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Large-scale research shows that two-thirds of people who are victims of child abuse have more than one kind


The following story is about reports of child abuse, including neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

This week we have the results of the Australian Child Abuse Inquiry. It is the first national survey of the population aged 16 and older into their experiences of child abuse. It is also the first global study to examine combined exposure to all five specific domains of child maltreatment and associated family risk factors for multiple types of child maltreatment.

We surveyed 8,500 randomly selected Australians aged 16 and over. We found 8.9% had experienced neglect; 28.5% sexual abuse; 30.9% emotional abuse; 32.0% physical assault; and 39.6% exposure to domestic violence.

While it is shocking to learn that more than three in five Australians have experienced child abuse or neglect, there is more to consider. Many Australians have experienced more than one type. This is critical to understanding the burden of abuse and its impact throughout life.

What does “mistreatment” mean?

We explored five types of abuse that participants up to the age of 18 experience:

  • physical abuse: the use of force that may cause injury, damage, pain or violation of dignity

  • sexual abuse: non-contact and non-consensual sexual acts inflicted on a child by another person (adult or child)

  • emotional abuse: actions by parents or caregivers that make it clear to a child that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted

  • neglect: when parents or caregivers repeatedly fail to provide the basic necessities of life suitable for development, such as food, shelter, or health care

  • exposure to domestic violence: hearing or seeing violence against parents or carers in the home.

For Australians who experience child maltreatment, experiencing more than one type is the “typical” experience (nearly two in three who report maltreatment). Our data shows that Australian children are more likely to experience multiple assault (reported by 39.4% of our participants) than unilateral assault (22.8%).

Read more: Paramedics can provide early warning of child abuse or neglect, but they need support and more training

Four family factors that double the risk

Four types of family adversity each more than double the risk of multiple assault:

  • parental separation/divorce
  • living with someone who is mentally ill, suicidal or severely depressed
  • living with someone who has a problem with alcohol or drugs
  • economic difficulties in the family.

Girls are more likely to experience multiple assault (43.2%) than boys (34.9%). The highest prevalence was for people of different gender identities: two-thirds experienced multiple assault (66.1%).

While distressing, our data also shows that rates of physical and sexual abuse (in some contexts) show some recent declines. One of the ways we found this was that the younger participants in our study (ages 16-24) had a lower prevalence of sexual abuse (25.7%) than the full sample (28.6%). Similarly, fewer participants aged 16-24 reported physical violence (28.2%) than all respondents (32.0%).

This suggests that current policies could help. But the persistently high rates of most forms of abuse, and of experiencing multiple types, demonstrate the need to invest more in prevention to prevent damage from occurring in the first place.

Read more: Our child protection system is clearly broken. Is it time to ditch it for a better model?

We need to stop focusing on single forms of abuse

Our view of child maltreatment typically focuses on the experience of individual types, disregarding the possibility of their overlap. We know now multi-type abuse is common.

We also found that girls were at greater risk for most forms of child maltreatment, but especially for multiple types of maltreatment and associated health consequences. So in addition to population-wide strategies, we need to make an extra effort to ensure the safety of girls and those who are gender diverse.

We can tackle child abuse on three fronts:

1. Prevention

Child protection services are overwhelmed, so simply asking them to do more is doomed. Instead, we need to shift our focus to primary prevention strategies throughout the community. Worldwide evidence shows that violence against children is to prevent.

Us postures towards children must change, towards appreciate themmaintain them rightsand prioritize their safety.

Parents and carers need access evidence based support improve parenting skillsprovide safe environments for children and young people to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.

Australia’s strategies for creating child-safe organizations to prevent child sexual abuse in institutions, adjustments must be made to create safety for children at home as well. Parents could ‘assess’ the suitability of adults to provide safe care, to understand and manage situational risks (depending on the places, people and activities involved), to equip their children with knowledge about sexuality and skills regarding consent and respect, and be prepared to listen and respond to all safety issues – including harmful sexual behavior by other children.

National strategies for the approach sexual abuse, child abuse And domestic and family violence must recognize the high likelihood of exposure to multiple types of harm. Efforts to prevent child maltreatment should address vulnerabilities, including when parents are separating, suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, economic hardship, or domestic violence.

Families need evidence-based parenting support.

2. Responding to adversity

When we see families struggling, we need to focus on children as well as their parents. When working with families experiencing adversity — including mental illness, addiction, poverty, domestic violence, or divorce — we need to ask child-centered questions about parental care responsibilities.

If we pay more attention to what is going on in young people’s lives, we can identify vulnerability at an early stage. We can cautiously convey information about the increased risk of multiple types of abuse. And we can provide for families support that workstailored to their circumstances and challenges.

3. Better treatment for adult survivors

Doctors need better training to identify and respond to risks.

When working with clients who struggle with mental health or substance abuse, practitioners should recognize that this group is likely to consist primarily of victim survivors. multiple forms of child abuse.

Teachers, doctors, therapists, parents and caregivers need to learn how child abuse affects health throughout life.

Prevention, protection and treatment services must work together to create safety and recovery from all forms of child abuse, especially when they occur in combination. Our results make it clear that we urgently need action.

Read more: Infographic: A snapshot of Australia’s child protection services

If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or contact us Helpline for children on 1800 55 1800.

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