February 26, 2020

Professor Ben Mathews (Queensland University of Technology)

Hosted by: CFECFW

Date: 11 February 2020                          Location: CFECFW


Professor Ben Mathews is a Professor in the School of Law at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, and heads QUT’s Childhood Adversity Research Program.

He is currently heading a team who are conducting the Australian Child Maltreatment Study – a five year study into the prevalence of childhood maltreatment among the Australian population, and its impact on mental and physical health across the lifespan.

Presentation Overview

Why study the prevalence of childhood maltreatment in Australia?

Childhood maltreatment is not only a major human rights issue, it also has adverse consequences that effect life outcomes well into adulthood.

We know that the five forms of maltreatment (physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and witnessing family violence) occur frequently across the population. We also know that experiencing maltreatment as a child can cause long-term harm to physical and mental health into adulthood, and is associated with revictimisation and intergenerational abuse.

For these reasons, child maltreatment is a major public health issue. However, Australia does not currently have any reliable national data on the prevalence of child maltreatment.

The Australian Child Maltreatment Study will be gathering this data for the first time. This data will help us to determine how prevention approaches can best be targeted to respond to child maltreatment as a public health issue. Understanding not only the prevalence of child maltreatment, but also what characteristics are shared by children who experience it, will further assist with this targeting.

This data will also help to fill some of the evidence gaps we currently have in this research area – particularly around the detailed effects of emotional abuse, exposure to family violence, and of experiencing multiple forms of abuse.

By building the evidence in these areas, Professor Mathews is hopeful that this study can inform future clinical practice and policy on child maltreatment.

What will the Australian Child Maltreatment Study cover?

This study will have a large sample size of 10,000 Australians. 5,000 of these will be young people aged 16-24. The remaining 5,000 will be older adults, divided evenly across decade-length age brackets.

The study will be based on self-reported data collected via computer assisted telephone interviews. This data will be gathered on three parameters:

  1. Experience of childhood maltreatment: this will be measured for all five forms of maltreatment using a modified version of the JVQ (Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire – Enhanced).
  2. Mental health status: this will be measured using the MINI (Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview).
  3. Physical health status/burden of disease: this will be measured by questions on health status and service usage.

The study is about to be piloted with an initial small group sample, with the main study to be completed in 2021.

The Australian Child Maltreatment study is using a multidimensional understanding of maltreatment, asking interview subjects to identify specific abusive behaviours rather than asking them about broad categories (such as ‘neglect’). This approach will enable more detailed data to be captured, and will limit varied subjective interpretations of what constitutes ‘maltreatment’.

The study is using a broad understanding of the concept of maltreatment, focusing on the five forms of abuse in the first instance, but also looking at other adverse childhood experiences including corporal punishment, peer and sibling violence and other family factors.

Challenges of the study

Professor Mathews took questions from our audience, and discussed some of the challenges of completing this study:

  • It can be difficult to reach some populations in a study like this – such as homeless Australians or Indigenous Australians in remote communities. These groups would be better studied in a separate, connected study.
  • Ethical considerations in this study are extremely complex as some respondents are minors and it involves sensitive subject matter. The researchers have worked hard to ensure the study has passed an external ethics committee and will preserve the wellbeing and privacy of participants.
  • It can be difficult to navigate different cultural norms for maltreatment – this study is aware of its limitations in this area.

Professor Mathews also discussed with our audience the type of policy response we would hope to see created from a greater understanding of the prevalence of child maltreatment. He notes that there are potential implications for multiple sectors: not only child and family services, but also justice and corrections, education, healthcare and others.

Reflections from this session

Participant: Dr. Dakhina Mitra, Practice Lead – Knowledge Building, CFECFW

I found it really promising that Professor Mathews and his team are taking such a detailed, multidimensional data in their study. This should mean that this study will be able to add a lot to our understanding of exactly how maltreatment occurs – and the different ways in which it’s occurring.

I am also glad to see that it will measure corporal punishment, as this remains legal in Australia. It will be interesting to see what they find out about the effects of corporal punishment on long term wellbeing and whether this can help push for changes in the law.

Resources for Review

  • Presentation slides from this session.
  • If you are interested to read more about national studies of child maltreatment, the following is a systematic review of existing studies by Professor Mathews and his colleagues:

Mathews, B., Pacella, R., Dunne, M.P., Simunovic, M., and Marston, C. (2020), ‘Improving measurement of child abuse and neglect: A systematic review and analysis of national prevalence studies’, PLOS ONE 15(1): e0227884.