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What is child abuse?

WHO (the World Health Organisation) definition:

Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.

Report of the Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention,
29–31 March 1999, WHO, Geneva. (document WHO/HSC/PVI/99.1).

Catholic Professional Standards Ltd (CPSL) has been empowered to establish and audit the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards on behalf of the Catholic Church in Australia.

There are different legal definitions of child abuse in Australia. Most commonly, the categories of child abuse include sexual, physical, psychological, neglect, ill-treatment, exploitation and exposure to family violence.

Child abuse, when referenced throughout the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards, includes:

  • Physical abuse 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, shaking, throwing, punching, biting, burning and kicking;
  • Sexual abuse refers to a person who uses power, force or authority to involve a child or young person in any form of unwanted or illegal sexual activity. This can involve touching or no contact at all. This may take the form of taking sexually explicit photographs or videos of children, forcing children to watch or take part in sexual acts and forcing or coercing children to have sex or engage in sexual acts with other children or adults;
  • Neglect refers to a failure by a caregiver to provide the basic requirements for meeting the physical and emotional developmental needs of a child. Physically neglectful behaviours include a failure to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene or medical attention;
  • Psychological abuse refers to inappropriate verbal or symbolic acts and a failure to provide adequate non-physical nurture or emotional availability. Psychologically abusive behaviours include rejecting, ignoring, isolating, terrorising, corrupting, verbal abuse and belittlement;
  • Exposure to family violence is generally considered to be a form of psychologically abusive behaviour, where a child is 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; and
  • Grooming refers to a pattern of behaviour aimed at engaging a child as a precursor to sexual abuse. It includes establishing a “special” friendship/relationship with the child. Grooming can include the conditioning of parents and other adults to think that the relationship with the child is “normal” and positive. The process can take as little as a few days or as long as months or even years.

Definitions of specific categories of child abuse

The following section provides detailed information on the definitions of the five generally used classifications of child abuse. Detailed information is available as drop-down boxes under each of the subheadings.

Peer-on-peer abuse

When considering the specific categories of abusive conduct set out in the drop down boxes below, it is important that the reader understand that abuse committed by a peer upon another peer is equally abusive as that committed by an adult.  The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is equally committed to protecting children from abuse from their peers as well as adults.

The WHO states neglect:

… includes both isolated incidents, as well as a pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent or other family member to provide for the development and well-being of the child — where the parent is in a position to do so — in one or more of the following areas:
health
– education
– emotional development
– nutrition
– shelter and safe living conditions.

Neglect is the failure to provide the basic necessities of life. It is typically regarded as an act of omission or commission, and as such may or may not be intentional. Neglect is potentially serious and can have long-term developmental consequences for children.

The Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998, and the Crimes Act 1900, provide significant penalties against a person who neglects to provide adequate and proper food, nursing, or lodging for a child, or intentionally abandons or exposes a child under seven years of age to risk if it causes danger of death or serious injury to the child.

Neglect can take one or more of the following forms:

Neglect of basic physical needs

Neglect of basic physical needs occurs where there is a risk of significant harm or actual harm caused by the failure of parent or caregiver to provide for a child’s basic physical needs, such as:

  • food
  • clothing and hygiene
  • physical shelter
  • safety from harm — including issues of appropriate supervision.

Neglect of basic physical needs is the most well-known and recognised form of child neglect. Depending on the age and circumstances of the child, the focus is not simply and solely on the absence of safe physical care, adequate nutrition or appropriate clothing. Rather, the issue is whether the omission of such basic care needs has impaired or could risk impairing the child’s welfare, health and development.

Neglect of basic psychological needs

Neglect of basic psychological needs occurs when a child is not receiving sufficient or appropriate interaction, encouragement, nurturing or stimulation from their parents or caregivers. This form of neglect also refers to the persistent ignoring of a child’s signals of distress, pleas for help, attention, comfort, reassurance, encouragement and acceptance.

Without this care a child may not develop appropriate attachments with primary carers and others, significantly impairing their ongoing emotional, cognitive and physical development. These are important for participation in school, forming friendships, playing sport or participating in other recreational activities, and later, in employment and for raising their own children.

Neglect of necessary medical care

The neglect of necessary medical care presumes that risk of significant harm is likely to arise from a failure to provide for the required medical service or treatment. This can include the withholding or failure to provide essential medication for a child. For very young children the risk of significant harm in not receiving appropriate medical attention may be quite high.

Physical and behavioural indicators of neglect are often readily observable by people in close contact with the child — most particularly doctors, teachers, childcare workers, relatives and neighbours.

