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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 hours/7 day)

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.

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.

Signs of abuse

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 hours/7 day)

There are common physical and behavioural signs that may indicate abuse or neglect. The presence of one of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse or neglect. Other things need to be considered, such as the circumstances of the child, young person or family.

When considering if a child or young person has been abused or neglected, or is at risk of this, it is important to keep in mind the life circumstances of the child, young person and their family.

Risk factors

The following risk factors (either singularly or in combination) are associated with increased risk of harm for children and young people:

  • social or geographic isolation of the child, young person or family, including lack of access to extended family
  • previous abuse or neglect of a brother or sister
  • family history of violence including domestic violence
  • physical or mental health issues for the parent or caregiver which affects their ability to care for the child or young person in their care
  • the parent or caregivers’ abuse of alcohol or other drugs that affects their ability to care for the child or young person in their care.

Careful consideration

The signs below are only possible signs of abuse and neglect. The presence of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse and neglect has been, or is, occurring. The child or young person's circumstances and their age or other vulnerabilities, for example disability or chronic illness, also need to be taken into consideration.

If you have concerns then you should report them to Community Services. Remember, the following are only possible signs of abuse and neglect. The presence of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse and neglect has been, or is, occurring.

Possible signs of neglect

Signs in children or young people

  • low weight for age and failure to thrive and develop
  • untreated physical problems, such as sores, serious nappy rash and urine scalds, dental decay
  • poor standards of hygiene, for example child or young person consistently unwashed
  • poor complexion and hair texture
  • child not adequately supervised for their age
  • scavenging or stealing food and focus on basic survival
  • extended stays at school, public places, other homes
  • longs for or indiscriminately seeks adult affection
  • rocking, sucking, head-banging
  • poor school attendance.

Signs in parents or caregivers

  • unable or unwilling to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, safe home conditions
  • leaving the child without appropriate supervision
  • abandons the child or young person
  • withholding physical contact or stimulation for prolonged periods
  • unable or unwilling to provide psychological nurturing
  • has limited understanding of the child or young person's needs
  • has unrealistic expectations of the child or young person.

Possible signs of physical abuse

Signs in children

  • bruising to face, head or neck, other bruising and marks which may show the shape of the object that caused it eg belt buckle, hand print
  • lacerations and welts
  • drowsiness, vomiting, fits or pooling of blood in the eyes, which may suggest head injury
  • adult bite marks and scratches
  • fractures of bones, especially in children under three years old
  • dislocations, sprains, twisting
  • burns and scalds, including cigarette burns
  • multiple injuries or bruises
  • explanation of injury offered by the child or young person is not consistent with their injury
  • abdominal pain caused by ruptured internal organs, without a history of major trauma
  • swallowing of poisonous substances, alcohol or other harmful drugs
  • general indicators of female genital mutilation, such as having a 'special operation'.

Signs in parents and caregivers

  • frequent visits with the child or young person in their care to health or other services with unexplained or suspicious injuries, swallowing of non-food substances or with internal complaints
  • explanation of injury offered by the parent is not consistent with the injury
  • family history of violence
  • history of their own maltreatment as a child
  • fears injuring the child or young person in their care
  • uses excessive discipline.

Possible signs of sexual abuse

Signs in children or young people

  • bruising or bleeding in the genital area
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • bruising to breasts, buttocks, lower abdomen or thighs
  • child or young person or their friend telling you about it, directly or indirectly
  • describing sexual acts
  • sexual knowledge or behaviour inappropriate for the child’s age
  • going to bed fully clothed
  • regressive behaviour, such as sudden return to bed-wetting or soiling
  • self-destructive behaviour, such as drug dependency, suicide attempts, self-mutilation
  • child being in contact with a known or suspected pedophile
  • anorexia or overeating
  • adolescent pregnancy
  • unexplained accumulation of money and gifts
  • persistent running away from home
  • risk taking behaviours, such as  self harm, suicide attempts.

Signs in parents or caregivers

  • exposing a child or young person to prostitution or pornography or using a child for pornographic purposes
  • intentional exposure of a child to sexual behaviour of others
  • previous conviction or suspicion of child sexual abuse
  • coercing a child or young person to engage in sexual behaviour with other children
  • verbal threats of sexual abuse
  • denial of adolescent’s pregnancy by family.

Possible signs of emotional abuse

All types of abuse and neglect harm children psychologically, but the term ‘psychological harm’ or ‘emotional abuse’ applies to behaviour which damages the confidence and self esteem of a child or young person, resulting in serious emotional deprivation or trauma.

Signs in children

  • constant feelings of worthlessness about life and themselves
  • unable to value others
  • lack of trust in people
  • lack of people skills necessary for daily functioning
  • extreme attention-seeking behaviour
  • is obsessively eager to please or obey adults
  • takes extreme risks, is markedly disruptive, bullying or aggressive
  • is highly self critical, depressed or anxious
  • suicide threats or attempts
  • persistent running away from home.

Signs in parents or caregivers

  • constant criticism, belittling, teasing of a child or young person, or ignoring or withholding praise and attention
  • excessive or unreasonable demands
  • persistent hostility and severe verbal abuse, rejection and scapegoating
  • belief that a particular child or young person in their care is bad or ‘evil’
  • using inappropriate physical or social isolation as punishment
  • domestic violence.

Remember, the above are only possible signs of abuse and neglect. The presence of these signs does not necessarily mean abuse and neglect has been, or is, occurring.

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 132 111 (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 FACS to have regard to any known wish expressed by a young person, including their opposition to the report being made.

If a parent tells you about child abuse

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 hours/7 day)

A parent or carer may disclose they have or could harm their child, or that another household member has done so.

Parents who physically harm or neglect their children or tolerate their partner doing so may still love their children. The behaviour may be due to a range of factors such as:

  • lacking a successful model of parenting and family life
  • having been abused as children
  • lacking an understanding of their child’s needs or of age-appropriate expectations
  • being overwhelmed by external stressors and unable to cope
  • expecting their child to satisfy their own emotional needs
  • being victims of violence themselves
  • not being able to control their anger or frustration, resulting in lashing out at their child
  • chronic illness, such as depression, or disability, which limits their ability to meet the needs of their children.

Try not to judge

It is important to suspend personal judgment about the parent. Do not either minimise or exaggerate their behaviour or attitudes. It is also important not to ignore the role of the parent or carer who has failed to protect their child or young person, or to prematurely regard them as an innocent party or a minimally responsible party.

Focus on the child

The reporter’s focus should remain on how the child or young person is experiencing the parental or carer behaviours, their particular vulnerabilities and any risk of significant harm. The obligation to report current concerns exists regardless of a parent’s remorse or their stated intention to seek help.

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Last updated: 10 Oct 2017
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