Child Abuse Remains Unseen and Ignored

This ‘Child Abuse Remains Unseen and Ignored’ blog article was written by Dr Joe Tucci, CEO at the Australian Childhood Foundation and Janise Mitchell, Deputy CEO at the Australian Childhood Foundation and Director of the Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care. Click here to read the full Still Unseen and Ignored report and to learn more.


As early as 1966 in the Medical Journal of Australia, Drs Robert and John Birrell, wrote one of the first papers in the world to bring to light the overwhelming extent of children who were being physically abused and neglected in Australia. The two brothers were pioneer advocates for the safety of children. Robert was a pediatrician working at the Royal Children’s Hospital and John was Victoria’s first Police surgeon.

John died in 1993. Sadly, Robert recently passed away in June 2021.

Prophetically, they wrote back then:

“…We realised very early that one of the main reasons why the maltreatment

syndrome is not well recognised is the general attitude of disbelief and incredulity

that people would or could do such things to little children. The attitude is widespread,

extending to housewife, doctor, lawyer and even policeman. The hospital staff…tend

often not to think of violence, particularly when faced by a neatly dressed and

plausible husband or wife…Recognition of the “Battered Child Syndrome” is naturally

the crux of any program of prevention… (Birrell and Birrell, p.1137)”.


In 2003, the Australian Childhood Foundation began what has become the world’s longest running community tracking research examining the attitudes and perceptions of Australians about child abuse and child protection. This report is the fourth in this ground breaking series which has been running for almost two decades (Tucci, Mitchell and Goddard, 2003, 2006, 2010).

The 2021 findings demonstrate that nothing has changed in terms of public attitudes towards child abuse. Not only is there a lack of awareness of the issues that children face, but also a lack of belief of children who disclose abuse. There are still prevailing attitudes that stop people from stepping up to keep children safe.

The community at large remains ambivalent about trusting children and lacks the basic building blocks required to prevent child abuse or to adequately act to protect children from abuse and neglect. Despite the overwhelming majority of respondents (85%) knowing the harmful implications of not believing a child’s disclosure of abuse, this survey confirmed previous findings that two-thirds (67%) of respondents believe that children make up stories about being abused or are uncertain whether to believe children when they disclosed being abused. This remains a devastating result for children and means that children only have a 1 in 3 chance of finding an adult who will believe their them when disclosing they are being abused or violated. It is far more likely that children will not be believed or in fact perceived as lying. 

There are still a significant proportion of adults who do not perceive they have a role in taking action to protect children from abuse. Continuing to be influenced by powerful and inaccurate myths and beliefs, adults across our community still believe that children lie when they disclose abuse, child abuse only happens in poor or disadvantaged families, outsiders should not interfere into the private lives of families, and that children are to blame for the abusive behaviour of adults, therefore leaving them less deserving of our protection.

Other results include:

  • In 2021, child abuse rates lower than problems with public transport and roads on a list of community concerns.
  • In 2021, 7 in 10 of respondents could not remember seeing or hearing anything about child abuse in the media in the past 12 months.
  • In 2021, 54% were so poorly informed that they could not even hazard a guess at the number of reports of child abuse were received last year in Australia.
  • 1 in 5 (22%) were not confident about knowing what to do if they suspected that a child was being abused or neglected.
  • 1 in 5 (22%) were not confident of being able to recognise that a child was being abused or neglected.
  • 1 in 6 respondents were uncertain or would be reluctant to report a child being abused or neglected even if they were sure of the facts.
  • 44% of respondents reported feeling tense and anxious when they take part in a conversation about child abuse
  • Nearly half of all respondents would be prepared to become actively involved to support a community awareness campaign
  • 80% of respondents believe that if action is not taken now, there will be long-term consequences for the community


Due to ongoing stress directly arising from COVID-19 and the fatigue of the prolonged consequences for the broad community, more people than ever before find it hard to stay engaged with the intense reality faced by so many children who are being abused or neglected. It is as if when there is community-wide danger, the risks to children are pushed even further away from individual and community awareness. Children cannot afford competing demands alongside their fundamental entitlements to safety, love and care. The most vulnerable and at-risk children cannot be left to wait whilst larger problems are addressed, as the problem does not go away if we choose to turn away from it.

Thankfully, the results of this research demonstrate that people in our community are willing and prepared to do more to protect children. Three quarters of respondents supported the need for Australia to have a national campaign to raise awareness of child abuse and to provide resources to communities to enable people to act more protectively towards children. Just under half of respondents would be prepared to become actively involved to support a campaign to promote the recognition of child abuse and provide tools to communities to enable the protection of children facing abuse.

In 1966, Birrell and Birrell had to fight community disbelief and professional skepticism to raise public alarm about the impact and scale of child abuse in Australia. In 2021, this fight to make child abuse a priority for our community is far from over.

To find out more and to read the full Still Unseen and Ignored report, visit: https://www.childhood.org.au/still-unseen-and-ignored/