The prevalence of child abuse and neglect

The prevalence of child abuse and neglect

CFCA Resource Sheet— April 2017
The prevalence of child abuse and neglect

This resource sheet provides an overview of what is known about the prevalence of different forms of child abuse and neglect for policy-makers and service providers. It provides an overview of Australian studies that have estimated the prevalence of the different forms of child maltreatment (i.e., physical abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment, exposure to family violence, and sexual abuse). In this paper the terms "child abuse and neglect" and "child maltreatment" are used interchangeably. To date, there has been no methodologically rigorous, nationwide study of the prevalence or incidence of child abuse and neglect. Therefore, this paper summarises Australian studies that have estimated the prevalence of different forms of abuse and neglect.

To inform the tables in this study, recent literature (from 2013 to 2016) was reviewed and compared with the existing data in the previous version of this resource sheet (2013). The most robust studies, both existing and new, from 2004 onwards were included, along with a meta-analysis that included most of the studies in this paper.

What is prevalence?

Prevalence refers to the proportion of a population that has experienced a phenomenon, for example the percentage of Australians aged 18 years and over in 2015 who were ever abused or neglected as a child. Incidence refers to the number of new cases occurring over a specified period of time (normally a year), for example the number of Australian children aged 0–17 years who were abused or neglected during 2015.

Although every attempt was made to identify recent Australian child maltreatment prevalence studies, it is possible that some were missed. If you know of findings that could be included in an update of this paper, please contact CFCA.

Australian research measuring the prevalence of child abuse and neglect

Australia is one of the only developed countries where there has been no methodologically rigorous, nationwide study of the prevalence or incidence of child abuse and neglect (Mathews et al., 2016) There are, however, a number of recent studies that have either measured one or two maltreatment types in detail, or have superficially measured all individual maltreatment types as part of a larger study.

In this paper we have reviewed ten such studies including a systematic review of Australian research into prevalence of four types of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional and neglect (Moore et al., 2015). It is important to note that the current research to date is “best described as indicative, rather than definitive” (Mathews et al., 2016, p.10).

For more information and definitions of child abuse and neglect see: What is child abuse and neglect?

Methodological issues involved in the measurement of maltreatment prevalence

There is wide variance in the prevalence estimates between studies. It is likely that the reason for this variance is differences in how the data were collected, that is, methodological issues. Four methodological issues that have a particularly strong influence on prevalence estimates are discussed below:

  1. Definitions of maltreatment: Prevalence figures can differ substantially depending on the definition of maltreatment that is used. For example, a broad definition of sexual abuse—one that includes experiences such as exposure to pornographic material or exhibitionistic "flashing"—will produce a much higher prevalence estimate than a definition that includes only the most severe and intrusive forms of sexual abuse such as molestation or rape.
  2. The measurement tool used in the study: Few scales or measures of abuse have been found to be reliable or valid (Matthews et al., 2016). Moreover, differences in the wording of questions or items can lead to dramatic differences in prevalence figures. For example, a question such as "Were you emotionally maltreated as a child?" requires people to categorise themselves as "victims of emotional maltreatment". Many people—especially males—will resist this categorisation even if they have been subjected to behaviours that constitute emotional maltreatment. Thenumber of questions that researchers ask can also have a strong impact on prevalence estimates. Peters, Wyatt, and Finklehor (1986) found that studies that asked four or more questions on sexual abuse produced the highest estimates. They argued that the shock associated with a single sexual abuse question could elicit an almost automatic denial in study participants.
  3. Method of administration: The way in which the questions are asked of participants can impact the likelihood of accurate and truthful answers. For example, the use of face-to-face interviews is associated with much higher prevalence rates than the use of self-administered questionnaires (Wyatt & Peters, 1986).
  4. The population from which the research sample is drawn: Different prevalence rates are found in different samples of people. For example, it is likely that higher prevalence estimates will be found among inpatients at a psychiatric clinic than in a sample of people randomly selected from the general community. Although it is preferable to use a sample of participants that represents the characteristics of the broader population (i.e., a "representative sample"), this can be very difficult to achieve. Many of the studies in this review acknowledge that their samples are not entirely representative. Further, most studies do not provide prevalence rates of abuse in subpopulations such as children with a disability, CALD children and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (Mathews et al., 2016).

