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
Andrews et al. (2002), reporting on seven studies, found that in 75% of cases the offender was known to the child, and in 40% of cases a family member was the offender.
In a study by Palmer, Brown, Rae-Grant, & Loughin (2001) most survivors of 384 reported a combination of abuse types: physical, emotional and sexual (45%); physical and emotional (21%); sexual and emotional (17%); sexual only (11%) and emotional only (6%). Survivors who could recall the age of onset of the abuse as between 4 and 6. The reported perpetrator were biological fathers (34%), biological mothers (19%), stepfathers, adoptive fathers and foster fathers (8%); stepmothers, adoptive mothers and foster mothers (5%); both parents equally (7%); other relative (14%); and siblings (10%).
A study by van Loon & Kralik (2005a) with female survivors of child sexual abuse found that child sexual abuse is often interwoven with emotional abuse and physical violence. Many participants in this study experienced assaults within their childhood families which were not isolated events, but sustained patterns of behaviour, endured over many years. Most women recalled their earliest memories of sexual abuse between the ages of 5 and 8 years. Participants’ backgrounds varied across rural, remote and metropolitan settings and all social strata were represented, including professional, paraprofessional and working class families.
The participants in this study reported compounding social issues within the childhood family that included fragmentation through divorce, family violence, alcohol and drug addictions, and mental illness. In most cases the family presented to the outside world as “normal”. Family relationships were characterised by intimidation, fear, shame, blame, secrecy and isolation, to avoid exposing the family to scrutiny. The victims were silenced by fear of the consequences of divulging the family secret. Perpetrators made excuses to avoid taking responsibility for their abusive actions and most commonly the child was blamed for somehow provoking, or enjoying the abuse.
Unfortunately when children do tell, and the offending perpetrator denies their actions, it is often the perpetrator who is believed rather than the child. If the adult to whom the child discloses does not take any action the child may conclude that he/she is not worthwhile, or must be to blame. It reinforces the child’s distrust of adults and causes more entrenched silence, isolation, internalised anger, which quickly leads to despair and possibly to mental illness.