What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
If you think a child or young person is at risk of harm from abuse or neglect, contact the Child Protection Helpline on 132 111 (open 24/7).
Children and young people have a right to be safe in their own homes and in the community, and live without violence and abuse. Child abuse and neglect is a crime, yet it continues to be an issue in Australia.
Forms of Child Abuse
There are different forms of child abuse: neglect, sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
- Neglect – Neglect is when a parent or caregiver cannot regularly give a child the basic things needed for his or her growth and development, such as food, clothing, shelter, medical and dental care, adequate supervision, and enough parenting and care.
- Sexual abuse – Sexual abuse is when someone involves a child or young person in a sexual activity by using their power over them or taking advantage of their trust. Often children or young people are bribed or threatened physically and psychologically to make them participate in the activity. Sexual abuse is a crime.
- Physical abuse – Physical abuse is a non-accidental injury or pattern of injuries to a child or young person caused by a parent, caregiver or any other person. It includes but is not limited to injuries which are caused by excessive discipline, severe beatings or shakings, cigarette burns, attempted strangulation and female genital mutilation. Injuries include bruising, lacerations or welts, burns, fractures or dislocation of joints. The application of any unreasonable physical force to a child is a crime in NSW. For example, hitting a child or young person around the head or neck, or using a stick, belt or other object to discipline or punish a child or young person (in a manner that is not trivial or negligible) may be considered a crime.
- Emotional abuse or psychological harm – Serious psychological harm can occur where the behaviour of their parent or caregiver damages the confidence and self-esteem of the child or young person, resulting in serious emotional disturbance or psychological trauma. Although it is possible for ‘one off’ incidents to cause serious harm, in general it is the frequency, persistence and duration of the parental or carer behaviour that is instrumental in defining the consequences for the child or young person. This can include a range of behaviours such as excessive criticism, withholding affection, exposure to domestic violence, intimidation or threatening behaviour.
If a Child Tells You About Abuse
Children do not often disclose abuse or neglect the first time something happens. They may experience a sense of helplessness and hopelessness and may take weeks or years before making their abuse known.
A child or young person may:
- Believe that they are responsible for the abuse
- Not understand that it is inappropriate behaviour by others
- Want to protect the person responsible
- Want to protect their own ‘reputation’
- Feel ashamed of the abuse, of the perpetrator, of protecting the perpetrator
- Feel scared or powerless
- Have been threatened with further harm or harm to others if they tell someone.
A child may disclose information purposefully or accidentally. They could:
- ‘blurt out’ a harmful experience or their fear of something
- Confide privately that they have been abused or fear that they will be
- Tell another child
- Provide hints – as evidenced in drawings, play or stories
- Disguise a disclosure by posing ‘what if’ or ‘a friend of mine’ scenarios
- Present with somatic symptoms, such as constantly feeling ‘sick’.
How to Respond
You should respond to a disclosure by being calm and listening carefully and non-judgmentally. Let the child tell their story freely and in their own way. Acknowledge how difficult it may have been to disclose and reassure the child or young person that it was the right thing to do.
The role of the person hearing the disclosure is not to interview or gather evidence. This is the responsibility of specially trained caseworkers and police officers.
Immediately after the disclosure write down and date the comments and statements made by the child using their exact words. Record any observations about the child’s mood or demeanour. Communicate this information to the Child Protection Helpline or the Child Wellbeing Unit to assist in the assessment and investigation process.
Taking the Child into Account
Where appropriate, a child or young person should be told a report is being made to Family and Community Services. How they are told depends on whether the abuse was intentionally or accidentally disclosed, as well as on the child’s age and capacity to understand. It is not a legislative requirement to seek the consent of the child or young person when making a report except when reporting the homelessness of young people aged 16 years or above but under 18 years of age.
Even if a child or young person opposes you reporting, if they are at risk of significant harm you must proceed and report the matter as they and their siblings or other children and young people with whom the alleged person responsible has contact may be at similar risk. Failure to report suspected risk of significant harm is against the law and can also be seen as colluding with the abuse and with the alleged perpetrator.
Sources of Further Information
NSW Government Communities and Justice – https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/
Further information, tools and training – https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/providers/children-families/child-protection-services
Free example policies –https://communitydirectors.com.au/tools-resources/policy-bank