National Catholic Education executive director Jacinta Collins took part in a panel discussion in Melbourne this week at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) on the Australian Child Maltreatment Study.

The five-year research project led by the Queensland University of Technology, ACU and a number of other institutions was published in the Medical Journal of Australia in April.

Director of ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies Professor Daryl Higgins gave an overview of the key findings of the study while the panel of Catholic sector leaders at the briefing explored what the study’s findings mean for mission and service of Catholic entities, including ways of preventing and responding to the harm of child maltreatment in all of its forms.

The study found:

  • A large percentage of Australians have experienced some form of child maltreatment
  • For Australians who experience any childhood maltreatment, experiencing more than one type is a common experience
  • Australian children are more likely to experience multitype maltreatment (39.4%) than single-type maltreatment (22.8%)
  • The six most prevalent combinations all included exposure to domestic violence – affecting one-third of the population
  • Girls are more likely to experience multi-type maltreatment (43.2%) than boys (34.9%) with the highest prevalence for those with diverse gender identities – two-thirds experienced multi-type maltreatment (66.1%)
  • Australians who experience maltreatment are substantially more likely to have mental health disorders, health risk behaviours and higher health service utilisation
  • Harm associated with experiences of child maltreatment develop early, differences are evident by age 24, and appear to persist over life, with differences still being apparent in people 45 years and older.

Jacinta was joined on the panel discussion by Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli DD; MacKillop Family Services (social services sector) chief executive office Dr Robyn Miller, and Mental Health Victoria chief executive officer Marcelle Mogg (also representing ACU Alumnus, Board member, Mercy Community Services (health/mental health service sector).

Jacinta said the results of the study were disturbing and challenging, but not surprising.

“We’ve known for many years the impact of child mistreatment on the mental health and wellbeing of students; on classroom behaviour management and disruption,” she said.

“The findings highlight the lived reality that teachers, school leaders, families, and others are working through with students every day. COVID and remote learning has exacerbated this impact, at the same time it is also important to know we have seen the increasing challenge of staff and principal stress and mental health concerns.

“These findings will help support and inform the work that is happening at national, state, system and school levels.”

Jacinta said the future for our students and staff to better support mental health from cradle to grave will require greater coordination and collaboration between schools, preschools and other education providers, health and social welfare services, and protection and prevention services, possibly with some co-location of community-based services.

“Catholic education is committed to keeping children safe across Australia and upholds the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, working with Australian Catholic Safeguarding to create and maintain a safe and nurturing environment for all who engage with our schools.

“It is critical we address wellbeing – we can’t get children to learn if their basic needs are not being met.”

ACU pro-chancellor Virginia Bourke, National Catholic Education executive director Jacinta Collins, Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli DD, and ACU Institute of Child Protection Studies director Prof Daryl Higgins.