A landmark report has revealed that child maltreatment is endemic in Australia with 62 per cent of people having experienced at least one type of child abuse or neglect.
The report found that nearly 40 per cent of children were exposed to domestic violence, making it the highest form of child maltreatment in the country and likely to be present with other kinds.
It is followed by physical abuse (32 per cent) emotional abuse (30.9 per cent) and sexual abuse (at 28.5 per cent). Neglect was the least prevalent at nearly nine per cent.
Sexual abuse remains an urgent national challenge, with more than one in four people (28.5 per cent) experiencing child sexual abuse.
The Australian Child Maltreatment Study was published in a special supplementary edition of the Medical Journal of Australia on 3 April.
It was produced by the Australian Catholic University in conjunction with partner research institutes in Australia, the United States and United Kingdom, and funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Professor Daryl Higgins, chief investigator and director of the ACU Institute of Child Protection Studies said the research found 39.4 per cent of Australians experienced multiple types of child maltreatment compared with a single type of maltreatment (22.8 per cent) or none at all (37.8 per cent).
“Experiencing a single type is the atypical experience. Children are more likely to experience nothing or multiple types,” he said.
“This is a very disturbing finding. We knew the experiences of multi-type maltreatment would be high, but we didn’t expect it to be as strong as it is.”
Professor Higgins said exposure to domestic violence goes hand in hand with other types of child abuse and neglect.
“We need to focus on the safety and wellbeing of children who are being exposed in enormously high levels to the harms of exposure to domestic violence,” he said.
“If a child has had exposure to domestic violence, the next question has to be, ‘What else have you experienced?’”
The study of 8,500 Australians aged 16-65 showed that girls were at greater risk of multiple types of abuse and neglect (43.2 per cent) compared with boys (34.9 per cent).
Girls were almost twice as likely to experience four or five types.
The research showed parental separation, family mental illness, family substance abuse problems, and family economic hardship doubled the risk of multi-type maltreatment.
Experiencing more than one type of child abuse and neglect was associated with higher rates of mental health disorders and health risk behaviours, particularly cannabis dependence, self-harm, and suicide attempts.
The report found that some types of child maltreatment are more common in Australian society now than in the past, such as emotional abuse and exposure to domestic violence.
But it also showed reductions in physical abuse in recent years and in some types of sexual abuse, indicating that “change is possible” with commitment to appropriate policies and programs.
More than one in three girls and one in five boys reported experiencing sexual abuse, and one in 12 participants reported experiencing rape in childhood.
While analysis of the data on perpetrators is ongoing, the highest proportion (12.9 per cent) was found to be inflicted by adolescents under 18, followed by parents and other adult caregivers in the home.
Professor Higgins said the findings demanded immediate attention to better safeguard children and reduce poor health outcomes across the lifespan.
“We now have the data to prove that maltreatment is not only occurring at alarming rates, but that children are suffering multiple types of maltreatment, and we must do everything in our power to stop this harm,” he said.
He called for early intervention, evidence-based parental programs and support to increase the capability of vulnerable parents and reduce the risk of maltreatment of children.
National domestic, family and sexual violence counselling, information and support service. 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732; www.1800RESPECT.org.au
Online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5–25. 1800 55 1800; www.kidshelpline.com.au