Child abuse and neglect (child maltreatment) refer/s to any non-accidental behaviour by parents, caregivers, other adults or older adolescents that is outside the norms of conduct and entails a substantial risk of causing physical or emotional harm to a child or young person. Such behaviours can either be intentional or unintentional. They can include acts of omission (i.e., neglect) and commission (i.e., abuse) (CFCA Resource Sheet, 2015).
As explained by the women in a study by Van Loon and Kralik (2005a):
While definitions of abuse remain ambiguous, some behaviours are objectively deleterious to healthy child development. All the same acceptability around behaviour varies widely from one social group to another (Tucci, Saunders, & Goddard, 2002) and from culture to culture.
Types of child abuse
- Emotional abuse: The failure of caregivers and adults to nurture a child and provide them with the love and security that they require, and where a child's environment and relationships with caregivers are unstable, coercive or unable to support the child's healthy development.
- Neglect and negligent treatment: Where a child is deprived of essential needs, such as love, nutrition, clothing, warmth, shelter, security, protection, medical and dental care, education and supervision.
- Physical abuse: The infliction of bodily injury upon a child which is not accidental.
- Family violence: Where one partner uses violence, and the threat of violence, to control their partners, children and other family members.
- Sexual abuse: The involvement of a child in any sexual activity with an adult, or with another child who is in a relationship of responsibility, trust and power over that child. Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to, the manipulation or coercion of a child into sexual activity, child prostitution and child pornography.
- Organised abuse: This form is very complex. It can involve multiple children and multiple forms of abuse in abusive family groups and perpetrator networks. The following terms: 'organised abuse', 'sadistic abuse' and 'ritual abuse' have previously been used.
Child abuse prevalence
Child abuse remains prevalent. The question is: how prevalent? Secrecy, silence and social stigma mean that abuse often goes unreported. We know how many cases of abuse are reported and how many cases are substantiated each year. However, it is impossible to access true figures of the number of children being abused every day. Many are fearful of disclosing. Often, when they do disclose they are not believed.
In response to growing awareness around child abuse, mandatory reporting laws have been introduced in every State. (Higgins, Bromfield, & Richardson, 2007) These laws have mandated that certain professionals working with children are legally obliged to report any child they suspect is being harmed or is at risk of being harmed. Although these laws differ between States, they are in place Australia-wide.
Rates of substantiated child abuse and neglect have remained relatively stable since 2012-13, at around 8.0 per 1,000 children. 151,980 children, a rate of 28.6 per 1,000 children, received child protection services (investigation, care and protection order and/or were in out-of-home care); three-quarters (73%) of these children had previously been the subject of an investigation, care and protection order and/or were in out-of-home care.
This is despite an increase in the number of children who were the subject of substantiations, which has risen by 35% since 2010-11 (from 31,527 to 42,457 in 2014-15). (Child Protection Australia report 2014-15; AIHW 2016).
To read a summary of the prevalence of the different forms of child abuse and neglect go to https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/child-abuse-and-neglect-statistics