• Child abuse is defined as any act by parents or caregivers that puts a child or young person’s physical or emotional health or development in danger. This includes neglect.
  • Children may experience a range of emotional, psychological and physical problems and trauma as a result of being abused or neglected.
  • A referral to Child FIRST may be the best way of connecting vulnerable children, young people and their families to the services they need to protect and promote their healthy development.
  • The child protection system is responsible for investigating alleged child abuse and neglect, and determining the most appropriate care or support for the child. 
  • If you know about the sexual abuse of a child, you are legally required to speak up.

Child abuse is a serious problem. Too many children are physically, sexually and emotionally abused. Other forms of abuse include neglect and exploitation. When this happens it is up to adults to speak up.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, call triple zero (000). If you are concerned about the immediate safety of a child within their family, call the child protection unit within the Department of Health and Human Services closest to the address of the child ( business hours) or Child Protection After Hours Emergency Service on 13 12 78 after hours (toll-free within Victoria).

Child abuse or neglect

Child abuse can refer to a one-off incident or it can be a number of separate incidences that happen over time. Child abuse is defined as any act by parents or caregivers that endangers a child or young person’s physical or emotional health or development. 

In Victoria, under the Children Youth and Families Act 2005, a child or young person is a person under 18 years of age.

Abuse of children is not isolated to specific cultural or socio-economic groups although  although abuse is often associated with high mobility, a lack of parental education, loneliness, poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing or social isolation.

With physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, boys are somewhat more at risk than girls. However, there are more girls sexually abused than boys.

Children can be abused at any age. Some children are more at risk of abuse, for example, those under two years of age and children with disabilities. Sometimes abuse begins during adolescence when parents start experiencing difficulties in dealing with the adolescent’s behaviour and desire for independence. Child abuse may be directed at only one child in the family.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a child suffers or is likely to suffer significant harm from an injury inflicted by their parent or caregiver. The injury may be inflicted intentionally or may be the inadvertent consequence of physical punishment,physically aggressive treatment or the indirect consequence of family violence between the parents. The physical abuse injury may take the form of bruises, cuts, burns or fractures.

Both men and women commit physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Child abuse usually takes place in the home with someone who the child knows rather than with strangers.

Physical  indicators of abuse include:

  • bruises, burns, sprains, dislocations, bites, cuts
  • fractured bones, especially in an infant where a fracture is unlikely to occur accidentally
  • poisoning
  • internal injuries.

Possible behavioural indicators of physical abuse include:

  • showing wariness or distrust of adults
  • wearing long-sleeved clothes on hot days (to hide bruising or other injuries)
  • demonstrating fear of parents and of going home
  • becoming fearful when other children cry or shout
  • being excessively friendly to strangers
  • being very passive and compliant.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a person uses power or authority over a child to involve the child in sexual activity. Physical force is sometimes involved. Child sexual abuse involves a wide range of sexual activity. It includes fondling of the child’s genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or other object, or exposure of the child to pornography. Sexual abuse frequently commences with a process in which the child is groomed by the adult. This process may include the adult giving gifts or affection to gain the child’s friendship , build trust and dependence.

It is important to know that sexual abuse can be perpetrated by both men and women, toward both girls and boys.

Sexual abuse is not usually identified through physical indicators. Often the first sign is when a child tells someone they trust that they have been sexually abused. However, the presence of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy or vaginal or anal bleeding or discharge may indicate sexual abuse.

Possible physical indicators of sexual abuse:

  • itching, soreness, discharge or unexplained bleeding from the genital or anal area
  • torn, stained or bloodied underwear
  • recurrent urinary tract infections
  • unexplained pain in the genital area
  • bruises, scratches or other injuries around the genital area not consistent with accidental injury
  • complaining of headaches or stomach pains.

In child sexual abuse, one or more of these behavioural indicators may be present:

  • the child telling someone that sexual abuse has occurred
  • displaying sexual behaviour or knowledge that is unusual for the child’s age
  • experiencing problems with schoolwork
  • experiencing difficulties sleeping
  • having difficulties relating to adults and peers
  • sudden changes in mood or behaviour
  • regressed behaviour such as bedwetting
  • acting out behaviour – aggression, lying, stealing, unexplained running away, drug or alcohol abuse, suicide attempts.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs when a child’s parent or caregiver repeatedly rejects the child or uses threats to frighten the child. This may involve name calling, put downs or continual coldness from the parent or caregiver, to the extent that it significantly damages the child’s physical, social, intellectual or emotional development.

There are few physical indicators, although emotional abuse may cause delays in emotional, mental, or even physical development. Possible behavioural indicators include:

  • displaying low self-esteem
  • tending to be withdrawn, passive or tearful
  • displaying aggressive or demanding behaviour
  • being highly anxious
  • showing delayed speech
  • acting like a much younger child 
  • displaying difficulties in relating to adults and peers.

