Child Abuse

Adventists value children and take any reports of abuse seriously. We are committed to making our churches, schools and institutions safe places for everyone, especially children.

The term "child abuse" refers to physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. The abuse can be a one-off event or an escalating pattern of behaviour and lifestyle over a period of time.

> Types of abuse
> Causes of child abuse
> Symptoms and consequences of child abuse
> Characteristics of sexual abuse offenders
> Sexual play
> Myths about child sexual abuse
> What to do if you suspect child abuse

Types of Abuse

Physical abuse may include beatings, violent shaking, human bites, strangulation, suffocation, poisoning or burns. The results may be bruises and welts, broken bones, scars, permanent disfigurement, long-lasting psychological damage, serious internal injuries, brain damage or death. Physical abuse of children is usually not limited to one physical attack on a child.

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behaviour that attacks a child's emotional development and sense of self-worth. It can be constant criticising, belittling, insulting, manipulating, withholding love, support or guidance.

Sexual abuse is the exploitation of a child by an older person, such as in rape, incest, fondling of the genitals, exhibitionism or pornography. It may be done for the sexual gratification of the older person, out of a need for power, or, for economic reasons.

Neglect is the failure to provide a child with basic needs, including food, clothing, education, shelter and medical care. Abandonment and inadequate supervision is also a sign of neglect.

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Causes of child abuse

There is no single cause for any of the four types of child abuse. Research suggests that, in general, child abuse occurs in an environment where several factors (individual, family, societal and cultural) are present.

Individual influences include: poor self-esteem and problem-solving skills, alcohol or drug abuse, ill health, unrealistic expectations of children, beliefs about the superiority of men and a lack of regard for victims.

Family influences may include the ways in which families communicate and solve problems, parents' belief in extremely harsh discipline, and domestic violence.

Community influences include: poor access to public transport and health services, housing difficulties, isolation caused by living in a remote area, and isolation as a result of cultural difference.

Cultural differences include: the high tolerance of Australians towards violence in sport and personal violence; violence on TV; and attitudes to or beliefs about men's sexuality.

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Symptoms and consequences of child abuse

Reactions to trauma will depend on the nature of the assault, age and life experiences of the victim, and upon the victim's relationship to the perpetrator (for instance, stranger, family member, authority figure, acquaintance).

There are some characteristic patterns of reactions to abuse within broad developmental categories.


Most children do not understand what has happened or is happening is abuse. They are not able to explain verbally the nature of their discomfort.

Symptoms may include:

  • Physical trauma to genital areas
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Fear of a particular adult
  • Withdrawal
  • Clinging behaviour
  • Refusal to leave home or unwillingness to return home (in case of incest)
  • Eating disorders, including loss of appetite, compulsive eating or food hoarding
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Nightmares
  • Bed-wetting and encopresis (soiling underwear)
  • Excessive masturbation
  • Regression
  • Frequent genital or urinary tract infections
  • Agitation
  • Hyperactivity
  • Unexplained gagging
  • Sexually suggestive behaviour or explicit knowledge of sexual acts beyond the developmental stage of the child
  • Somatic complaints such as nausea and vomiting

Children react strongly to the distress of an adult, believing they are at fault for causing this distress. It is important to remain calm and to phrase questions in an appropriate language. For example, a child can be asked if anyone has touched them, or forced the child to touch others, in ways that make the child feel bad or ashamed.

It is also important not to blame or judge the perpetrator to the child, because there is often love and loyalty involved. Many children do not want the perpetrator harmed, but do want the abuse to end.


Although able to verbalise the nature and circumstances of the assault, adolescents often keep information about victimisation to themselves, due in part to the nature of the feelings around their developing sexuality, independence and sense of self. Symptoms may include:

  • Depression
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Somatic complaints such as severe headaches, infections, muscle cramping and dizziness
  • Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia
  • Fear of pregnancy
  • Overly seductive or attention-getting behaviour
  • Multiple runaway
  • Overly restricted by parents or heavy household responsibilities (in cases of incest)
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Self-mutilation such as cutting, burning or tattooing the self
  • Substance abuse
  • Truancy
  • Drop in academic performance
  • Poor self-image as evidenced by dress, lack of cleanliness and grooming
  • Prostitution

Questions should avoid implications of "good" or "bad," especially as it relates to sexuality. Thus questions such as "I am surprised at your behaviour considering the nice family you come from" should be avoided at all costs.