A further consideration in terms of methodological rigor is the need to measure all five types of child abuse and neglect together. According to Mathews et al. (2016), the frequent co-occurrence of some types of abuse means that studies limited to a single type of abuse (such as sexual or physical abuse only) cannot capture the complexity of maltreatment, or its nature and context (p. 20).

How many Australian children are physically abused?

Physically abusive behaviour refers to any non-accidental physically aggressive act towards a child. Physical abuse may be intentional or may be the inadvertent result of physical punishment. Physically abusive behaviours include shoving, hitting, slapping, beating, shaking, throwing, punching, kicking, biting, burning, scalding, strangling, poisoning and suffocating the child (Butchart, Phinney Harvey, Kahane, Mian, & Furniss, 2006; US National Research Council, 1993)

For a further discussion of physical abuse and corporal punishment of children see our resource sheet Corporal punishment: key issues

Six contemporary Australian studies and one systematic review (encompassing some of the same studies) have measured the prevalence of child physical abuse within relatively large community samples. Prevalence estimates ranged from 5%-18%, with the majority of studies finding rates between 5% and 10% (see Table 1). The discrepancy between the two studies with lowest and highest prevalence estimations can likely be attributed to differences in the definitions of physical abuse.

Table 1: Prevalence of child physical abuse in contemporary Australian studies
 

n

Age

Sample

Location

Definition of childhood

Measure of abuse

Rates
%

Note: M = Male, F = Female
a Includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning poisoning and suffocating.

Chu, Williams, Harris, Bryant, & Gatt (2013)

1,209

18-70 years

Community - Self-selected

Adelaide & Sydney

0-17 years

Small range of questions (e.g., "Were you physically mistreated as a child or teenager?")

6.0

Rosenman & Rodgers (2004)

7,485
(3,674 M, 3,809 F)

3 age bands:
20-24 years
40-44 years
60-64 years

Community - Electoral role

ACT & NSW

"childhood"

(1) Self report of "physical abuse".
(2) "Too much physical punishment".

(1) 5.2
(2) 8.2

Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield (2010)

1,000
(390 M, 610 F)

23-24 years

Community -Longitudinal

Vic.

<18 years

Harsh physical punishment with effects (e.g. bruising) lasting at least until next day.

6.0

Moore et al. (2015)

 

Adults and children

Systematic review

Aust.

<15 to <18 years

Intentional use of physical force against a child that results in (or is likely to) harm the child’s health, survival, development or dignity a

Overall: 8.9

M: 6.7

F: 9.9

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012)

17,050
(3,743 M, 13,307 F)

18+ years

Community

Aust.

<15 years

Any deliberate physical injury inflicted upon a child by an adult. Discipline accidentally resulting in an injury was excluded.

M: 9.7

F: 10.7

Mouzos & Makkai (2004)

6,677 F

18-69 years

Community

Aust.

<16 years

Was parent/guardian "physically violent"?

F: 18

Reeve & van Gool (2013)

8,841

16-85 years

Community

Aust.

< 18 years

Were you “badly beaten up by your parents (guardian) or anyone else when you were <17y.o.?”

5.9 (plus 2.4 physical and sexual abuse)

How many Australian children are neglected?

Neglectful behaviour refers to the failure (usually by a parent) to provide for a child's basic needs. Physically neglectful behaviours include a failure to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene, medical attention, safe living conditions, education or emotional development (Butchart et al., 2006; US National Research Council, 1993; for a further discussion of definitions of child abuse and neglect see CFCA resource sheet: What is child abuse and neglect?). See the description of emotional maltreatment below for a definition of emotionally neglectful behaviours.

For a further discussion of neglect, see the CFCA paper: Understanding child neglect

Three contemporary Australian studies have measured child neglect in community samples. Prevalence estimates of neglect ranged from 1.6% to 4% (see Table 2). The studies with the lowest prevalence estimates (Rosenman & Rodgers, 2004; Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield, 2010) used a single item measure of neglect (“I was neglected”) that could have led to a conservative estimate (Peters, Wyatt, & Finkelhor, 1986). Further, while these studies were reasonably representative of the general community, their samples slightly under-represented those most at risk of experiencing neglect—people with a low socio-economic status.

Findings from an Australian systematic review (see Table 2) show a similar range to these three studies although more research is needed to comprehensively measure the prevalence of child neglect in Australia.

Table 2: Prevalence of neglect in contemporary Australian studies
 

n

Age

Sample

Location

Definition of childhood

Measure of abuse

Rates
%

Note: M = Male, F = Female

Chu et al. (2013)

1,209

18-70

Community

Aust.

