Interconnectedness of family violence and child abuse

What is child abuse and neglect?

19.5 There is no consistent definition of child abuse within Australia that is used in all jurisdictions and by all professions work with children and families. Holzer and Bromfield give a useful definition of the broad concept of child abuse or maltreatment:

Maltreatment refers to non-accidental behaviour towards another person, which is outside the norms of conduct and entails a substantial risk of causing physical or emotional harm. Behaviours may be intentional or unintentional and include acts of omission and commission. Specifically abuse refers to acts of commission and neglect to acts of omission.[1]

19.6 These authors note that, in practice, the terms ‘child abuse’ and ‘child neglect’ are used more frequently than the term ‘child maltreatment’.

19.7 A range of behaviours are generally included in child maltreatment. These include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment (including psychological abuse) and neglect. Exposure of children to family violence is also a form of abuse and is now recognised as such in some legislation. More often, it is included in the category of emotional maltreatment,[2] but in some jurisdictions, exposure to family violence is a category of abuse or harm in its own right.[3] Evidence also suggests that children often experience more than one of the subtypes of abuse or maltreatment.[4]

19.8 The legal definition of child abuse, and the threshold that triggers a reporting duty or allows intervention to protect children, is different across jurisdictions. All jurisdictions substantiate situations where children have experienced significant harm from abuse and neglect through the actions of parents. Some jurisdictions also substantiate on the basis of the occurrence of an incident of abuse or neglect, independent of whether the child was harmed, and others substantiate on the basis of the child being at risk of harm occurring.[5]

19.9 As Dr Leah Bromfield and Prue Holzer note, whilst there are some areas of consistency, the thresholds vary depending on the extent of harm, or risk of harm, that is required (such as whether harm must be of a ‘serious’ or ‘significant’ nature) and whether the definition focuses on the actions of the abuser, or the consequences of the actions.[6] For example, in South Australia a person should make a report to the relevant child protection authority when they ‘suspect on reasonable grounds that a child has been or is being abused or neglected’, whereas in NSW a person ‘who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child or young person is ... at risk of significant harm’ may make a report to the child protection agency.[7]

19.10 Each year the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) undertakes a comprehensive review of state and territory child protection and support services.[8] In the 2008–09 reporting period, the AIHW found that the number of children subject to a notification of child abuse or neglect, the number under care and protection orders and the number in out-of-home care all increased, and that Indigenous children were over-represented in all areas.[9] In particular, the AIHW reported that there were 339,454 child protection notifications recorded nationally in 2008–09, which was an increase of almost 7% from the number of notifications recorded in 2007–08 (317,526 notifications), and a 34% increase on the number of notifications recorded in 2004–05 (252,831 notifications).[10] The number of children in out-of-home care across Australia has doubled over the last decade—from 15,674 children in 1998–99 to 31,166 children in 2008–09.[11]

19.11 A report published in 2010 by the NSW Department of Human Services, shows that 26.7% of all children in NSW under 18 years were ‘known to DOCS’ in June 2009—an increase of almost 7% since 2005.[12] The most frequently reported group were children aged under 12 months, including unborn children. High rates were also recorded for preschool aged children. The lowest reporting rates were for children aged over 14 years.[13]

19.12 Few reports made to child protection authorities are substantiated following an initial investigation. Of the 339,454 reports made across Australia in 2008–09, the AIHW found that 54,621 reports—or about 16%—were substantiated, which was a small decrease of 1% from the previous year.[14] However, the rates of substantiation vary between the states and territories, and this partly reflects the different policies and approaches of individual jurisdictions to child protection matters.[15]

Family violence and child abuse and neglect

19.13 Studies suggest that between 12% and 23% of Australian children are exposed to family violence,[16] but some research suggests the figure may be higher. For example, research conducted by the Victorian Department of Human Services found that over half of all child protection notifications that were investigated and subsequently substantiated in 2001–02 involved family violence.[17] This reflects international research, which has put the figure for co-occurrence at between 30% and 50%.[18]

19.14 Children who live in families where there is intimate partner violence experience a number of negative outcomes, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, poor school performance, and higher rates of aggressive behaviour.[19] Dr Lesley Laing notes that research is emerging that shows children’s safety is especially compromised in situations where there is both family violence and child abuse.[20] Children in such situations are at increased risk of developing health and behavioural problems. These effects are likely to be more severe than for those exposed to only one of these forms of abuse, and can be played out in a number of ways:

the same perpetrator may be abusing both mother and children, probably the most common scenario; the children may be injured when ‘caught in the crossfire’ during incidents of adult domestic violence; children may experience neglect because of the impact of the violence, controlling behaviours and abuse on women’s physical and mental health; or children may be abused by a mother who is herself being abused.[21]

19.15 Family violence has also been shown to be a common factor among children who are victims of fatal assaults. The NSW Child Death Review Team notes that for children who died as a result of fatal assault in 2008, domestic violence was among the list of most common factors experienced on an ongoing basis prior to their death.[22]

19.16 Child abuse is an element of family violence and family violence may be an important factor in child neglect. For the victims, it is therefore difficult to separate these experiences. In this chapter the term ‘child abuse’ is used to refer to acts of commission. However, the focus of this Inquiry is on family violence. The interlocking nature of family violence, child abuse and child neglect and the emotional harm to children of violence against a person who is caring for them, means that definitional precision in the use of these terms is not always possible.

