Understanding Child Abuse

What is child abuse?

In Australia, child abuse can refer to any of the following:

  • physical abuse (any deliberately violent behaviour such as slapping, shaking, punching or kicking)
  • emotional abuse (any non-physical behaviour meant to cause psychological harm, distress, isolation or fear)
  • neglect (any failure to provide a child’s basic needs, such as the inadequate provision of food, shelter, education, clothing or medical care)
  • sexual abuse (any sexual activity between an adult and a child)
  • exposure to domestic and family violence (whenever a child is involved in or is witness to physical or emotional abuse at home).

While most CAPS programs are designed to address all forms of child abuse, much of our work over the years has a particular focus on preventing child sexual abuse.

What is child
sexual abuse?

Any sexual activity between an adult (someone aged 18 or older) and a child (someone under the age of 16) is sexual abuse.

It encompasses a wide range of behaviours and situations. Offences can range from one-time occurrences to multiple experiences and can vary from non-contact sexual offences, such exposing a child to pornography, right up to forced sexual contact.

Whether it occurs face-to-face or online, the sexual exploitation of a child by an adult is always an abuse of power and is a crime in Australia.

What is the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Australia?

Statistics range from study to study, but it is estimated that 1 in 10 children are affected by sexual abuse to possibly as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys.


We know that child sexual abuse happens behind closed doors and it is estimated that up to 90% of cases are never reported. This means that the true prevalence of child sexual abuse in our society is likely to be much worse than it appears.

International research on child sexual abuse tells
us that:


of abusers are immediate or extended family members of the victim


of abusers know their victims and are in a position of trust with the victim or family


of victims will not tell anyone for at least a year


of victims will wait at least 5 years before telling someone about it

What are the signs
of abuse?

All forms of abuse can affect a child’s emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical well-being. Some typical signs of abuse include:

  • Untreated physical problems, such as sores, serious nappy rash and dental decay.
  • Poor standards of physical hygiene.
  • Bruising, scratch marks, burns or lacerations on the child’s face or body.
  • Explanations for injuries offered by the carer or child that are not consistent with the injury itself.
  • Bruising or bleeding in the genital area or the presence of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Sexual knowledge or behaviour inappropriate for the child’s age.
  • Learning difficulties due to changes in concentration, attention, memory, impulse control, and organisation.
  • Emotional imbalance, such as extreme moods, anxiety, depression, numbness, or being zoned out.
  • Difficulty forming relationships and trusting others.
  • Changes in appetite or disruptions in sleeping patterns.
  • Self-destructive behaviour, such as self-harm, the use of drugs and alcohol, promiscuity or recklessness.