0-17 years

Small range of questions e.g., "did you feel unwanted or emotionally neglected?"

4.0

Rosenman & Rodgers (2004)

7,485 (3,674 M, 3,809 F)

3 age bands:
20-24 years
40-44 years
60-64 years

Community - Electoral role

ACT & NSW

"childhood"

"I was neglected."

1.6

Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield (2010)

1,000
(390 M, 610 F)

23-24 years

Community -Longitudinal

Vic.

<18 years

"the care taken of you by your parent/s was the right amount (e.g., they watched out for you, fed you properly, gave you attention)"

2.7

Moore et al. (2015)

 

Adults and children

Systematic review

Aust.

<15 to <18 years

Isolated incidents or pattern of failure to provide for the development and wellbeing of the child in the areas of health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter and safe living conditions

Overall: 2.4

M: 2.0

F: 3.5%

How many Australian children are emotionally maltreated?

Emotional maltreatment can consist of both acts of commission (e.g., verbal abuse) or omission (e.g., withholding of affection or attention). Emotional abuse may include isolated incidents as well as a pattern of failure to provide a developmentally supportive and appropriate environment. Specifically, emotional maltreatment refers to inappropriate verbal or symbolic acts and a failure to provide adequate non-physical nurture or emotional availability. Emotionally abusive behaviours include rejecting, ignoring, isolating, terrorising, corrupting, verbal abuse, blaming, threatening, discriminating against, ridiculing and belittlement. Emotionally neglectful behaviours include the withholding of affection or attention and the failure to provide a child with the appropriate support, security or encouragement (note that these behaviours may be regarded as a form of neglect by some researchers) (Butchart et al., 2006; US National Research Council, 1993; for a further discussion of definitions of child abuse and neglect see CFCA resource sheet: What is child abuse and neglect?).

Three recent Australian studies and one Australian systematic review have estimated the prevalence of emotional maltreatment. Although the studies were all conducted with relatively large community samples, their prevalence estimates were quite different, ranging from 6% (Rosenman & Rodgers, 2004) to 17% (Price-Robertson et al., 2010) (see Table 3). This large range is likely due to differences in the wording of questions. For example, Rosenman and Rodgers defined emotional maltreatment using stronger terms (e.g., "mental cruelty") than Price-Robertson and colleagues (e.g., "humiliated"). The best available evidence suggests that the prevalence rate for emotional maltreatment in Australia is between 9% and 14% (per Moore et al., 2015 and Chu et al., 2013) More research is needed to comprehensively measure the prevalence of emotional maltreatment in Australia.

Table 3: Prevalence of emotional maltreatment in contemporary Australian studies
 

n

Age

Sample

Location

Definition of childhood

Measure of abuse

Rates
%

Note: M = Male, F = Female
a Includes restriction of movement, belittling, blaming, threatening, frightening, discriminating against or ridiculing and other forms of rejection or hostile treatment.

Rosenman & Rodgers (2004)

7,485
(3,674 M, 3,809 F)

3 age bands:
20-24 years
40-44 years
60-64 years

Community- Electoral role

ACT & NSW

"childhood"

1) "I was verbally abused by a parent".
2) "I suffered humiliation, ridicule, bullying, or mental cruelty from a parent".

1) 6.5
2) 5.8

Chu et al. (2013)

1,209

18-70 years

Community - Self-selected

Adelaide & Sydney

0-17 years

Small range of questions (e.g., "Did your parents ridicule you?")

14.0

Moore et al. (2015)

 

Adults and children

Systematic review of 23 studies

Aust.

<15 to <18 years

Isolated incidents or failure over time to provide a developmentally appropriate and supportive environment a

Overall: 8.7

M: 7.0

F: 9.1

Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield (2010)

1,000
(390 M, 610 F)

23-24 years

Community - Longitudinal

Vic.

<18 years

"... you experienced verbal treatment from your parent/s that made you feel embarrassed, humiliated or scared (e.g., shouting, name calling, threats)".

17.1

How many Australian children are exposed to family violence?

Historically, the impact of family violence on children has been expressed as children "witnessing" family violence, defined by Higgins (1998, p. 104) as "a child being present (hearing or seeing) while a parent or sibling is subjected to physical abuse, sexual abuse or psychological maltreatment, or is visually exposed to the damage caused to persons or property by a family member's violent behaviour."