Neglect of educational needs

In NSW, a child six years to 17 years is of compulsory age and must attend a registered school (state or private) or be registered for home schooling.  Parents or other caregivers who have not arranged and are unable or unwilling to arrange for the child to attend a registered school or undertake home schooling are considered to have neglected the child’s educational needs, and may be reported to FaCS.

The WHO defines physical abuse as:

… the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in — or has a high likelihood of resulting in — harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity. This includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning and suffocating. Much physical violence against children in the home is inflicted with the object of punishing.

Physical abuse is harm to a child that is caused by the non-accidental actions of a parent or other person responsible for their care.  Physical abuse is often a particularly visible form of child maltreatment.  Acts such as beating, shaking, biting, and deliberate burning with an object, attempted strangulation and female genital mutilation are a range of examples of physical abuse or ill treatment.

The younger the child the greater the risk of catastrophic harm.

Caution has to be exercised in interpreting the cause of injuries. Bruising, bone and other injuries can also occur accidentally. Suspicions may be raised where:

  • the injuries relate to an infant or a child under two years of age
  • there is inconsistency between the presentation of the injury and the explanation provided
  • there are multiple injuries that appear to be of different ages
  • there is a pattern and/or an unexplained frequency to injuries.

Boundary between corporal discipline and physical abuse

In some instances, excessive discipline can constitute physical abuse and lead to criminal charges. The Crimes Act 1900 has been amended to limit the use of physical force to discipline, manage or control a child. Section 61 AA of the Crimes Act precludes force (other than in a manner that could reasonably be considered trivial or negligible in the circumstances):

  • to any part of the head or neck of a child, or
  • to any part of the body of a child in such a way as to be likely to cause harm to the child that lasts for more than a short period. 

The WHO states psychological abuse:

… involves both isolated incidents, as well as a pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent or caregiver to provide a developmentally appropriate and supportive environment. Acts in this category may have a high probability of damaging the child’s physical or mental health, or its physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. Abuse of this type includes: the restriction of movement; patterns of belittling, blaming, threatening, frightening, discriminating against or ridiculing; and other non-physical forms of rejection or hostile treatment.

Psychological abuse takes five main behavioural forms:

Rejecting:           
The adult refuses to acknowledge the child’s worth and the legitimacy of the child’s needs

Isolating:           
The adult cuts the child off from normal social experiences, prevents the child from forming friendships and makes the child believe that he or she is alone in the world

Terrorising:       
The adult verbally assaults the child, creates a climate of fear, bullies and frightens the child, and makes the child believe the world is capricious and hostile

Ignoring:            
The adult deprives the child of essential stimulation and responsiveness, stifling emotional growth and intellectual development

Corrupting:       
The adult “mis-socialises” the child, stimulates the child to engage in destructive antisocial behaviour, reinforces that deviance, and makes the child unfit for normal social experience.

Serious psychological harm can occur where the behaviour of their parent or caregiver damages the confidence and self-esteem of a child, resulting in serious emotional deprivation or trauma.

Serious psychological harm can lead to significant impairment of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, intellectual development and/or disturbance of a child’s behaviour.

Although it is possible for “one-off” incidents to cause serious harm, in general it is the frequency, persistence and duration of the parental or carer behaviour that is instrumental in defining the consequences for the child. Additionally, individual child factors can mediate the impact of psychological harm — such as age, intelligence, and resilience — as can the nature of support the child receives from others.

The WHO defines sexual abuse as:

… the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared, or else that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Adults and other children who are —by virtue of their age or stage of development — in a position of responsibility, trust or power over the victim can sexually abuse children.

Sexual abuse is any sexual act or threat to a child that causes them harm, or to be frightened or fearful. It covers a continuum from:

  • non-contact forms of harm, such as flashing, having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner, exposure to sexually explicit material or acts (including pornographic material), communication of graphic sexual matters (including by email and SMS)
  • a range of contact behaviours, such as kissing, touching or fondling the child in a sexual manner, penetration of the vagina or anus either by digital, penile or any other object or coercing the child to perform any such act on themselves or anyone else.

Sibling sexual abuse:
Sibling sexual abuse is when there is sexual activity between a child and a sibling that is non-consensual or coercive, or where there is an inequality of power or development between them.  Research suggests that sibling sexual abuse occurs at similar or higher rates to other types of intrafamilial sexual abuse.

Although consensual and (apparently) non-coercive sexual behaviour between similarly aged siblings may not be considered child sexual abuse, it is considered problematic and harmful, and professional intervention should be sought.

