Child maltreatment is pervasive in Australia, study finds
The Sector > Research > Allied Fields > Child maltreatment is pervasive in Australia and exists in multiple forms: new research

Child maltreatment is pervasive in Australia and exists in multiple forms: new research

by Freya Lucas

April 03, 2023
Image shows a girl in a hat with long blonde hair. She faces away from the camera, looking at a kite.

A survey of 8,500 randomly selected Australians has found that over 60 per cent of respondents had experienced some type of maltreatment in childhood, with many being exposed to multiple forms of abuse and neglect. 


The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) study is an Australian first, and is the work of Professors Daryl Higgins (Australian Catholic University ACU) and Ben Mathews (Queensland University of Technology QUT). 


Published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, the study connected with people aged 16 years and over, asking about experiences of each type of child maltreatment, finding the following prevalence rates of individual types of child maltreatment:


  • neglect – 8.9 per cent;
  • sexual abuse – 28.5 per cent;
  • emotional abuse – 30.9 per cent;
  • physical abuse – 32.0 per cent; and,
  • exposure to domestic violence – 39.6 per cent. 


Researchers noted that while the finding that over 60 per cent of Australians aged 16 years and over had experienced one or more types of child maltreatment, there was “even more to the story”.


“Traditionally, our view of child maltreatment has focused on the experience of individual types, without considering the possibility of their overlap,” the researchers noted in a piece for InSight Plus.


For Australians who experience any childhood maltreatment, experiencing more than one type is a common experience, with the statistics showing the six most prevalent combinations all included exposure to domestic violence – affecting one-third of the population.


“Although it is the most prevalent form of child maltreatment overall (39.6 per cent), exposure to domestic violence is much less frequently experienced alone (by 8.3 per cent of Australians) than in combination with other forms of maltreatment (31.2 per cent),” the authors noted.


There was four types of what the researchers term ‘family adversity’ which more than doubled the risk of multiple maltreatment, namely: 


  • parental separation or divorce;
  • living with someone who was mentally ill, suicidal or severely depressed;
  • living with someone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs; and,
  • family economic hardship.


Based on their findings, the research team suggested a number of public health strategies along with additional measures to prevent all forms of child maltreatment, including: 


  • Better support for children and parents in families at risk
  • Using trauma-informed culturally aware approaches 
  • Focusing on the needs of children
  • Coordinating services and approaches across multiples systems
  • Better support for adult survivors
  • Better support for children from a multitype lens.


Professor Daryl Higgins is Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia. Professor Ben Mathews is Principal Research Fellow in the School of Law at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia; a member of the Australian Centre for Health Law Research at QUT; and, Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, USA. 


To access the original coverage of this story, please see here. 

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button