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The problems of child abuse and how to help solve them

By Anne Hampshire - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

The statistics

Each year in Australia there are more than 100 000 notifications to child welfare authorities of children who are at risk of abuse or neglect. That’s close to 300 per day and while the figure should be treated with some caution because definitions and recording policies vary slightly from state to state, Australia clearly can’t afford to ignore this widespread and serious problem.

The impact

We now have substantial evidence about the short and long-term impacts of child abuse and these include brain damage, chronic low self-esteem, problems forming relationships, learning disorders and aggressive behaviour. The youngest children are the most vulnerable, with the size of a baby making them more susceptible to fractures and bruising.

The impact of child abuse and neglect on schooling is profound. Abused children are likely to present schools with disciplinary challenges. They require considerable resources in terms of counselling and other special programs, and often leave school without formal qualifications. They’re far more likely than those who had nurturing childhoods to require psychiatric treatment or hospitalisation.


The risk of future delinquency, adult criminality and arrest for violent crime also increases for people abused and neglected as children. For every thousand neglected children in New South Wales, an estimated 25 per cent face charges in the Children’s Court. On average they have four or five years of involvement in crime, committing 11 or 12 break-and-enters a month during those years. They generate a huge community burden both as a consequence of their crimes and the cost of dealing with them through the justice system (about $55,000 a year per offender).

So the impact of child abuse and neglect on both individuals and the whole community is very significant. Addressing child abuse and neglect however is not just a job for specialists – it’s our collective responsibility.

How can we prevent child abuse and neglect?

The keys to preventing child abuse and neglect are to recognise that all families face some stress and to intervene as early as possible to support vulnerable families. It’s easy to think that child abuse and neglect is just a problem for ‘certain’ families. The reality is that parenting today is complex, challenging and a steep learning curve for many. A third of new parents for example, has never held a baby before; many families are far away from the support of their extended families and old friends; most parents are in the labour force - often working long hours; and 20 per cent are lone-parent families. Many families are also coping with domestic violence, poverty, alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness or a childhood history of abuse. All of these add to the stresses facing parents – by intervening early in the life of a child, hopefully these (and other stresses) will not become overwhelming.

The importance of the first three year’s of life

Apart from the intuitive wisdom of intervening early to prevent child abuse and neglect we now have solid evidence from a range of disciplines on the importance of the first three years of a child’s life. We now know that a human brain is only a quarter of its eventual size at birth and that much brain development occurs during the first years of life. We also know that how a brain develops hinges on a complex interplay between the genes we’re born with and the experiences we have.

Many researchers believe that early experiences have a decisive impact on the architecture of the brain – they directly affect the way the brain is wired – and on the nature and extent of adult capacities. It was previously thought that brain development was linear, with our capacity to learn and change growing steadily as an infant progresses towards adulthood. We now know that there are prime times for acquiring different kinds of knowledge and skills and that the first years of life are crucial. Studies of preschool children have shown that vital pathways in the brain are enhanced by the right kind of stimulation at the age of one or two.

Our new thinking on brain development is complemented by our knowledge that a positive parent-child relationship in infancy is a prerequisite for healthy emotional, cognitive and psychological development. Good relationships between a parent and child in the first three years of life provide the foundation for a resilient life. If a family is experiencing difficulties that impact on the parent-child relationship a child’s ability to thrive socially, psychologically and intellectually will be impeded.


Whilst the arrival of a new baby can be a time of great stress for families it also provides a window of opportunity, a time of hope where parents want the best possible future for their child and themselves. It is the most opportune time to begin working with vulnerable families to prevent the escalation of the stresses they face and thereby limiting the likelihood of abuse and neglect.

How do early intervention programs work?

Governments and community organisations are now focussing on early intervention programs as the most effective way of addressing child abuse and neglect. Extensive international research shows that getting in early to support vulnerable families during the critical first three years of a child’s life is the key to developing child and family resilience. This same research also shows that it is cost-effective – for the child, family and community.

The Benevolent Society, Australia’s oldest non-profit, has a long history of working with vulnerable families. Our early intervention programs have been operating for over fourteen years and are well known and respected throughout Australia. We like to start working with at-risk families as early as possible in the life of a new baby, or even during pregnancy. Our programs involve multidisciplinary teams and trained volunteers working with around 500 families each year to positively change the lives of young children and their families.

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This article is based on The Benevolent Society’s report Nurture or nightmare: Helping vulnerable families in the first three years of a child’s life, November 2000.

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About the Author

Anne Hampshire has a background in research, social policy, program development, advocacy and education. She is currently National Manager of Research and Social Policy for Mission Australia, a national non-profit organisation.

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