Online child sexual abuse:
Online child sexual abuse can cause additional harm to children beyond the abusive experience itself. Due to digital technology, offenders are able to take photos and videos of children being sexually abused with little cost or effort, and often in the privacy of their own homes. They are then able to communicate with other offenders via the internet and distribute their material online. These photos and videos are a permanent product of the abuse. They may resurface at any time and this leaves victims with a lifelong fear of exposure, exacerbating the damage. Offenders often use these images to manipulate victims into silence by threatening exposure should the child or young person ever talk about the abuse.

Online child sexual abuse may also involve sexting (sending messages with sexual photos or videos via a mobile phone or posting online). A decision about whether or not sexting constitutes child sexual abuse will depend on the particulars of the situation, including the ages of the children and young people involved.

Online child sexual abuse and child exploitation material offences over the internet are international crimes constituting a global problem. Online child sexual offences are dealt with in Commonwealth and jurisdictional criminal legislation.

Commercial child sexual exploitation:
Commercial child sexual exploitation includes:

  • the production and distribution of child exploitation material
  • exploiting children for prostitution (sometimes called child prostitution), which may involve promising money, food, clothing, accommodation or drugs to a child, or more often to a third person, in exchange for sexually abusing the child
  • the abduction and trafficking of children for sexual abuse purposes, which can occur within or across countries
  • sexual exploitation of children in the context of tourism (sometimes called child sex tourism) where individuals (generally Western men) travel from higher to lower income countries for the purpose of sexually exploiting children.

Domestic violence is any abusive behaviour used by a person in a relationship to gain and maintain control over their intimate partner. It can include a broad range of abusive and intimidatory behaviour causing fear and physical and/or psychological harm. Domestic violence can be physical assault, sexual assault or psychological abuse. It may also include behaviour such as restricting a partner’s or child’s social contact and financial deprivation.

Children are often the hidden victims of family violence, referred to as “silent, forgotten, unintended, invisible and/or secondary victims”. Children who are forced to live with violence are at increased risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse.

Family violence commonly occurs with inter-related problems such as drug and alcohol misuse and mental illness. These inter-related problems exacerbate and increase the risks to children in these families.

Domestic violence can cause physical and emotional harm:
Living with domestic violence can cause physical and emotional harm to children. Studies show that children who live with domestic violence are more likely to:

  • show aggressive behaviour
  • develop phobias and insomnia
  • experience anxiety
  • show symptoms of depression
  • have diminished self-esteem
  • demonstrate poor academic performance and problem-solving skills
  • have reduced social competence skills, including low levels of empathy
  • show emotional distress
  • have physical complaints.

Children can be physically injured or threatened within an environment of family violence. Children do not need to see violence to be affected by it. Recent research on infant brain development highlights the potential for serious harm occurring to the development of neural pathways in an infant’s brain when exposed to trauma such as domestic violence. Research has also drawn links between household violence and insecure or disorganised attachment in children.

Psychological harm caused by domestic violence:
The psychological harm caused by domestic violence may vary depending on the age of the child, the length of exposure to incidents of domestic violence, the nature of incidents of domestic violence, and the nature of any protective factors or influences available to the child and their family.

The following situations should act as a trigger to consider whether the child is at risk of serious psychological harm:

  • there has been a repetition or escalation in frequency/severity of household violence
  • the violence resulted in the need for medical intervention for any party
  • weapons have been used
  • police officers have intervened and an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) has been issued/breached, or the offender has been removed from the house.

The primary caregiver’s level of victimisation:
It is also critical to consider whether the caregiver’s level of victimisation is such that they are unable to act protectively towards the child and to note whether domestic violence coexists with one or more factors such as the hazardous use of alcohol or other drugs and/or untreated mental health concerns. Violence to Aboriginal women is reported to be 45 times higher than to non-Aboriginal women, with 23% of these women needing hospital treatment compared to 6.6% of non-Aboriginal victims.

The developing baby’s brain is most vulnerable to the impact of traumatic experiences between the seventh prenatal month and the infant’s first birthday. It is believed raised levels of cortisol, secreted during stress, may affect the development of a major stress-regulating system in the brain.

Remember: one indicator in isolation may not imply that domestic violence is occurring. Each indicator needs to be considered in the context of the individual situation and the presence of other indicators.

On 1 December 2018 the NSW Criminal Legislation Amendment (Child Sexual Abuse) Act 2018 came into force.  Included in the act was `a set of offences that criminalised an adult’s failure to report abuse and failure to protect a child from abuse.

Concealing child abuse offence (s.3416A NSW Crimes Act)

All adults in NSW are required to report information to Police if they know, believe or reasonably ought to know that a child has been physically or sexually abused.

