School of Social and Political Science

New research will identify the prevalence of child abuse in Australia and its health impacts



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An Edinburgh researcher is part of a team that is identifying for the first time how many Australians have experienced child abuse and neglect.

Dr Franziska Meinck, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science (SPS), and colleagues in Australia have launched a national survey on child maltreatment. The team will use the data on the number of people who have experienced it to influence policy in Australia.

Dr Meinck is co-investigator on the Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS), led by Professor Ben Mathews of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and in collaboration with an international team of researchers.

The $2.8M study, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian Government, and the Australian Institute of Criminology, has three main parts, and is the most comprehensive national study in this field.

Dr Meinck said: “This really is a landmark study on child maltreatment in that it is nationally representative, uses extremely rigorous methodology and will allow us to calculate the cost of maltreatment for society. Similar studies across the world have shown how important these data are to influence local policy and practice to protect children.”

First reliable estimate of the prevalence of child abuse in Australia

The survey will be conducted with 10,000 randomly drawn participants, aged 16 and over from across Australia, who will be invited to participate by advance text message and then by mobile phone.

Lead investigator Professor Mathews said the results of the survey would generate Australia’s first reliable estimate of the prevalence and co-occurrence of all five forms of child maltreatment:

  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • exposure to domestic violence

It would also measure other major childhood adversities including bullying.

Professor Mathews said: "We have a strong focus on sexual abuse in childhood, including contact and non-contact acts, sexual harassment and online victimisation. This is particularly important given current national calls for better prevention of sexual violence.”

“Domestic violence experienced in adulthood is also a massive national issue, and so we are also generating national data about intimate partner victimisation including physical violence and multiple types of coercive control.

“So, the ACMS will produce the first reliable evidence from a study of the national population about both exposure to domestic violence in childhood, as well as the experience of intimate partner violence as an adult.

“We will also identify the ages at which child maltreatment is most common, and who most often inflicts these experiences.  This will provide evidence to help inform better ways to prevent abuse in future.”

The ACMS study will measure associations between child maltreatment and health throughout life, including assessing:

  • mental health
  • physical health
  • tobacco, alcohol and drug use

Professor Matthews added: “Our study’s strong focus on mental health is essential, because child maltreatment is the leading preventable risk factor for mental illness and substance abuse.”

“Overseas studies have shown people are willing to complete these surveys, and think it is important to assist with this kind of research. The ACMS is extremely rigorous by world standards.”

Translating findings to policy and practice

The research team also has a strong focus on engaging with government, non-government and community stakeholders to translate the study’s findings to policy and practice.

The study will be the benchmark Australian Child Maltreatment Study. The team hopes to conduct further studies to understand how to strengthen resilience and reverse the effects of childhood adversity. Initial results will be available in 2022.

Find out more

Read the full press release on the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) website.

See the Australian Child Maltreatment Study website.

Funding

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study is funded for five years by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, with additional funding and contributions provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Department of Social Services in Australian, the Australian Institute of Criminology, and QUT.