More than a third of Australians don’t view child abuse as a big issue, despite thousands of children suffering harm and neglect across the country. And parents are even more likely to be oblivious to the extent of the risks.
In Australia, one child is physically, emotionally or sexually abused every 16 minutes, research from Save the Children also shows.
That means 32,000 children are abused every year, usually by adults they have been taught to trust.
Yet a new study from the child protection agency has revealed 35 per cent of Australians don’t see child abuse as a major issue.
Parents were found to be twice as likely to underestimate its prevalence, despite abuse happening most frequently in the family home.
- Read: ‘Child protection work is incredibly challenging’: Australia’s child protection services crisis
Toll of abuse remains long after childhood
Natasha Manricks, Save the Children’s family violence program leader in Queensland, said children can be impacted by abuse in all sorts of ways.
It could be they’ve witnessed their mother or another loved one beaten. Or they may have been victims themselves, such as through inappropriate touching or violence.
“These children are walking on eggshells and living in a state of toxic stress, which can change their brain’s development,” Ms Manricks told The New Daily.
She said some children respond to their trauma by getting into fights at school or falling behind in class, while others struggled to make friends or build trust with adults.
“Children don’t just ‘get over it’, nor are they too young to be impacted,” Ms Manricks said.
“They might have to step into adult roles to care for their siblings, miss out on education due to instability in the home or experience neglect due to violence.”
Damning findings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse show Australia is battling a child abuse and neglect crisis.
Dr Gemma McKibbin, a social work academic at the University of Melbourne, said even though child abuse was a “massive issue in Australia”, the crisis was often pushed under the rug in what she called “cultural denial”.
“It feels like such a sensitive subject that people don’t know what to do so they turn a blind eye,” Dr McKibbin told The New Daily.
“There are strong feelings attached to child sexual abuse in particular, which makes it very difficult to look at in a strategic and non-emotive way, and as a social problem that we need to solve.”
Men and boys are by far the biggest perpetrators of child sexual abuse – being the offenders in about 90 per cent of cases – and they are much more likely to prey on a family member or friend rather than a stranger in the street.
But as cases like the George Pell judgement show, boys are also victims – and the statistics might not be accurate because many may not speak up.
“It’s not only girls who are abused – boys are abused too, and there is so much stigma and for boys so it’s even harder for them to disclose it,” Dr McKibbin said.
“It takes an average of 25 years for victim-survivors to disclose if they were sexually abused … so it’s very difficult to respond in the moment.”
This week, Save The Children is launching a new campaign to raise $100,000 in seven days to mark 100 years of helping children.