4906.0 - Personal Safety, Australia, 2016  
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CHARACTERISTICS AND OUTCOMES OF CHILDHOOD ABUSE

KEY FINDINGS

Approximately 2.5 million Australian adults (13%) have experienced abuse during their childhood. This includes 1.6 million adults (8.5%) who experienced childhood physical abuse and 1.4 million adults (7.7%) who experienced childhood sexual abuse.

New analysis of the 2016 Personal Safety Survey childhood abuse data found that:

  • The majority of persons who experienced childhood abuse knew the perpetrator and experienced multiple incidents of abuse;
  • The age at which abuse commenced varied depending on the type of abuse experienced. The average age at which the first incident of abuse occurred was:
    8.8 years for persons who experienced sexual abuse only;
    8.1 years for persons who experienced physical abuse only; and
    6.8 years for persons who experienced both physical and sexual abuse.
  • Persons who experienced childhood abuse were twice as likely to experience violence as an adult compared to those who did not experience abuse (71% compared to 33%);
  • Persons who experienced childhood abuse were three times more likely to experience partner violence as an adult than those who did not experience abuse (28% compared to 8.9%);
  • Persons who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to report having a psychological or physical disability at the time of interview, than those who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • As adults, persons who experienced childhood abuse tended to have lower levels of educational attainment, income and life satisfaction, and were more likely to report financial stress and poor health.

Note: Adult violence is defined as any incident involving the occurrence, attempt or threat of either sexual or physical violence since the age of 15.

The PSS collects information from men and women aged 18 years and over about the nature and extent of physical and sexual abuse experienced before the age of 15.


INTRODUCTION

The information presented in this article strengthens the evidence base to support and monitor the priorities under The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 (the National Plan).

Specifically, this article:
  • presents information about the prevalence and characteristics of childhood physical and sexual abuse in Australia;
  • explores the connection between childhood abuse and experiences of violence as an adult; and
  • analyses and compares differences in the socio-demographic characteristics of adults who have and have not experienced childhood abuse.


Measuring childhood abuse with the Personal Safety Survey

It is difficult to measure the prevalence of childhood abuse. Childhood abuse can take many forms, with definitions varying across different sectors of government, criminal justice systems, service providers and research organisations. Childhood abuse is also widely underreported to official authorities (Gilbert et al. 2009; Moore et al. 2015).

Although it is difficult to collect information about the current prevalence and characteristics of childhood abuse, the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) asks adults about their experiences of childhood abuse before the age of 15. In particular, the survey asks about the following forms of childhood abuse:
  • Physical abuse, defined as any deliberate physical injury (excluding discipline that accidentally resulted in injury); and
  • Sexual abuse, defined as any act involving a child in sexual activity beyond their understanding, or contrary to currently accepted community standards.

The PSS only collects data on abuse perpetrated by an adult, meaning that ‘child-on-child’ abuse is outside the scope of the survey. Because the PSS surveys persons aged 18 years and over, it does not provide estimates of the current prevalence of childhood abuse.


HOW MANY AUSTRALIAN ADULTS HAVE EXPERIENCED CHILDHOOD ABUSE? (Table 41)

An estimated 2.5 million Australian adults (13%) have experienced childhood abuse, including:
  • 8.5% (1.6 million) who experienced childhood physical abuse; and
  • 7.7% (1.4 million) who experienced childhood sexual abuse.

The 2016 PSS found that the majority of persons who experienced childhood abuse experienced one type of abuse only. Of Australian adults:
  • 5.8% (1.1 million) experienced childhood physical abuse only;
  • 5.0% (913,100) experienced childhood sexual abuse only; and
  • 2.7% (494,600) experienced both childhood physical and sexual abuse.

PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, By whether experienced childhood abuse, by type of abuse experienced
Graph image: PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, by whether experienced childhood abuse, by type of abuse experienced

CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDHOOD ABUSE

The 2016 PSS collected information from men and women about the characteristics of the first incident of abuse. This section presents data about adults who experienced childhood physical abuse only and childhood sexual abuse only, and where possible, data are presented for those who experienced both childhood physical and sexual abuse.

Age at first incident of abuse (Table 43)

Most adults who were abused as children experienced their first incident before the age of 10. The average age at which abuse commenced varied depending on the type of abuse experienced.

The average age at which the first incident of abuse occurred was:
  • 8.8 years for persons who experienced sexual abuse only;
  • 8.1 years for persons who experienced physical abuse only; and
  • 6.8 years for persons who experienced both physical and sexual abuse.