One can say instead, "Sometimes a change in grades like this means that a person has some stressful things going on in their life. Is there anything distressing going on with you right now? Is anyone hurting or threatening to hurt you?"

Male victims in particular tend to believe that rape by an older victim should be seen as seduction rather than as a violation, regardless of their real feelings of anger, helplessness and loss of control. Assault by an older person of the same sex often causes painful and anxiety-provoking questions of sexual identity that must be handled calmly and without judgement.


Although we tend to think of victimisation as a discrete act, it is actually a process that precedes overt acts of abuse or assault by shaping and reinforcing a link between sex and violence. This process gives rise to many myths and stereotypes about sexual assault.

One consequence of these myths is to blame the victim. Although assault and abuse of adults are reported with increasing frequency, older adults, victims of colour, physically and developmentally handicapped adults, and male victims are still extremely hesitant about reporting to authorities or seeking help from social service agencies.

Although responses to rape may vary, people do describe certain feelings and behaviours consistently. The symptoms of what has been termed rape trauma syndrome include physical, emotional and behavioural reactions such as:

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Avoidance of the opposite sex
  • Fear
  • Phobic symptoms (ie. acrophobia)
  • Disorganisation
  • Depression
  • Disorientation
  • Self-blame and low self-esteem
  • Denial
  • Compulsive and/or eating disorders
  • Suppression
  • Nightmares and other sleep disorders
  • Guilt
  • Changes in lifestyle
  • Suicide attempts

Because many victims of childhood abuse reach adulthood without healing interventions, they too may exhibit various behaviour patterns and symptoms, which may include:

  • A history of abusive relationships
  • Multiple hospitalisations (physical and/or mental)
  • Chronic depression
  • Complete repression of entire portions of earlier life
  • Amnesia
  • Homicidal or suicidal tendencies
  • Multiple personality disorder
  • A pattern of multiple victimisations
  • Compulsive and/or eating disorders
  • Self-mutilation

It must be emphasised that it is a pattern of characteristics in a child, adult or family that can alert us to the likelihood of assault or abuse. Simply relying on a single behaviour is of little value in most cases. It is also important to remember that sexual assault takes on specific meaning to victims depending on their stage of development in the life cycle.


Indicators of physical abuse

  • A story that does not explain the injury
  • Inadequate, changing or conflicting history
  • Delayed or inappropriate treatment for a child's injuries
  • The presence of bruises, lacerations, swollen areas or marks on the child's face, head, back, chest, genital area, buttocks or thighs, or specific lesions such as human bites, cigarette burns, broken bones, puncture marks or missing hair
  • A child who shows signs of minor or sever injuries with increasing frequency
  • The presence of numerous injuries in various stages of healing


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Rates of Child Abuse

  • Over the four years 1999-2003 the number of child-protection notifications in Australia increased from 107,134 in 1999-2000 to 198,355 in 2002-2003.
  • From 2001 to 2003 the number of notifications increased in all jurisdictions except Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
  • The number of substantiations in Australia also increased over those four years, rising from 24,732 in 1999-2000 to 41,416 in 2002-2003.
  • Rates of children aged 0-16 years who were the subjects of child protection substantiations in 2002-2003 ranged from 1.8 per 1000 in Tasmania to 10.1 per 1000 in Queensland.
  • Between 2001 and 2003 the rates of children who were the subject of a substantiation increased in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.
  • Although the quality of the data on indigenous status varies between states and territories, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were clearly over-represented in the child-protection system. The rate of indigenous children in substantiations, for example, was nearly 10 times the rate for other children in Victoria and seven times the rate in Western Australia.

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Characteristics of a sexual abuse offender

Some 97 per cent of sexual-abuse offenders are heterosexual males.

Research indicates that offenders tend to molest on average many more than one victim during their "career."

Many offenders cannot stop offending unless they receive professional counselling. 

It is vital that abused children be able to tell their parents what happened, and that their parents in turn notify the police. Sexual-abuse offenders seem to have these common characteristics:

  • No close friends
  • Feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem
  • Cannot distinguish between feelings and action, and so can't control their impulses.
  • Are known to the child or have some sort of relationship with the child
  • The vast majority of reported abusers are adults, although a small number are juveniles, occasionally of a similar age to the child they are abusing.

Parent, including step-parents, de facto parents and foster parents, were the abusers in 64 per cent of cases substantiated in Australia in 1991 (Angus and Wilkinson, 1993). This means that children are more in danger from someone they know and trust than from a stranger.


