The abuse of children is defined as an act by a parent or caregiver "which endangers a child or young person's physical or emotional health or development. Child abuse can be a single incident, but usually takes place over time.
In Victoria, under the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 a child or young person is a person under eighteen years of age." Such an act may take the form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or of neglect, or a combination of these.
There has been much recent publicity about the abuse of children by priests and brothers in the Catholic Church, but it is important and shocking to remember that most abuse of children takes place in family homes. Both men and women are responsible for physical and emotional abuse and neglect, more often against boys, but nearly all cases of sexual abuse are by men, mainly against girls, and these men can be fathers, older brothers, uncles, step fathers even grandfathers.
Recognising abuse sounds easy, but it can be difficult in all except the most obvious cases of physical injury and neglect. It is often a case of putting together signs of injury, behavioural clues, and explanations given by children and by their parents or caregivers. Despite recent pleas from the AMA for smacking to be outlawed, it is still legal for parents to smack a child in Australia, but the question is, when does a smack become physical abuse? With emotional abuse, it is a matter of how and when it happens, and how much is too much? Is it neglect not to take a child to the doctor when it runs a temperature?
There are guidelines for recognising signs of abuse, which as people who care about children, we should know, because they form the basis for us to respond by reporting our concerns to those who can act to assess exactly what is happening and act to protect children from harm. As members of the public, this is our responsibility, and all that is needed is that we have a genuine concern for the well-being of a child. Teachers, doctors, nurses and police are "mandated" (required) to report their concerns.
The effects of abuse are serious, and the longer the abuse continues, the longer and more serious the effects are likely to be:
- physical injuries, occasionally resulting in death or lasting disabilities
- emotional injuries resulting in difficulties forming attachments and relating to others, passivity or anger and aggression, behavioural changes
- self destructive behaviours
- alcohol and drug abuse
- offending against the law
The abuse of children is serious and the Victorian Government's Department of Human Services has a team of workers who respond to concerns from the community (parents, teachers, doctors, neighbours, you and me), assessing the seriousness of concerns and where necessary, intervening to stop the abuse. This intervention may involve putting the family in touch with services that can help the parents and children to manage better (Child FIRST), regular supervision from the Department or where necessary, the removal of abused children from the family home for varying lengths of time. In cases of physical and sexual abuse, police may also lay criminal charges against the perpetrators as these are criminal offences.
Victoria Police: Telephone 000 for cases of immediate life threatening risk to children
DHS: Office Hours: Ring appropriate regional office.
Afterhours and weekend: 13 12 78