Number of perpetrators involved in the first incident of abuse (Table 43)

The majority of persons who experienced childhood abuse were abused by one perpetrator in the first incident. This includes:
  • 86% of persons (914,100) who experienced childhood physical abuse only; and
  • 92% of persons (842,000) who experienced childhood sexual abuse only.

Relationship to perpetrator(s) in the first incident of abuse (Table 43)

The majority of persons who experienced childhood abuse knew the perpetrator(s) of the first incident abuse. This includes:
  • 97% of persons (1.0 million) who experienced childhood physical abuse only; and
  • 86% of persons (784,400) who experienced childhood sexual abuse only.

PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER WHO EXPERIENCED CHILDHOOD ABUSE(a), By type of abuse, by relationship to perpetrator of first incident
Graph image: PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER WHO EXPERIENCED CHILDHOOD ABUSE, by type of abuse, by relationship to perpetrator of first incident
Footnote: (a) Excludes persons who experienced both childhood physical and sexual abuse, see Table 45. (b) Family members refer to someone who is a father, mother, step-father, step-mother, adult brother/step brother, adult sister/step sister, other male relative/in-law or other female relative/in-law. (c) A non-familial known person is a known adult who isn’t a family member, relative or in-law. This includes family friends, neighbours, doctors, teachers, childcare workers, and clergy.

For the first incident of childhood physical abuse, family members were the most common perpetrators. An estimated 81% (861,100) of persons who experienced childhood physical abuse were first abused by a family member, including 78% (824,300) who were first abused by a parent.

For the first incident of childhood sexual abuse, non-familial known persons were the most common perpetrators. An estimated 51% (467,500) of persons who experienced childhood sexual abuse were first abused by a non-familial known person.

Approximately half of persons (51% or 250,800), who experienced both childhood physical and sexual abuse experienced their first incidents of physical and sexual abuse by different perpetrator types.

Repeated experiences of childhood abuse (Table 42)

The majority of persons who experienced childhood abuse experienced multiple incidents. This includes:
  • 87% of persons (925,400) who experienced childhood physical abuse only; and
  • 55% of persons (505,100) who experienced childhood sexual abuse only.

Women were more likely than men to experience repeated childhood sexual abuse. An estimated 62% of women (406,500) and 40% of men (103,000) who experienced childhood sexual abuse were sexually abused more than once. Men and women were equally likely to experience repeated childhood physical abuse.

Almost all persons who experienced both childhood physical and sexual abuse (94% or 464,200), experienced more than one incident. This included:
  • 69% (339,800) who experienced multiple incidents of both childhood physical and sexual abuse.
  • 21% (104,800) who experienced multiple incidents of childhood physical abuse and one incident of sexual abuse; and
  • 3.7% (18,200) who experienced multiple incidents of childhood sexual abuse and one incident of physical abuse.

Experience of childhood abuse and witnessing parental violence (Table 46)

The PSS asks respondents if they ever saw or heard violence being directed at one parent by another before the age of 15. Violence in this context refers to physical assault only.

Of those who experienced childhood abuse, 40% (978,600) also witnessed violence towards their mother and/or father by a partner before the age of 15. This included:
  • 25% (617,700) who witnessed violence towards their mother only;
  • 4.5% (111,500) who witnessed violence towards their father only; and
  • 10% (248,300) who witnessed violence towards both their mother and their father.

Of persons who did not experience childhood abuse, 8% (1.2 million) witnessed violence towards a parent before the age of 15.



RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHILDHOOD ABUSE AND EXPERIENCES OF VIOLENCE

This section explores the connection between childhood abuse and experiences of violence since the age of 15. These results do not necessarily imply causal relationships; they identify associations between childhood abuse and adult experiences of violence.

Persons who experienced childhood abuse went on to experience higher rates of violence, partner violence, and partner emotional abuse than those who did not experience childhood abuse.

Violence since the age of 15 (Table 46)

Persons who experienced childhood abuse went on to experience violence as an adult at over double the rate of those who did not experience childhood abuse (71% compared with 33%).

PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, Whether experienced childhood abuse(a), by whether experienced violence(b)
Graph image: PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, Whether experienced childhood abuse, by whether experienced violence
Footnotes: (a) Experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15. (b) Experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. (c) The total number of persons who experienced childhood abuse and went on to experience violence as an adult, expressed as a percentage of persons who experienced childhood abuse. (d) The total number of persons who did not experienced childhood abuse that went on to experience violence as an adult, expressed as a percentage of persons who did not experience childhood abuse.