More recently a substantial body of research has shown that the nature of children's exposure to domestic and family violence is manifold, ranging from witnessing (as above) to being directly involved in a range of ways, including being forced to watch or participate in assaults or intervening to stop the violence occurring (Campo, 2015). As such the contemporary understanding of children’s involvement in family violence is referred to as "exposure to family violence" (for a further discussion of definitions of child abuse and neglect see CFCA resource sheet: What is child abuse and neglect?).

Four community-based studies have estimated the extent to which Australian children are exposed to family violence. Prevalence estimates were from self-reported exposure, and ranged from 4% to 23% of children (see Table 4). The most likely source of variation in estimates is the number of questions used to measure the exposure to family violence. Indermaur (2001) (23%) and Chu et al. (2013) (14%) used multiple questions, while Rosenman and Rodgers (2004) (6%) and Price-Robertson et al. (2010) (4%) used only one question.

Table 4: Prevalence of the exposure to family violence in contemporary Australian studies
 

n

Age

Sample

Location

Definition of childhood

Measure of abuse

Rates
%

Note: M = Male, F = Female

Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield (2010)

1,000
(390 M, 610 F)

23-24 years

Community- Longitudinal

Vic.

<18 years

"... there was physical violence between the adults caring for you".

4.3

Rosenman & Rodgers (2004)

7,485 (3,674 M, 3,809 F)

3 age bands:
20-24 years
40-44 years
60-64 years

Community - Electoral role

ACT & NSW

"childhood"

"I witnessed physical or sexual abuse of others in family".

5.5

Chu et al. (2013)

1,209

18-70 years

Community- Self-selected

Adelaide & Sydney

0-17 years

Small range of questions (e.g., "Did you witness physical mistreatment of another family member?")

14.0

Indermaur (2001)

5,000

12-20 years

Community

Aust.

<20 years

Witnessing of a range of violent behaviours perpetrated against mother/stepmother ranging from "tried to hit" to "used knife or gun".

23.0

How many Australian children are sexually abused?

Sexually abusive behaviour refers to any sexual activity between an adult and a child below the age of consent; non-consensual sexual activity between minors (e.g., a 14 year old and a 10 year old); sexual activity between a child under 18 years old and a person in a position of power or authority (e.g., parent, teacher) or any sexual activity that a child does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to or for which the child is not developmentally prepared (Butchart et al., 2006; Higgins, 1998; US National Research Council, 1993).

Sexual activity includes fondling genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, exhibitionism and exposing or involving the child in pornography (Butchart et al., 2006; Higgins, 1998; US National Research Council, 1993).

For further information about the effects of child sexual abuse, see the CFCA paper: The long-term effects of child sexual abuse.

Ten contemporary Australian studies[1] have investigated child sexual abuse within community samples. Prevalence estimates ranged from 1% of all children for abuse by a parent (Rosenman & Rodgers, 2004) to 45% of females when a broad definition of abuse was used (e.g., including exhibitionistic "flashing" by a stranger) (Watson & Halford, 2010). It is likely that the wide variance in prevalence estimates stems from all four of the methodological issues previously discussed: definitions of maltreatment, the measurement tool used in the study, the method of administration, and the population from which the research sample is drawn.

The findings from four of these studies, including a systematic review of Australian research (Moore et al., 2015) are presented in Table 5 and summarised below. The studies selected include comprehensive measures that specified participant gender and the severity of abuse (e.g., penetrative versus non-penetrative). The ABS Personal Safety Study is also included in the table, as it specified abuse by gender with a large representative sample but not severity of abuse.

Studies that comprehensively measured the prevalence of child sexual abuse found that males had prevalence rates of 1.4-7.5% for penetrative abuse and 5.2-12% for non-penetrative abuse, while females had prevalence rates of 4.0-12.0% for penetrative abuse and 14-26.8% for non-penetrative abuse.

Table 5: Prevalence of child sexual abuse in comprehensive contemporary Australian studies
 

n

Age

Sample

Location

Definition of childhood

Measure of abuse

Rates
%

Note: M = Male, F = Female

Mamun et al. (2007)

2,578
(1,273 M, 1,305 F)

21 years

Community-Longitudinal

Qld

<16 years

A range of behaviours from non-penetrative (e.g., exposure to masturbation) to sexual intercourse.