19.17 Statistics of prevalence are also hard to disentangle because of variances in state and territory practices for recording notifications of child abuse.[23] In particular, some states and territories record exposure to family violence as a separate and distinct form of child abuse, whereas others include these cases within the category of emotional abuse and, consequently, notifications of exposure to family violence are not necessarily separately captured.

19.18 Further, family violence towards a parent may affect the ability of the victim to parent effectively. As a solicitor with the Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit commented in a submission to this Inquiry:

How can you separate violence towards a spouse from parenting issues without acknowledging the impact of violence on parenting?[24]

19.19 Children and families are entering the child protection system with increasingly complex family circumstances.[25] In its submission to the Inquiry, the Children’s Court of NSW noted that, in its experience, where family violence is evident in care and protection matters that come before it, it is rarely a ‘stand-alone’ issue. In most care and protection cases involving domestic violence, the Court stated, mental health problems and parental substance abuse are frequently related issues.[26]

[1] P Holzer and L Bromfield, National Child Protection Clearinghouse Resource Sheet No 12: Australian Legal Definitions—When is a Child in Need of Protection? (2010), prepared for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1.

[2] For example, in NSW, a child or young person is at risk of significant harm if they are living in a household where there have been incidents of domestic violence and, as a consequence, the child or young person is at risk of serious physical or psychological harm: Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (NSW) s 23(1)(d). See also Children and Young People Act 2008 (ACT) s 342. For a discussion of the different definitions in state and territory child protection laws of when a child is considered to be in need of care and protection, see P Holzer and L Bromfield, National Child Protection Clearinghouse Resource Sheet No 12: Australian Legal Definitions—When is a Child in Need of Protection? (2010), prepared for the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

[3] Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 (Tas) s 4(ba); Care and Protection of Children Act 2007 (NT) s 15(2).

[4] R Price-Robertson and L Bromfield, National Child Protection Clearinghouse Resource Sheet No 6: What is Child Abuse and Neglect? (2009), prepared for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2.

[5] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2008–09, 3.

[6] P Holzer and L Bromfield, National Child Protection Clearinghouse Resource Sheet No 12: Australian Legal Definitions—When is a Child in Need of Protection? (2010), prepared for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1.

[7]Children’s Protection Act 1993 (SA) s 11; Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (NSW) s 24.

[8] The 2008–09 report is the 13th annual report.

[9] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2008–09, vii.

[10] Ibid, 12–13.

[11] Ibid, 16.

[12] A Zhou, Estimate of NSW Children Involved in the Child Welfare System (2010), prepared for the Department of Community Services (NSW). See also National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009–2021 (2009), especially 16–21.

[13] A Zhou, Estimate of NSW Children Involved in the Child Welfare System (2010), prepared for the Department of Community Services (NSW), 3.

[14] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2008–09, 13.

[15] Ibid, 16.

[16] R Price-Robertson, L Bromfield and S Vassallo, The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect (2010), prepared for the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 4.

[17] P Holzer and L Bromfield, NCPASS Comparability of Child Protection Data: Project Report (2008), prepared for the National Child Protection Clearinghouse, 19–20.

[18] T Brown and R Alexander, Child Abuse and Family Law: Understanding the Issues Facing Human Service and Legal Professionals (2007), 101.

[19] C Goddard and G Bedi, ‘Intimate Partner Violence and Child Abuse: A Child-Centred Perspective’ (2010) 19 Child Abuse Review 6.

[20] Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse, Domestic Violence in the Context of Child Abuse and Neglect (2003), 2. See also National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, Time for Action: The National Council’s Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, 2009–2021 (2009), especially 40–42.

[21] Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse, Domestic Violence in the Context of Child Abuse and Neglect (2003), 1–2.

[22] NSW Child Death Review Team, Annual Report 2008, 120.

[23] P Holzer and L Bromfield, NCPASS Comparability of Child Protection Data: Project Report (2008), prepared for the National Child Protection Clearinghouse, ch 11.

[24] The Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit Aboriginal Corporation, Submission FV 149, 25 June 2010.

[25] P Holzer and L Bromfield, NCPASS Comparability of Child Protection Data: Project Report (2008), prepared for the National Child Protection Clearinghouse, 19–20.

[26] Children’s Court of New South Wales, Submission FV 237, 22 July 2010. See also the discussion of compounding factors in Ch 1.