Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS)
The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) is a significant and landmark study for Australia that provides the first nationally representative data on the prevalence of child maltreatment in the country. The study collected data from 8,500 randomly selected Australians aged 16-65 years and older, including an oversample of 3,500 young people aged 16-24 years about their experiences of maltreatment.
Aims of the Study
Child maltreatment is defined as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence.
This study’s findings are critically important. They provide a much-needed evidence base to inform targeted and effective approaches to:
- preventing and addressing child maltreatment,
- reducing its associated health consequences, and
- improving the well-being of children and families.
Prior to this study, there was a lack of reliable evidence at the population level about the prevalence and characteristics of different types of child maltreatment, as well as the associated consequences to mental and physical health, and health risk behaviours. The study aimed to address these gaps by conducting the first comprehensive nationwide study of child maltreatment prevalence, characteristics, and outcomes.
The ACMS is a cross-sectional survey study of people in Australia aged 16 years or more about their childhood maltreatment experiences and health. The study oversampled young people (16–24 years) to provide a large baseline database with which the results of subsequent ACMS waves can be compared to assess changes in prevalence concomitant with policy, societal, and legal changes. The ACMS is conducted in accordance with the highest ethical and legal principles and scientific standard.
Child maltreatment is widespread in Australia and associated with early and persistent harm. The study identified high prevalence rates of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and exposure to domestic violence across the population.
The study also found that child maltreatment is associated with severe mental health problems, behavioural harms, and health risk behaviors both in childhood and adulthood. Emotional abuse was found to be particularly harmful and more damaging than previously understood.
Findings from the study conclude that child maltreatment is endemic in Australia, with high prevalence rates of each type of maltreatment:
- 32.0% across the population (31.5% of women and 32.1% of men).
- 28.2% for young people aged 16-24.
- 28.5% across the population (37.3% of women and 18.8% of men).
- 25.7% for young people aged 16-24.
- 30.9% across the population (35.6% for women and 25.4% for men).
- 34.6% for young people aged 16-24.
- 8.9% across the population (10.8% of women and 6.7% men).
- 10.3% for young people aged 16-24.
Exposure to domestic violence:
- 39.6% across the population (40.8% women and 38% of men).
- 43.8% for young people aged 16-24.
Chronic, Multi-type Maltreatment
The study also found that most maltreated children experience multi-type maltreatment (i.e., combinations of different types), with 39.4% of people across the Australian population having experienced multi-type maltreatment and 23.3% having experienced 3-5 different types. For young people aged 16-24, the rate of multi-type maltreatment was 40.2%. When child maltreatment happens, it is rarely an isolated occasion, with the experiences often being extremely chronic, occurring over many years and occurring multiple times.
A Gendered Problem
The study also found that child maltreatment is a gendered problem that disproportionately affects girls. Larger proportions of women than of men reported neglect and emotional abuse during childhood, and twice as many women as men reported sexual abuse. The reported prevalence of physical abuse and exposure to domestic violence was similar for women and men. The proportions of the 126 gender- diverse respondents (ninety aged 16– 24 years) who reported each type of maltreatment were larger than for other respondents.
What does this mean for the sector?
The findings of the ACMS provide a deep understanding of the prevalence, context, and impact of child abuse and neglect in Australia. It highlights the urgent need for nation-building reform to better protect Australian children and reduce associated costs to individuals, families, communities, and broader society. The findings will inform evidence-based approaches required to reduce child maltreatment in Australia and provide additional evidence to inform governments and stakeholders about optimal prevention policy and practice.
What does this mean for practitioners?
The Australian Child Maltreatment Study provides valuable transferable learnings to practitioners in the child and family services sector. Practitioners can use these learnings to inform their practice and policy development, promote positive outcomes for children and families, and improve the effectiveness of child protection and family support services.
- The Tri-Peaks Partnership Webinar Series – An update on the first Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS) presented by Professor Ben Mathews (QUT) and Professor Daryl Higgins (ACU). The Tri-Peaks Partnership includes the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA) , and the Victorian Healthcare Association (VHA). Tri-Peaks webinars are chosen to reflect cross-sectoral interests, facilitate access to critical research and data, and share sector insights and linkages. This session provides insights into the ACMS.
- The Australian Childhood Maltreatment Study (ACMS) website. The ACMS, in partnership with the National Health and Medical Research Council, The Social Research Centre, and the Australian Government, provides a layperson summary of key findings and a series of infographics have been created for sharing with those interested.
- For the full scientific findings see Ben Mathews (et al) 2023, The Australian Child Maltreatment Study, Medical Journal of Australia, Vol 218, No 6.