M: 10.5 (non-penetrative)
M: 7.5 (penetrative)

F: 20.6 (non-penetrative)
F: 7.9 (penetrative)

Najman, Dunne, Purdie, Boyle, & Coxeter (2005)

1,793

18-59 years

Community- Electoral role

Aust.

<16 years

A range of behaviours from non-penetrative (e.g., try to sexually arouse you) to vaginal or anal penetration.

M: 12 (non-penetrative)
M: 4 (penetrative)

F: 23 (non-penetrative)
F: 12 (penetrative)

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012)

17,050
(3,743 M, 13,307 F)

18+ years

Community

Aust.

<15 years

Any act by an adult involving a child in sexual activity beyond their understanding or contrary to currently accepted community standards.

M: 4.2
F: 12.5

Moore et al. (2015)

Not given

Children and adults

Systematic review

Aust.

<15 to <18

Involvement in sexual activity that a child does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to or is not developmentally prepared for

Overall: 6.4 (penetrative)
M: 5.2% (penetrative)
F: 6.9 (penetrative)

Overall: 21.8 (non-penetrative)
M: 10.4 (non-penetrative)
F: 26.8 (non-penetrative)

Moore, Romaniuk, Olsson, & Jayasinghe (2010)

812 M,
933 F

24 years

Community -Longitudinal

Vic.

<16 years

Range of behaviours from non-contact (e.g., exposure) to penetrative (e.g., attempting or having sexual intercourse)

F: 13.9
M: 5.7 (non-contact)

F: 14.0
M: 4.6 (contact)

F: 4.0
M: 1.4 (penetrative)

Conclusion

This paper has reviewed recent studies that have estimated the prevalence of child abuse and neglect in Australia, and explained some of the reasons why these estimates can vary so significantly. Measuring the extent of child maltreatment is not an easy undertaking. Definitions of abuse and neglect differ from study to study. While some behaviours are considered to be abusive by almost all people (e.g., sexual abuse), other behaviours are more equivocal (e.g., exhibitionism, smacking), and their inclusion or exclusion in particular maltreatment studies can lead to widely divergent findings. There are also considerable practical and ethical difficulties involved in the measurement of maltreatment, which can influence prevalence estimates.

The variance in prevalence figures in research to date signals that care is needed when interpreting and discussing study findings. Meaningful discussion of the prevalence rates of child abuse and neglect precludes unqualified statements such as "X percent of children are maltreated." The behaviours that are being defined as maltreatment should always be identified and, given the limited data currently available in Australia, a range of prevalence estimates should be given. Popular conceptions of child abuse can differ considerably from the academic definitions used to generate prevalence estimates. When high maltreatment prevalence figures are presented to a general audience out of context and without qualifications, a sense of incredulity can be the result. This can counter efforts to raise awareness of child maltreatment.

Care should also be taken when attempting to ascertain an overall child maltreatment prevalence rate. Research has demonstrated that maltreatment sub-types seldom occur in isolation (e.g., sexual abuse is often accompanied by psychological maltreatment or physical abuse) (Higgins & McCabe, 2001; Reeve & van Gool, 2013). Given this high degree of co-occurrence, any attempt to calculate a single child maltreatment prevalence rate by simply adding together the prevalence figures of the individual sub-types will result in over-estimation.

Despite the difficulties involved in measuring the extent of child maltreatment, some findings emerged unequivocally from this review: all five types of child maltreatment occur at significant levels in the Australian community.

For an analysis and discussion of the recommended measures, sample and scope of a nationwide prevalence study of child abuse and neglect in Australia, refer to Mathews et al., (2016), Scoping Study for Research into Prevalence of Child Abuse in Australia.

References

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Endnotes

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012; Chu et al., 2013; Hayatbakhsh et al., 2009; Mamun et al., 2007; Moore et al., 2015; Moore, Romaniuk, Olsson, & Jayasinghe, 2010; Najman, Dunne, Purdie, Boyle, & Coxeter, 2005; Nelson et al., 2006; Price-Robertson, Smart, & Bromfield, 2010; Watson & Halford, 2010.

 

Authors and Acknowledgements

This paper was updated by Kate Rosier, Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Previous versions of this paper have been compiled by Debbie Scott, Rhys Price-Robertson, Leah Bromfield and Suzanne Vassallo.

The feature image is by Jordan Whitt, CC0 1.0 .

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CFCA Resource Sheet
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, April 2017.
Last updated April 2017

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