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Child Abuse and Neglect

Executive Summary

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Child abuse and neglect, or child maltreatment, is endemic in Australia. Children can experience more than one type of abuse or neglect, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence and multi-maltreatment.

The landmark Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) provides the first nationally representative empirical data about the prevalence of each of the five types of child abuse and neglect, as well as their impacts. Data were collected from a sample of 8500 Australians aged 16 years and older. Child maltreatment is far more prevalent than previously estimated and occurs in all cultures and communities in Australia.

Child maltreatment can have lifelong and intergenerational consequences. Almost half (48%) of people who experienced child abuse or neglect have a mental health disorder, compared with 1 in 5 (21.6%) people without a history of maltreatment. Child maltreatment can fundamentally change a child’s cognition and neurobiological systems and impair emotion recognition and regulation. These changes are linked to behaviours that increase the risk of contact with the criminal justice system.

A scoping review of 345 studies categorised problems that arose for children or adults in the aftermath of neglect as ‘physical health issues, atypical neurobiology, developmental problems, attachment and relationship problems, emotional problems, mental health problems, behavioral problems, further traumatization, parenting problems, more entrenched involvement with the service system, compromised quality of life, and socio-economic difficulties.’

Evidence suggests that post-traumatic stress and trauma can affect the brain, resulting in changes in brain structure, brain function and stress hormone regulation. These changes can impact memory consolidation, processing of emotional information, cognitive development and language development, as well as compromising executive functioning, emotion regulation and stress responses (fight or flight). Stress hormone dysregulation has been associated with an increased risk of alcohol and substance abuse disorders.

Child maltreatment has been linked to adverse effects continuing into adulthood, including: intergenerational transmission of abuse, neglect and re-victimisation; physical and mental health problems including suicidal behaviour, obesity, eating disorders, and alcohol and substance abuse (use disorders); aggression, violence and criminal behaviour; high-risk sexual behaviour; and homelessness.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in the child protection system, and children and young people in out-of-home care can experience a range of adverse outcomes. However, a large number of cases involve neglect, the least prevalent form of child maltreatment in Australia. Poverty is prevalent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities due to the ongoing effects of colonisation, dispossession and oppression, and has over time been closely associated with neglect.

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