There are some variations in this overall pattern based on the gender of the child and the type of abuse. For example, boys are more likely than girls to be sexually assaulted by someone outside the family (Young and Brooks, 1989).

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Teenage sexual abuse offenders

The majority of teenage abuse offenders are boys. They seem to share these characteristics:

  • No close friends
  • Unable to relate to girls their own age
  • Use sex as a way of releasing tension
  • Poor relationship or none at all with father

Please do not condemn all teenage boys, or cross them off your babysitter list. Before you hire any babysitter, male or female, get to know his or her family. Also become acquainted with any older friends your child makes. Be wary if the relationship becomes exclusive.


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Sexual Play

> Sexual play among young children is very common, and represents no danger to healthy development.

> However, if there is any coercion used - if a child is being held down, or unmercifully being teased for not participating - a parent should intervene.

> If there is an age difference of five years or so between the children, sexual play is inappropriate and may indeed be abusive.

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Myths about child sexual abuse

The community holds many myths about child sexual abuse. These myths conceal and deny the impact of the abuse. It is important to know the facts about child sexual abuse so that a constructive response to the problem can take place.

Myth 1: Children and adolescents often lie, make up stories and fantasise about being sexually abused

It is natural for children to fantasise and make up stories. We even encourage them to use their imaginations and be creative. However, in 95 per cent of cases of child sexual abuse, the children's statements have been found to be true (Faller, 1984). When students report child sexual abuse, therefore, we should assume they are reporting from experience and that the abuse is real.

Myth 2: Most child sexual abuse is committed by people who are strangers to the child

The evidence from notifications and disclosures is that most sexual abuse is committed by people related to and/or well known to the child. In fact, surveys have shown that 85 per cent of offenders are well known to the child (Sgroi, 1975). The danger of this myth is that it focuses on the relatively small amount of sexual abuse occurring outside the home, and hides the larger amount of abuse occurring within the home.

Myth 3: The victim of child sexual abuse is usually a teenage girl

Child sexual abuse happens to girls and boys of all ages. It can begin for the child at any age from a weeks old. Research suggests that the average age of girls experiencing sexual abuse is 9.8 years and boys 10.3 years. Some 75 per cent of victims are girls (Goldman and Goldman, 1986).

Myth 4: Mothers know, either consciously or unconsciously, that the sexual abuse is happening

Evidence shows that in most cases mothers do not know that the sexual abuse is happening (Finkelhor, 1986). Sexual abuse of children is rarely committed in front of a witness and is usually accompanied by threats and inducements to the child to keep it a secret. Often this is quite specifically "not to tell Mummy." This myth carries an inference that since the mother knows consciously, or should know through something like intuition, that the abuse is occurring, she should do something to stop it. It tends to sift the blame to the mother and away from the person actually at fault - the perpetrator. This is obviously unjust.

Myth 5: Incest occurs mostly in poor, problem families

The research consistently indicates that child sexual abuse occurs in all kinds of families irrespective of socioeconomic status, size or level of education (Scutt, 1983). There have been cases of child sexual abuse that have gone unnotified for some time because the family was not seen as the "type of family where that sort of thing happens." This attitude has, in the past, led to a greater proportion of reported cases of sexual abuse being from lower socioeconomic groups. There is now a growing awareness that child sexual abuse occurs across all strata of society.

Myth 6: Incest is an accepted part of some cultures

Anthropological research suggests that all present-day cultures have a taboo against incest. There is no evidence to indicate that incest is an acceptable part of any cultural group who reside in Australia. Claims that incest is normal for a cultural group serve to protect the perpetrators and to justify non-intervention by people who find out about the incest.

Myth 7: Incest reflects a caring relationship

When the incestuous relationship is deeply caring and loving, it is not harmful to the child is a myth. This myth serves the interests of perpetrators, not children. Many perpetrators report having loving, caring and affectionate feelings for the children they sexually abuse. Such feelings towards children are natural and acceptable; however, expressing them sexually is not. Children do not report the sexual advances as indicating love, care or affection, but rather report being afraid, angry, confused and unhappy. The fact that the perpetrator appears gentle, caring and loving to the child may, in the long tem, be one of the most damaging aspects of the incest.

Myth 8: Normal men need regular sex. The reason men are forced to have sex with their daughters is because their wives are denying them sex

No-one has the right to impose him/herself on, or to demand sex from, another victim, adult or child. Furthermore, research indicates that most abusive men have sexual relations with their daughters or sons in addition to, rather than instead of, their wives (and/or other adults) (Herman and Hirschman, 1981).

