What Is Child Abuse & Neglect?

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation call Police on 000. If you wish to report a child protection matter, call the Child Protection Hotline on 132 111. If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues in this article, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

Child abuse and neglect includes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment which results in actual or potential harm to the child. In Australia, the civil child protection courts have a sole focus on the future safety of the child involved, whereas the criminal legal system determines the guilt and provides punishment for the accused.

Children who are abused or neglected are at risk of being subjected to multiple forms of abuse and neglect, with neglect and exposure to intimate partner violence, being a strong predictor for other abuse types. In Australia, all 4 types of child abuse (physical, emotional, neglect, and sexual abuse) are grounds for when a child needs protection. 

Physical abuse is mostly inflicted as "punishment" and is where physical force is used against a child that results in or has the potential to harm the child, including; hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning and suffocating. 

Emotional abuse is the inappropriate use of verbal or symbolic acts towards a child and/or a pattern of failure over time to provide a child with adequate non-physical nurturing and emotional availability, leading to damaged self-esteem or social competence. Parents may refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of their child's needs, prevent them from engaging in friendships and normal social experiences, use threats and intimidation to cause the child to perceive the world as hostile, deprive the child of stimulation and responsiveness that hinders their emotional and intellectual growth and development, and encourage the child to engage in destructive antisocial behaviour making them unfit for normal social experience. Exposure to family violence is a form of emotional abuse, increasing a child's risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse and suffering from significant disruptions in their psychological wellbeing, with similar patterns of symptoms to other abused and neglected children. Family violence commonly occurs with inter-related problems such as drug and alcohol misuse and mental illness. 

Neglect includes both isolated incidents, as well as patterns of repeated failure on the part of a parent or caregiver to provide the basic needs for healthy childhood development and wellbeing; health, education, emotional development, nutrition, and safe living conditions. If there are reasons the caregivers struggle to provide for their child's basic needs, such as poverty, courts may be reluctant to determine a child needs protection, and instead must support and assist the caregivers; and the parents have a responsibility to engage with and use these supports. 

Child sexual abuse is where children are involved in sexual activities that they  are not developmentally prepared, don't fully comprehend, and/or are unable to give informed consent to. The most common type is where the perpetrator is a family member of the child or an acquaintance of the victim or their family.

Where the perpetrator is a child or young person, remember that they are still developing, and while it's important to not deny the harm caused, it's crucial not to demonize the child or young person by labelling them as perpetrators or sex offenders, as shame can deter them from engaging with treatment and support with problematic sexual behaviours.

Professional help should always be sought if a child’s sexual activity is out of the ordinary for his or her age. Where jurisdictions don't have a diversionary pathway in place of a criminal justice response, most offences are dealt with by the criminal division of the children’s court. 

Online child sexual abuse is where permanent products of abuse (photos or videos) are taken of the child or young person and distributed online. They may resurface at any time, leaving victims with a lifelong fear of exposure. Material is often used in conjunction with threats, to  manipulate victims into silence about the abuse. Sexting is another form of online child sex abuse, where sexual photos or videos are sent in the form of messages to another person. Online child sexual abuse are international crimes dealt with in a Commonwealth and jurisdictional criminal legislation. 

Commercial child sexual exploitation includes producing and distributing child exploitation material, exploiting a child for prostitution in exchange for food, clothing, accommodation or drugs, more often to a third person, in exchange for sexually abusing the child, the abduction and trafficking of children within or across countries with the intent of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children in the context of tourism where individuals travel from higher to lower income countries for the purpose of sexually exploiting children.



Children may be at greater risk of maltreatment if they are under 4 years old or an adolescent, are unwanted or unable to meet parental expectations, have special needs or an intellectual/neurological disorder, or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Caregivers have a greater likelihood of harming their child if they had difficulty bonding with the child as a newborn, don't nurture the child, have been maltreated themselves, lack awareness of child development, have unrealistic expectations, low self-esteem, poor-impulse control, a mental or neurological disorder, are involved in criminal activity or experiencing financial difficulties. 

Other risk factors for child abuse and neglect include exposure to family breakdown or inter-family violence, social isolation and lack of support, gender and social inequality, inadequate housing, unemployment, poverty, alcohol and drug misuse, inadequate policies to prevent child maltreatment, social and cultural norms that promote or glorify violence towards others, support the use of corporal punishment, demand rigid gender roles, or diminish the status of the child in parent–child relationships. 



It's important to recognize the signs of child abuse, which may be physical, emotional or behavioral including:

  • broken bones or unexplained bruising, burns or welts
  • not wanting to go home
  • creating stories, poems or artwork about abuse
  • being hungry and begging, stealing or hoarding food

You should report suspected child abuse to authorities or the Child Protection Hotline. Some occupations such as teachers, doctors, nurses, and police, are legally required to report suspected cases of child abuse to government authorities. 



If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation call Police on 000.

If you wish to report a child protection matter, call the Child Protection Hotline on 132 111.

If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues in this article, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

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