A person will not be guilty of the offence if he or she has a ‘reasonable excuse’ for not reporting the information to Police.  Reasonable excuse includes having already reported the information to the Child Protection Helpline or the Ombudsman as an allegation of reportable conduct

The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment.

If the person seeks, accepts or agrees to accept a benefit in exchange for failing to report, the maximum penalty is seven years.

Failure to reduce or remove risk of child becoming victim of child abuse (s.43B NSW Crimes Act)

Diocesan employees, volunteers, contractors clergy and religious may have committed an offence if:

  • they know another diocesan worker poses a serious risk of abusing a child

      and

  • they have the power to reduce or remove the risk

      and

  • they negligently fail to do so.

It is understood that managers, supervisors, leaders are most directly affected by this section, as people in leadership positions would be seen to ‘have the power to reduce or remove the risk’.

The maximum penalty is two years imprisonment.

Antenatal harm refers to parental circumstances or behaviours during pregnancy that may reasonably be expected to produce a substantial and demonstrably adverse impact on the child’s safety, welfare or wellbeing.

Following are some of the grounds for believing antenatal harm may or will occur.

  • Where concerns exist regarding the mother’s ability to protect, especially if she is homeless.
  • Where alcohol or substance abuse is thought to be affecting the health of the expected baby.
  • Where the expectant parent(s) are very young with limited or no familial support.
  • Where the expectant parent is the victim of a pattern of domestic violence.
  • Where a previous child in the family has been removed because they have suffered harm or been at risk of significant harm.
  • Where a person who has been convicted of an offence against a child, or is believed by child protection professionals to have abused a child, has joined the family.
  • Where there are acute professional concerns regarding parenting capacity, particularly where the parents have either severe mental health problems or learning disabilities.
  • Where the child is believed to be at risk of significant harm due to domestic violence.

Information required to report abuse

Reporting suspected child abuse might be the first step in a process. Protective authorities require information. However, if you do not possess all the following information, you should still report your concerns.

The simplest amount of information required to make a report is:

Who did what to whom, when and where?

For more detailed information, review the following sub-headings.

  • Name of child (or alias) or other means of identifying them
  • Age and date of birth (or approximation)
  • If child is Indigenous — Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or both
  • Language, religion and other cultural factors
  • Name, age of other household children or young people
  • Address of child and family
  • School or childcare details (if known)
  • If child has a disability — nature/type, severity, impact on functioning
  • Services involved with child/family if known
  • Name, age of parents and household adults
  • Home and/or mobile phone number
  • Language, religion and other cultural factors
  • Information about parental risk factors and their link to a child’s risk of significant harm:
    • domestic violence
    • alcohol or other drug misuse
    • unmanaged mental illness
    • intellectual or other disability
  • Protective factors and family strengths
  • Capacity of the non-offending carer to protect the child
  • Any previous suspicious death of a child in the household
  • Do the parents know of report and their response

Where to report abuse and find support

Emergency:
If the child is seriously injured or in need of urgent medical help, the child or you are being threatened, or you just witnessed a serious accident or crime ­— stay calm and ring 000.

Criminal Offence:
If you believe a criminal offence has been committed against a child that does not warrant a 000 call, you should contact the local Police station. You can locate the local Police station online:
www.police.nsw.gov.au/about_us/regions_commands_districts/police_station_search

You may contact the Police Assistance Line:

P:   131 444 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week)

Child Protection (Risk of Significant Harm):
If you suspect on reasonable grounds that a child is at risk of significant harm, contact the FaCS Helpline:
P:   132 111  (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

If you are unsure whether the concerns you have constitutes risk of significant harm, assess the risks using the Mandatory Reporter Guide:
www.reporter.childstory.nsw.gov.au/s/mrg

Welfare and well being:
If the concerns for the child or child’s family do not constitute a risk of significant harm, there are a number of possible support services that may be of assistance to the child and their family, including:

The Family Referral Service (FRS), which brings together families, support services and community resources so that our children are safe and well. FRS works with all services to find the best supports for families and their children, and to improve its community resources:
www.familyreferralservice.com.au

The Human Services Network (HSNet) is a free website available to anyone looking for a service in NSW. The site is mobile-ready and works on any internet-enabled device including tablets and smartphones, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:
www.hsnet.nsw.gov.au

Reporting alleged abuse to the Office of Safeguarding:

If you believe a child has been the subject of abusive or neglectful conduct by one or more adults or the child’s peers, you must report them to the Office of Safeguarding:

P: 02 4979 1390 available during office hours Monday to Friday 

E: childprotection@mn.catholic.org.au 

For more information on the reporting time frames imposed on Diocesan workers, please refer to the web page on Diocesan workers’ obligations to report abuse, specifically the section titled Reporting Timeframes: