Research report on disability and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts released

Research report on disability and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts released


The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released a research report which suggests that up to 14 per cent of children with disability are likely to experience sexual abuse. 

The report – Disability and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts – was written by Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn, Dr Sarah Wayland, and Ms Gabrielle Hindmarsh from the Centre for Disability Research and Policy at the University of Sydney. 

The extent of sexual abuse of Australian children with disability is not known and internationally research on prevalence and risk of sexual abuse of children with disability is in its infancy. The researchers also drew attention to the relative absence of children with disability from Australian child protection frameworks and policy documents.

The researchers found the most reliable prevalence data suggesting that between nine and 14 in every 100 children with disability are likely to experience sexual abuse. 

The researchers also found that children with disability can be vulnerable to sexual abuse due to various factors including:

  • Spending time in disability-specific contexts such as respite care, school transport and personal care services that feature unsupervised one-on-one interactions between adults and children.

  • Requiring adult assistance with their daily personal hygiene and bodily functions, which creates the potential for abuse. 

  • Attitudes which view children with disability as less competent and less likely to ‘tell’.

The report stresses the importance of future research to understand the interaction between a child’s age, gender, family and socio-economic circumstances and their family and community environments and their experience of abuse.

According to the researchers, there is an absence of empirical data in Australia on strategies to prevent sexual abuse of children with disability in institutional settings. However they recommended such strategies should include involving children with disability as active participants in developing protective behaviour. They also suggested prevention efforts focus on high-risk settings, such as respite care, school transport and personal care services.

Royal Commission CEO Philip Reed says: “This research will contribute to the discussion of the historical factors that have heightened risk of vulnerability for children with disability and introduces new material on the extent of sexual violence against children with disability and what might be required to better protect children with disability from abuse in institutions in the future.

“The research also provides an insight into how our understanding of disability in Australia has changed over time and how that has influenced current practices within the disability service system,” said Mr Reed.

Read the report.