Of men who experienced childhood abuse:
  • 69% went on to experience physical violence as an adult, compared with 36% of men who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 14% went on to experience sexual violence as an adult, compared with 3.3% of men who did not experience childhood abuse.

Of women who experienced childhood abuse:
  • 61% went on to experience physical violence as an adult, compared with 24% of women who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 43% went on to experience sexual violence as an adult, compared with 13% of women who did not experience childhood abuse.

Partner violence (Table 46)

Partner violence includes violence perpetrated by a partner the respondent lives with, or lived with at some point in a married or de facto relationship (also described as a co-habiting partner).

Persons who experienced childhood abuse went on to experience partner violence at three times the rate of those who did not experience childhood abuse (28% compared to 8.9%).

PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, Whether experienced childhood abuse(a), by whether experienced partner violence(b)
Graph image: PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, whether experienced childhood abuse, by whether experienced partner violence
Footnotes: (a) Experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15. (b)Experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a co-habiting partner since the age of 15 (c) The total number of persons who experienced childhood abuse and went on to experience violence by a partner as an adult, expressed as a percentage of persons who experienced childhood abuse. (d) The total number of persons who did not experienced childhood abuse that went on to experience violence by a partner as an adult, expressed as a percentage of persons who did not experience childhood abuse.

Both men and women who experienced childhood abuse experienced partner violence at higher rates than those who did not experience childhood abuse:
  • Men who experienced childhood abuse were three times more likely to experience partner violence than those who did not experience childhood abuse (15% compared with 4.7%); and
  • Women who experienced childhood abuse were almost three times as likely to experience partner violence as those who did not experience childhood abuse (36% compared with 13%).

Partner emotional abuse (Table 46)

Emotional abuse occurs when a person is subjected to certain behaviours or actions that are aimed at preventing or controlling their behaviour, causing them emotional harm or fear. These behaviours are characterised in nature by their intent to manipulate, control, isolate or intimidate the person they are aimed at. They are generally repeated behaviours and include psychological, social, economic and verbal abuse.

Persons who experienced childhood abuse went on to experience partner emotional abuse at over twice the rate of those who did not experience childhood abuse (39% compared to 16%).

PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, Whether experienced childhood abuse(a), by whether experienced partner emotional abuse(b)
Graph image: PERSONS AGED 18 YEARS AND OVER, whether experienced childhood abuse, by whether experienced partner emotional abuse
Footnotes: (a) Experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15. (b) Experienced emotional abuse by a co-habiting partner since the age of 15 (c) The total number of persons who experienced childhood abuse and went on to experience emotional abuse by a partner as an adult, expressed as a percentage of persons who experienced childhood abuse. (d) The total number of persons who did not experienced childhood abuse that went on to experience emotional abuse by a partner as an adult, expressed as a percentage of persons who did not experience childhood abuse.

Both men and women who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to experience partner emotional abuse than those who did not experience childhood abuse. The rate of partner emotional abuse was:
  • 30% for men who had experienced abuse as a child, compared with 14% for men who had not experienced childhood abuse; and
  • 46% for women who had experienced abuse as a child, compared with 18% for women who had not experienced childhood abuse. 


SOCIO-DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS OF PERSONS WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED CHILDHOOD ABUSE

This section discusses the socio-demographic characteristics (at the time the survey took place) of persons who experienced childhood abuse. The results presented do not necessarily imply causal relationships; they identify associations between childhood abuse and various socio-demographic characteristics at the time of survey. It should be noted that a substantial body of academic research shows that childhood abuse contributes to social disadvantage and isolation, as well as a range of mental and physical health problems (AIFS 2014; Gilbert et al. 2009).

Disability or a long-term health condition (Table 47)

In the PSS, a disability or restrictive long-term health condition is defined as a limitation, restriction, impairment, disease or disorder that has lasted, or is expected to last for six months or more, which restricts everyday activities. The PSS does not collect disability status at the time childhood abuse occurred.

Persons who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to have a selected disability or long-term health condition at the time of the interview, than those who did not experience childhood abuse.

Of men who had experienced childhood abuse:
  • 29% had a physical disability compared with 19% of men who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 12% had a psychological disability compared with 3% of men who did not experience childhood abuse.

Of women who experienced childhood abuse:
  • 35% had a physical disability compared with 20% of women who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 13% had a psychological disability compared with 4% of women who did not experience childhood abuse.

Health, life satisfaction and social connectedness (Table 47)

In general, persons who experienced childhood abuse reported poorer health and lower levels of life satisfaction than those who did not experience childhood abuse.

