Communities and Justice

Recognising child abuse

Types of child abuse

Children and young people have a right to be safe in their homes and the community and live without violence and abuse. Child abuse and neglect is not accepted in Australia and is a crime that can result in police involvement. There are different forms of child abuse: neglect, sexual, physical, domestic violence and emotional abuse.

See the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW)

See the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998


Neglect is when a parent or caregiver cannot regularly give a child the basic things needed for their growth and development. This includes a safe place to live, food, clothing, medical and dental care, adequate supervision and enough parenting and care.

Children have the right to be safe, to be treated with affection, to be educated, to have medical care and to be protected against cruelty and abuse. Parents have the duty to protect their children’s rights until they are old enough to make their own way in the world.

Parents and carers can be charged with neglect under the Crimes Act.

The law provides no clear direction as to what age a child can be left at home alone. As a parent you need to use your own judgement based on your own family circumstances and the age and maturity of your children.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is when someone involves a child or young person in a sexual activity by using their power over them or taking advantage of their trust. Often children or young people are bribed or threatened physically or psychologically to make them participate in the activity. Sexual abuse is a crime.

Child sexual abuse in some communities is considered a taboo subject and not discussed amongst the family. DCJs approach is to keep children safe, support families, uphold the dignity of the individual and minimise shame and stigma by holding the perpetrator responsible for their action.

Sexual abuse of children includes any of the following acts committed against children who are under 16:

  • sexual intercourse (this includes oral sex)
  • sexual touching (which is any touching that could reasonably be considered sexual)
  • sexual act (an act other than sexual touching which could reasonably be considered sexual)

It is also a crime for a person to groom or procure a child for sex with them or with another person.

Physical abuse

In NSW, physical abuse is a non-accidental injury or pattern of injuries to a child or young person caused by a parent, caregiver or any other person. It includes injuries which are caused by excessive discipline, severe beatings or shakings, cigarette burns, attempted strangulation and female genital mutilation.

Injuries include bruising, lacerations or welts, burns, fractures or dislocation of joints. Any unreasonable physical force to a child is a crime in NSW. For example, hitting a child or young person around the head or neck, or using a stick, belt or other object to discipline or punish a child or young person may be considered a crime.

In some cultures, child rearing and child discipline are strongly connected and normal practice in their home country.

Discipline can be a difficult and confusing issue, particularly with teenagers. There are many different beliefs about what good behaviour is and the right way to bring up children. This varies between cultural groups, generations and even between parents. DCJ encourages families to build strong communication with their children, help young people to develop responsibility, without using physical (corporal) punishment.

Emotional abuse or psychological harm

Serious psychological harm can occur where the behaviour of a parent or caregiver damages the confidence and self-esteem of a child or young person, resulting in serious emotional disturbance or psychological trauma.

Although it is possible for one-off incidents to cause serious harm, in general it is how many times, and how long a parent or carer harms the child that determines its impact. This can include a range of behaviours such as excessive criticism, withholding affection, exposure to domestic violence, intimidation or threatening behaviour.

People and communities across all cultures have different understanding of emotional or psychological harm and views about the causes of mental health issues, including biological, psychological, social, migration, cultural and religious factors.

In NSW it is a crime to intentionally do something that results in a young person suffering emotional or psychological harm that significantly damages the emotional or intellectual development of that child or young person.

Circumcision, including female circumcision

Circumcision of male children has been a traditional practice across many different cultures.

NSW Health Policy (2020), states that ‘routine circumcision of normal infant males is not performed in public hospitals in NSW Health. This does not apply to cases where there is a clear clinical need for intervention, nor directly to adult male circumcision.  Parents who request routine circumcision must be provided with accurate information on the risks and benefits of circumcision.’

Circumcision of a male child who is under the legal care of the NSW Minister of the Department of Communities and Justice, must be agreed to by DCJ, following consultation with the birth family.

Any form of female circumcision, also known as female cutting or female genital mutilation (FGM), is illegal in NSW.

In some cultures, female circumcision may be performed on girls as a traditional practice. There are no health benefits associated with female circumcision and it can cause serious medical problems.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child consider female circumcision to be a violation of the human rights of women and girls.

In Australia, it is illegal to perform any type of female circumcision. If a child lives in Australia it is also illegal to take her overseas to have this procedure performed. It is also not legal to help arrange female circumcision for somebody else, or their child. If you break the law, you can be charged by the police and you could be sent to prison.

It is a crime to perform female genital mutilation even if the victim allegedly consented to the act. A person who performs female genital mutilation or gets another person to perform it on the victim can be imprisoned for 21 years.

See NSW Health’s fact sheet on Female Circumcision

Domestic and family violence

Domestic and family violence is a crime. It is when there is violent, abusive or bullying behaviour or actions towards a partner or former partner to scare and control them. It can happen at home or outside the home. It causes fear and harm to the body, mind and spirit.

Domestic and family violence can happen to anyone – in every community and in all cultures.

Children and young people experience harm when they have to live in homes where domestic violence occurs.

Domestic and family violence includes different types of abuse. A person does not need to experience all of these types of abuse for it to be a crime under the law.

The abuse can include verbal, psychological, emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse. It can also include harassment and stalking, spiritual or religious abuse, reproductive abuse and image-based abuse.

In some cultures, women may also experience dowry-related abuse. Women living in Australia without a permanent visa may also be vulnerable to the control of a partner, particularly if they hold bridging visas and are financially reliant on their partners.

People who hold certain types of partner visas and have experienced family and domestic violence may be eligible to apply for a visa under the special provisions relating to family violence in the Migration Regulations.

See Family violence and your visa for more details.

See the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 (NSW)

Forced marriage and underage forced marriage

Forced marriage is when a person (or both people) marry without freely and fully agreeing. They may be tricked, threatened or pressured into getting married.

People can be forced to marry through physical and psychological means. This can include physical or sexual violence, threats, imprisonment, removal from school, or telling someone they will bring shame upon the family for not marrying.

In Australia, it is illegal to cause a person to enter a forced marriage or to be a party to a forced marriage (this excludes the victim in the forced marriage). It is also illegal to take a person overseas for the purpose of a forced marriage.

Underage forced marriage, also known as forced child marriage, is when someone under the age of 18 is forced to marry.

Under Australian law, children under 18 cannot give their permission to marry. Children aged 16 and 17 years old can only marry if they have the permission of the Court and their parents.

No person under 16 can legally marry in Australia under any circumstance.

Underage forced marriage is against the law in Australia and has negative impacts on young people.

Anyone with a role in organising an underage forced marriage can be jailed for up to seven years, or nine years if the offence is considered aggravated. For example, if a person under 18 years old with a disability is forced to marry. This can include family, friends, wedding organisers, marriage celebrants and religious leaders. The law applies even when the marriage or ceremony is cultural.

It is also a crime when a person is brought to Australia from overseas for the purposes of a forced marriage or taken from Australia to be forced to marry overseas. People involved in organising an overseas underage forced marriage can be jailed for up to 25 years.

It is often hard to know if a child or young person is being forced to marry underage. If you suspect someone is being forced to marry underage you should seek help as soon as possible.

Resources about forced marriage in other languages are available at Women NSW.

Last updated:

12 Mar 2024