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Child at risk of harm and neglect

Information on what child abuse and neglect is, the signs of abuse, and how to respond when a child or adult tells you about abuse.

If a child tells you about abuse

If you think a child or young person is at risk of harm from abuse or neglect, contact the Child Protection Helpline on 13 21 11 (open 24 hours/7 day)

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.

Record the child's response

When making a report, provide information about a child or young person’s reaction to hearing that the report is being made to the Child Protection Helpline. The legislation requires DCJ to have regard to any known wish expressed by a young person, including their opposition to the report being made.

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Last updated: 22 Oct 2019