Child neglect

Neglect is the failure to provide a child with the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, medical attention or supervision, to the extent that the child’s health and development is, or is likely to be, significantly harmed.

Physical indicators of neglect include:

  • frequent hunger
  • malnutrition
  • poor hygiene
  • inappropriate clothing such as summer clothes in winter
  • left unsupervised for long periods
  • medical needs not attended to
  • being abandoned by parents.

Possible behavioural indicators of neglect in children include:

  • stealing food
  • staying at school outside school hours
  • often being tired, falling asleep in class
  • abusing alcohol or drugs
  • displaying aggressive behaviour
  • not getting on well with peers.

The effects of child abuse

Children may experience a range of emotional, psychological and physical problems and trauma as a result of being abused or neglected.

All forms of abuse are likely to result in emotional problems for the child, in particular, a lack of self-esteem and distrust of adults. The longer the abuse of the child goes on, the more serious the effects. Abused and neglected children are more likely than other children to be self-destructive or aggressive, to abuse drugs or alcohol, or become young offenders or homeless. In some situations, abuse and neglect may result in permanent physical damage.

Treatment and counselling services for children who have been abused help by working through the trauma and in reducing the effects of the abuse. The most serious effects are likely to occur when no one takes action to stop the abuse and to protect the child.

Reporting child abuse

We all have a responsibility for protecting the children in our community. The Victorian Child Protection Service is the government agency that is ultimately responsible for young people and children at risk of harm or in cases where families are unable or unwilling to protect them.

The main functions of child protection services are to:

  • investigate matters where it is alleged that a child is at risk of harm
  • refer children and families to services that assist in providing the ongoing safety and wellbeing of children
  • take matters before the Children's Court if the child’s safety cannot be ensured within the family
  • supervise children on legal orders granted by the Children’s Court
  • provide and fund accommodation services, specialist support services, and adoption and permanent care to children and adolescents in need.

To help vulnerable children and families, the Department of Health & Human Services funds 24 Child FIRST sites across Victoria.

Child FIRST is not Child Protection. Child FIRST sites provide an entry point into support services for vulnerable children up to 17 years old and their families. 

Making a referral to Child FIRST

A referral to Child FIRST may be the best way of connecting vulnerable children, young people and their families to the services they need to protect and promote their healthy development.

Families that exhibit any of the following factors may benefit from a referral to Child FIRST:

  • conflict or family breakdown
  • pressure because of a family member’s physical or mental illness, substance abuse, disability or bereavement
  • social or economic disadvantage that may affect a child’s care or development
  • substantial parenting problems that could be affecting the child's development
  • families that are young, isolated or unsupported. 

It may be difficult to determine whether the risk is such that the child needs protection. Many circumstances will not fit neatly into one of the above categories. Answering the following questions may help you decide what to do:

  • How vulnerable is the child? What makes you think that?
  • Has something specific happened to the child that has caused you to be concerned?
  • What is the likely impact of the child’s circumstances on their safety, health, wellbeing and development?
  • Is this an ongoing issue? Have there been other instances of concern with this child or other children in the family?
  • Are the parents willing and able to connect with support services for the sake of the child?
  • With support, could the parents be capable of ensuring the child’s safety? Could they gain the knowledge and skills to promote the child’s health, wellbeing and development?
If after you have asked yourself these questions you feel there is even a moderate risk to the child, it is best to report it. If the immediate safety of the child is in danger, you should always call triple zero (000). 

Once they receive your call, Child FIRST will conduct an assessment of the family. This may lead to involving a local family services organisation or a referral to Child Protection. Child FIRST will usually let you know the outcome of the assessment.

Anyone with a concern for a child or family can make a referral to Child FIRST. To find your local service, enter your postcode below or for urgent situations, call the Child Protection Crisis Line on 13 12 78.

Find information on Child and family services information, referral and support teams.

Mandatory reporting of child abuse

Some professionals such as doctors, nurses, police and school teachers are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse. In addition, any person who believes on reasonable grounds that a child needs protection can make a report to the Victorian Child Protection Service. It is the child protection practitioner's job to assess and, where necessary, further investigate if a child or young person is at risk of harm.

Legislation came into effect in 2014, making it illegal to stay quiet about child sexual abuse. Any adult who reasonably believes that a sexual offence has been committed in Victoria by an adult against a child (aged under 16) must disclose that information to police. The offence applies to all adults in Victoria, not just professionals who work with children, unless they have a reasonable excuse.

Where to get help 

  • Child Protection Crisis Line, call 13 12 78
  • In an emergency, call triple zero (000)

More information

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Department of Health and Human Services

Last updated: September 2015

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