Scientists say developmental support is crucial for young victims of child abuse

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In a study published in Child abuse and neglect researchers from the University of South Australia emphasize the urgent need to provide young victims of serious child abuse or neglect with the support they need before starting school, so that they can get as close as possible to the correct development path.

Analyzing data from almost 75,000 South Australian children (born 2003–2014; mean age 5.7 years; 50.7% boys), researchers identified 1,345 who experienced substantiated violence before starting school, of whom 666 entered school. foster family (usually with a foster family). grandparents) or care in a nursing home.

By assessing the developmental outcomes of children with documented (proven) abuse or neglect (prior to school entry), researchers found that some children were at high risk of significant delay in all aspects of development before school entry.

However, in the case of children placed in out-of-home care, these were:

  • 27% less likely to experience physical health and well-being problems (including gross and fine motor skills, school readiness, fatigue or hunger);
  • 21% less likely to have language and cognitive problems; AND
  • 19% performed better in communication skills and general knowledge.

However, it is also true that children removed from their homes were more vulnerable in other areas:

  • 14% were more likely to have significant delays in social competences (how they get along with other children); AND
  • 20% more often showed poor emotional maturity (ability to control emotions, well-being).

The study found that young boys in particular fare significantly worse than girls and are more likely to be vulnerable in all areas of development and at all levels of child protection.

For example, between 2009 and 2018, 44% of young boys who had experienced substantiated child abuse were emotionally vulnerable compared to 21% of girls who had experienced substantiated child abuse and 14% of boys who had no contact with children in scope of protection.

Senior researcher Professor Leonie Segal from UniSA says more needs to be done in the first five years to help children with serious concerns about their safety, especially boys, develop well.

“Developmental delay at the beginning of school is a predictor of poor academic performance. It is also likely to be associated with poor emotional and social outcomes as a teenager or young adult,” says Professor Segal.

“If we don’t identify and address these risks early in life, these children will grow up disadvantaged and perpetuate them.

“Placing in out-of-home care can better meet a child’s basic needs – good nutrition, access to health care, sleep – and provide a more enriching and nurturing environment. It also improves access to learning by reducing absenteeism and truancy levels.

“But while our research suggests that out-of-home placements support physical, communication and cognitive development, children’s social and emotional development may be at risk.”

UniSA researcher and PhD student. Candidate Krystal Lanais says the study highlights the urgent need for professional therapeutic support for children in institutional care.

“Removing a child from his or her biological family in violation of parental rights and separating the child from his or her parents is a serious and expensive undertaking and a last resort in solving the most serious child safety issues,” Lanais says.

“However, out-of-home care without professional support cannot be expected to resolve deep-seated, serious early-life trauma that manifests itself in social and emotional distress.

“This work confirms the unmet developmental needs of children with significant safeguarding concerns and the urgent need to provide appropriate, intensive pre-school services to ensure these children have the best chances in life.”

Noting current political and financial efforts to expand access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) across Australia, this study highlights the urgent need to ensure that these most vulnerable, service-conscious children have priority access to the highest quality, trauma-informed ECEC.

More information:
Krystal Lanais et al., Study of the impact of out-of-home care on early childhood development, Child abuse and neglect (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2024.106856

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