The Australian Child Maltreatment Study Part 1

Findings, Impacts and the Importance of Safeguarding: Part 1

Exposure to abuse and neglect can impact a child’s sense of safety, security and development. As a child grows, exposure to trauma can impact their overall wellbeing and development and can have a long-lasting impact on their on their physical, psychological, social, emotional and sexual development. Maltreatment and exposure to ongoing trauma can increase a child’s likelihood of developing mental health conditions, engaging in criminal activity, substance use and other high-risk activity, and can negatively impact their education, employment, housing stability and relationships.

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) surveyed 8,503 Australians aged between 16 and 65 and considered the long-term impact of exposure to physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, as well as exposure to family violence. This is the first research project in Australia which considered the prevalence of maltreatment and the range of impacts these experiences can have on a person’s life. It is the most comprehensive study conducted in Australia and globally, with the findings seeking to support important policy and practice reforms across the country.

On 3 April 2023, ACMS’ report was released as a special supplement in the Medical Journal of Australia, as well as a stand-alone report.

Child maltreatment includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and exposure to domestic violence.

The Prevalence of Abuse Against Children

The ACMS found that four in 10 children experienced abuse or neglect at some point in their lives. One in four children experienced between three to five types of maltreatment in their lives, while 3.7% children experienced all five types of maltreatment. Most children who are exposed to multiple forms of maltreatment were also exposed to family violence, parental separation, exposure to parental mental health concerns, substance use and economic hardship.

Of those who were interviewed, 32% experienced physical abuse, 30.9% experienced emotional abuse, 28.5% experienced sexual abuse, 8.9% experienced neglect and 39.6% were exposed to family violence throughout childhood. In Australia, females were 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual abuse, 1.5 times more likely to experience emotional abuse, and were also more likely to experience neglect than males, while exposure to physical abuse and family violence was relatively equal across the population.

The prevalence of sexual abuse against children is particularly concerning and extremely devastating, with ACMS finding that one in three females and one in five males experience contact and non-contact sexual abuse as children. As a population, it is estimated that one in four Australians have been subject to sexual abuse and one in 10 have been subjected to forced sex as children. 78% of children who have been subjected to sexual abuse had said it had happened more than once, 42% said it occurred on more than six occasions and 11% said it occurred over 50 times.

 One in four children experienced between three to five types of maltreatment in their lives
The Impact of Abuse Against Children

Experiences of childhood maltreatment become ingrained early and persist throughout a person’s life, with differences between those who have experienced maltreatment and those who have not becoming prominent by the age of 24. People who experience maltreatment as children have a higher likelihood of engaging in high-risk activities, experiencing poor mental health and have higher presentations and engagement with health providers.

The impact of child abuse and neglect on a person’s overall mental health and wellbeing is staggering and problematic. The prevalence of mental health conditions in the population of people who have not experienced childhood abuse is relatively low, whereas people who experience maltreatment as children are 2.8 times more likely to develop a mental health condition generally. Childhood abuse and neglect is 3.2 times more likely to lead to depression, 4.6 times more lead to PTSD, 2.6 times more likely to lead to severe alcohol use disorder and 3.1 times more likely to lead to anxiety. The impact on the mental health of teenagers and young adults aged between 16 and 24 is staggering with higher rates of mental health diagnoses and poor mental health and wellbeing outcomes than adults. This demonstrates the impact that exposure to harm can have on a person’s psychological development from a young age.

Exposure to childhood trauma increases a person’s likelihood to engage in health risks and decreases their overall physical health. People who have experienced abuse and neglect are 6.2 times more likely to become dependent on cannabis and 1.8 times more likely to smoke cigarettes. The ACMS considered other environmental and genetic factors and also found that exposure to harm throughout childhood was likely to cause obesity. Children who were exposed to trauma and neglect were also 4.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past 12 months and 3.9 times more likely to have self-harmed in the part 12 months. These health risks were unable to be detected in any people aged over 45 who had not been exposed to maltreatment as children.

Child maltreatment is a major public health problem. Service engagement is higher for those who have experienced childhood abuse with higher rates of hospital admissions, overnight admissions and engagement with GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health nurses, than those who have not experienced childhood abuse. This creates a major strain on public health services which already struggle to meet the needs of Australians and struggle to provide services to meet demand in a meaningful way.

What Needs to Change

Among the ACMS’ key takeaways are:

  • Child maltreatment is endemic and multi-type maltreatment is common
  • Young people are suffering and their adolescence is a deeply painful experience for them
  • Self-harm and suicide are a national crisis
  • Maltreatment creates a massive mental health burden and produces substantial health risk behaviours which have enduring effects throughout life
  • Sexual and emotional abuse are especially harmful and a gender disparity exists
  • Increased health service use places considerable strain on Australia’s health system.
  • The ACMS made 8 recommendations across the national public health, societal and individual levels.
How can Safe Space Legal Help?

The second part of our article on the ACMS will focus on organisations can take positive steps to reduce the likelihood of child maltreatment within the organisation.

The team at Safe Space Legal have extensive experience working with organisations to safeguard against childhood abuse and neglect and provide the following services:

  • Drafting comprehensive child safety policies and procedures;
  • Presenting training to support organisations to develop an understanding of their child safety obligations;
  • Conducting investigations which are compliant with relevant Reportable Conduct Schemes;
  • Ensuring complaint and reporting processes are compliant with an organisation’s legal obligations;
  • Providing assistance and support to respond to allegations of child abuse including notifications under Reportable Conduct Schemes;
  • Conducting analyses following an incident to identity policy, procedure and practice gaps; and
  • Providing sound legal advice on risk mitigation.

Contact [email protected] or call 03 9124 7321 to organise a complementary discussion in relation to your organisation’s child safety and safeguarding needs.

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