeping and a lack of communication and information exchange between the department, child protection workers, private agencies, and police hampers protection. Threats and intimidation are used by the men to prevent the girls from speaking out, and they are actively encouraged to recruit new girls. The girls are left fearful and even more reluctant to report offending to authorities.
The whistleblower said vulnerable children would continue to be preyed upon unless they were afforded better protection. “They are not equipped (to deal with the situation); as soon as someone pays them the attention, they latch on — it is that love and attention that they don’t have. “Even after we’ve had discussions with them, they understand how damaging it is, but they continue to go back there.
“I just don’t know how they can be stopped.”
Vulnerability to abuse in the care system is historically well known, with former Children’s Commissioner Bernie Geary reporting on the risks in August 2015. Through tears, Mr Geary exposed the state as a “dreadful parent”, after investigating 189 reports of abuse and a failure to protect children under state care. Victoria’s current Commissioner for Children and Young People Liana Buchanan said in response, the risks had been known for “too long”.
“The allegations raised by the whistleblower are deeply disturbing and of very serious concern given the vulnerability of children in residential care to sexual exploitation,” the commissioner said.
CHILDREN MUST BE PROTECTED
Victoria’s Commissioner for Children and Young People Liana Buchanan is running another inquiry into the care system and says the risk of sexual exploitation has been known for too long. “In 2015 the previous commissioner, Bernie Geary, tabled the ‘As a good parent would’ inquiry which outlined many of these concerns,” she said.
“Not enough has been done since that time, and I continue to see an alarming number of cases involving sexual exploitation and abuse through our oversight functions. That is why I have established a further inquiry into children and young people who are absent or missing from residential care.” The commissioner said her inquiry was examining many of the issues raised by the whistleblower, including a lack of focus on risk of sexual exploitation of children and a lack of co-ordination between agencies to share information and properly protect them.
“The placement of children in care is supposed to protect them from harm, not facilitate their exposure to it, and sexual exploitation is among the most serious and damaging harms we see,” she said. The commission’s inquiry, which will be tabled later this year, will make recommendations to the Victorian Government to address these risks to make all children safer in the residential care system.
A SAD HISTORY OF EXPLOITATION
Reports emerge of a sex ring targeting vulnerable girls in Melbourne and Shepparton. Several men are ultimately convicted, including the ringleader.
Leaked documents reveal the appalling extent of abuse in the care system. The Victorian Government begins investing in alternatives to out-of-home care.
Children and Young People Commissioner Bernie Geary tabled the report “…as a good parent would…”
The title is taken from the Children Youth and Families Act 2005, which requires that the state, when placing a child away from their family, must ensure that the child’s best interests are paramount by providing for the child’s physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development.
Mr Geary urges immediate action and systemic reform in response to sexual abuse he describes as an “indictment on all of us.”
“Our children and young people in residential care cannot wait any longer. They only have one childhood,” he said.
The Andrews Government accepts all nine recommendations and funds 110 additional child protection workers.
“I was appalled and distressed by this report. There is no quick fix, but we are determined to put in place the long-term changes needed from the ground up to make children safer,” Families and Children Minister Jenny Mikakos said.
Families and Children Minister Jenny Mikakos announces measures to better protect children and young people at serious risk of sexual exploitation. The partnership will assign a child abuse investigator to each child who is identified as being at significant risk.
The News has not identified an instance of this being implemented in Shepparton.
Families and Children Minister Jenny Mikakos says the government is taking steps to improve the safety of children in care through its Roadmap for Reform policy.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass delivers another scathing report on abuse in residential care and says the children in the cases studied were all “damaged further by their experience”.
“Yet despite the numerous critical reports, solid legislative framework and indeed, the good intentions of the many hardworking and dedicated professionals who work in the system, it continues to fail,” she said.