Myth 9: The man is sick: he's "depraved"

There is a certain comfort in believing that adults who sexually abuse children are psychotic, mentally ill and in need of psychiatric care. However, while the behaviour of the abuser may be deviant and abnormal, this should not be confused with his/her mental state. The research indicates that most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are of normal intelligence, with good employment histories and no outstanding psychopathology (de Young, 1981). Most are married me, holding down steady jobs, and from every class and background. In other words, they appear normal in their day-to-day lives (Williams, 1981).

Myth 10: Incest and sexual abuse only happens to bad girls. You just have to look at their behaviour: They all turn out bad sorts

This myth confuses cause and effect. While it is true that many sexually abused girls exhibit antisocial behaviour, such behaviour is generally the result of the sexual abuse rather than the cause. Many victims are socialised into seductive patterns of behaviour by their abusers. Most end up with extremely low self-esteem and their behaviour usually reflects this. There is also a false suggestion in this myth that the sexual abuse is the child's fault (it is happening to her because she is bad).

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What to do if you suspect child abuse

Go to a private place and talk to the child

Many children believe they are still keeping the offender's secret even though their eating and/or sleeping patterns have changed, or their behaviour has become noticeably regressive or different in some other way.

If you observe these behaviour changes and suspect the child has been sexually abused, ask him or her, "I'm wondering if someone has been touching you in a way you don't like or don't understand."


A child who has not been abused will probably react with surprise or disbelief that you could even think such a thing. If he/she has not been abused, but is behaving in a way that tells you something is wrong, asking if they have been abused may help them talk about what is really bothering them.

A child who has been abused may not admit it immediately. Remember they have been subjected to threats, bribes and extorted promises to keep the matter secret.

Confronted by such a question, the abused child may -

  • retreat from you
  • look at the floor
  • cry
  • show other symptoms of nervousness

At this point you might say why you are asking. "You've been having nightmares and you're not eating well. That's why I've been wondering if something is wrong." If you remain gentle and calm, the child may being to tell what happened, probably in a tentative, sketchy manner at first.

Believe the child

Children do not lie about being abused. They cannot imagine, on their own, such a thing. In a private, quiet place listen to what your child has to say. Gently ask questions such as, "Has someone been touching you in a way that makes you feel bad?" As difficult as it may be, try to remain calm. You may feel outrage towards the offender, but a child would probably interpret this reaction as your being upset with them.

Reassure the child

Tell them that they are right to have told you, that they have done nothing wrong, and that you will protect them from the offender. Reassure them by talking with them, holding them, helping them to get to sleep, whatever they need - for as long as they need. If the child needs you to be with them for the rest of the day, stay with them.

Call Child Protective Services or the Police

You must report the child's experience to either the police or Child Protective Services as soon as possible. Use your judgment as to when and how to call. Some children are vastly reassured by hearing an adult call to report; others are upset by this. In this second case, it will be best to wait until the child is otherwise occupied before you call CPS or the police. Either way, be sure to tell the child that a police officer, and a person from an agency that helps children, will be coming to hear their story.

Offer continuing love and support

The child may be burdened with guilt, feeling responsible for both the offence and all the difficulties attendant on them revealing what has happened. This feeling is magnified when the offender is a family member and the household is forcibly separated as a result of their disclosure.

Most often, the prosecutor's case against the offender is based primarily on the victim's statement. It may seem to both you and the child that too many repetitions of the story are required, or that the child is questioned too closely. Your job during this time is to be by the child's side, offering your constant love and support. You may need to reassure your child quite often that this process is necessary to make sure they and other children are sage and that the offender gets the help they need.

Protect the child's privacy

After the formal investigation by the police or the statutory body for children, siblings need to hear a brief, calm statement about what has happened. Other persons in the child's world - peers, teachers, relatives - can be told briefly and should also be asked to listen if the child wants to talk, but not to open any discussions themselves. Too many children who have experienced sexual abuse are treated as spectacles or as topics for gossip. Preserve the child's integrity as much as possible.

Get support for yourself

Besides experiencing fear and outrage over what has happened, you may feel afraid about the consequences of the disclosure, especially if the offender is a close family member, friend or church member. The child desperately needs your calm strength at this time. Seek professional assistance from those skilled in dealing with sexual abuse. You need to obtain emotional and professional support while you deal with this issue. Don't try to bear this burden alone.

REMEMBER: The responsibility for the abuse lies solely with the offender. The child is not to blame.

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