Victims of serious abuse and neglect need extra support to thrive
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > Victims of serious child abuse need help before school to be developmentally on track

Victims of serious child abuse need help before school to be developmentally on track

by Freya Lucas

June 14, 2024

The youngest victims of serious child abuse or neglect need support prior to school commencement so that they can be as close to developmentally on track as possible, new research from the University of South Australia has found.


Researchers used findings from both the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) and the birth registry to examine the lived experience of nearly 75,000 South Australian children (born between 2003 and 2014; mean age of 5.7 years; 50.7 per cent boys), identifying 1345 who had suffered substantiated abuse before starting school, 666 of whom had entered foster, kinship (usually with grandparents) or residential care.


Using AEDCs five developmental domains, the researchers found that those children who had experienced substantiated (proven) abuse or neglect prior to starting school were at high risk of being significantly delayed across all aspects of development prior to starting school.


For those children who had been removed from their family of origin due to abuse and neglect and placed into out of home care researchers found that they were:


  • 27 per cent less likely to be vulnerable on Physical Health and Wellbeing (including gross and fine motor skills, readiness for school, being tired or hungry);
  • 21 per cent less likely to be vulnerable on Language and Cognitive Skills; and
  • 19 per cent were doing better in Communication Skills and General Knowledge.


Despite the positive findings above, researchers also found that children who were removed from their homes were more likely vulnerable in other areas:


  • 14 per cent were more likely to be very behind in Social Competence (how they get on with other children); and
  • 20 per cent were more likely to display poor Emotional Maturity (ability to control their emotions, sense of wellbeing).


The study found that young boys, in particular, fare far worse than girls, and are more likely to be vulnerable on every developmental domain, at every level of child protection concern.


For example, across 2009 to 2018, 44 per cent of young boys with substantiated child abuse were emotionally vulnerable, compared with 21 per cent of girls with substantiated child abuse, and 14 per cent of boys with no child protection contact.


For senior researcher Professor Leonie Segal, the findings signal that more must be done during the first five years to help children with serious child protection concerns to be developmentally on track, especially boys.


“Being developmentally behind at the start of school is a predictive indicator of poor educational outcomes. It is also likely associated with poor emotional and social outcomes as a teenager or young adult,” Professor Segal said.


“If we don’t identify and respond to these risks early in life, these children will grow up within and perpetuate cycles of disadvantage.”


While placement in out-of-home care may better meet a child’s basic needs such as good nutrition, access to health care, sleep, and offer a more enriching and nurturing environment, the social and emotional outcomes for children who enter that system must also be considered, she continued. 


For researcher and PhD candidate Krystal Lanais the research highlights the acute need for professional therapeutic support for children in care.


“Removing a child from their birth family, in overriding parental rights, and separating children from their parents, is a serious and costly undertaking – and a last resort to address the most serious child safety concerns,” she said.


“And yet, it cannot be expected that out-of-home care will resolve deep-seated serious early life trauma, evident in social and emotional distress, without professional support.”


“This work confirms the unmet developmental needs in children with serious child protection concerns, and the urgency to provide appropriate, intensive services before school commencement, to give these children the best chance in life.” 


Noting the current policy and funding push to expand access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) across Australia, this research underlines the urgency of ensuring these most vulnerable children, who are known to services, have priority access to the highest quality, trauma-aware ECEC.  


Access the findings in full here

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