Of men who had experienced childhood abuse:
  • 4.9% rated their health as poor, compared with 2.8% of men who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 11% rated their overall life satisfaction as 4 (or less) out of 10, compared with 3.9% of men who did not experience childhood abuse.

Of women who experienced childhood abuse:
  • 7.1% rated their health as poor, compared with 3.6% of women who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 9.8% rated their overall life satisfaction as 4 (or less) out of 10, compared with 3.6% of females who did not experience childhood abuse.

There were no differences in social connectedness between persons who had and had not experienced childhood abuse. Persons who had experienced childhood abuse were just as likely to:
  • Be able to ask for small favours from persons living outside the household; and
  • Have participated in social activities in the past 3 months.

Relationship characteristics (Table 47)

Persons who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to enter a cohabiting relationship that later ended, this was the case for:
  • 47% of men who experienced childhood abuse had a previous partner they no longer lived with at the time of interview, compared with 28% of men who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 56% of women who experienced childhood abuse had a previous partner they no longer lived with at the time of interview, compared with 31% of women who did not experience childhood abuse.

Education, income and financial stress (Table 47)

Persons who experienced childhood abuse tended to have lower levels of educational attainment and were more likely to receive government support. Of those who were abused as children:
  • 49% of men and 55% of women had completed year 12 or equivalent. The year 12 completion rate (or equivalent) for those who did not experience childhood abuse was 60% for men and 63% for women; and
  • 31% of men and 43% of women received a government pension, benefit or allowance. Approximately 22% of men and 34% of women who hadn’t experienced childhood abuse received a government payment.

Persons who experienced childhood abuse had a lower income at the time of interview than those who did not experience childhood abuse:
  • The median gross personal weekly income was $767 for women who experienced childhood abuse and $863 for women who did not experience childhood abuse. There were no statistically significant differences in gross personal weekly income for men; and
  • The median equivalised household gross weekly income was $1,176 for men and $1,052 for women who had experienced childhood abuse, compared with $1,370 for men and $1,279 for women who had not experienced childhood abuse.

Persons who experienced childhood abuse were also more likely to experience financial stress. Of men who experienced childhood abuse:
  • 14% were unable to raise $2,000 within a week, compared with 10% of men who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 24% had experienced one or more selected cash flow problems, compared with 13% of men who had not experienced childhood abuse.Endnote1

Of women who experienced childhood abuse:
  • 22% were unable to raise $2,000 within a week, compared with 13% of women who did not experience childhood abuse; and
  • 31% had experienced one or more selected cash flow problems, compared with 15% of women who had not experienced childhood abuse.Endnote1


CONCLUSION

This article examined the characteristics of childhood abuse in Australia by analysing information collected in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2016 Personal Safety Survey. This first time analysis found that persons who experienced abuse during their childhood were at increased risk of experiencing violence later in life. The analysis also found that adults who experienced childhood abuse were more likely to report lower levels of educational attainment, to experience financial stress and to rate their health as poor compared to those who did not experience childhood abuse.

To further the evidence base about lifetime impacts of childhood abuse, future research could analyse the developmental trajectories and pathways of persons who have experienced childhood abuse which may lead to further disadvantage as an adult.


ENDNOTES

Endnote 1: Selected cash flow problems are where, in the 12 months prior to the survey, the respondent could not pay electricity, gas or telephone bills on time; could not pay mortgage or rent payments on time; could not pay minimum payment on credit card; pawned or sold something because they needed cash; went without meals; were unable to heat or cool their home; sought financial assistance from friends or family; or sought assistance from welfare or community organisations.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

AIFS (Australian Institute of Family Studies) 2014, “Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect of Children and Adolescents,” CFCA Resource Sheet – January 2014, AIFS, Melbourne.

Gilbert, Ruth, Spatz Widom, Cathy, Browne, Kevin, Fergusson, David, Webb, Elspeth & Janson, Staffan 2009, “Burden and Consequences of Child Maltreatment in High-Income Countries,” The Lancet, vol. 373, no. 9657, pp. 58-81.

Moore, Sophie E, Scott, James G, Ferrari, Alize J, Mills, Ryan, Dunne, Michael P, Erskine, Holly E, Devries, Karen M, Degenhardt, Louisa, Vos, Theo, Whiteford, Harvey A, McCarthy, Molly & Norman, Rosana E (2015) “The Burden Attributable to Child Maltreatment in Australia,” Abuse & Neglect, vol. 48, pp. 208-220.