Children with disabilities 3 times more likely to be maltreated but risk varies by disability type

A Telethon Kids Institute study has found children with disabilities are three times more likely to be maltreated compared to other children but that risk varies by type of disability.

Researchers analysed 524,534 children born in Western Australia between 1990-2010 for the study “Maltreatment Risk among Children with Disabilities”, published in the journal Pediatrics.

Overall, they found 4.6 per cent of all children had a maltreatment allegation.

1 in 4 (25.9%) child maltreatment allegations and 1 in 3 (29%) of substantiated allegations involved a child with a disability, despite them only making up 10.4 per cent of all children in WA.

Supervising author and UWA Fellow Dr Melissa O’Donnell said while the findings were concerning, she stressed the increased risk was not consistent across disability types.

“We found the risk of maltreatment varied greatly depending on disability type,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“Children with an intellectual disability, mental and behavioral problem or conduct disorder were at highest risk, while children with autism showed a lower risk of maltreatment, and children with Down syndrome, birth defects or cerebral palsy displayed the same risk as children without a disability.”

Dr O’Donnell said possible explanations for the lower risk for children with Down syndrome and autism include that these disabilities are comparatively well recognised, understood and supported.

“Parents tended to be older, better off socio-economically, and for Down syndrome, the ready availability of pre-natal screening in WA means many parents have had the opportunity for prenatal diagnosis and the choice to continue with the pregnancy,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“Regardless of the cause, the disability types most strongly associated with maltreatment often co-occurred with a number of other risk factors such as parents who are young or who have been hospitalised for mental health issues, and living in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods.”

“These families already face additional stressors and have fewer resources to access services for their children’s special needs.”

Dr O’Donnell said her study clearly showed that more support was needed for families with a child with a disability.

“Paediatricians and those who work with families who have a child with disability should be aware of the extra support required for these families to assist in meeting the child’s health and developmental needs, but also to support the parents in managing the often more complex parenting environment,” Dr O’Donnell said.

“On a broader scale this research also highlights the important role governments have in ensuring that children with disabilities and their families have the appropriate services and support structures in place to enable them to achieve their full potential and ensure their wellbeing.”

“The WA National Disability Insurance Scheme, which is currently being rolled out, provides one such opportunity to ensure vulnerable children and their families can be linked to the local support services that they need.”

Maltreatment allegations broken down into disability type:

  • Children with intellectual disability comprised 6.7% of allegations
  • Children with birth defects/cerebral palsy comprised 6.6% of allegations
  • Children with conduct disorder comprised 4.5% of allegations
  • The largest number of allegations were for children with mental/behavioural disorders (15.6%).
  • Only a small proportion of allegations included children with Down syndrome (0.1%) or autism (0.7%).

Researchers examined linked de-identified records from Birth Registrations, the Midwives Notification System, Mortality Database, Western Australian Register of Developmental Anomalies, the Intellectual Disability Exploring Answers database and the Department of Child Protection and Family Support for the study.

It was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council (ARC).


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