Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Lachlan Harris
On 6 January 2003 the Australian Institute of Criminology released a report that established a causal relationship between child maltreatment and juvenile offending. The report is called ‘Pathways from Child Maltreatment to Juvenile Offending.’ It was authored by Dr Anna Stewart, Dr Susan Dennison and Elissa Waterson, who are all from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University. This major piece of research concludes that the maltreatment of a child significantly increases the risk of that child offending before they reach their eighteenth birthday.
The study reviewed the Queensland Department of Families’ files relating to 41,700 children born in 1983. It found that by the time they were 17 around ten percent of these children had been the subject of a child protection matter. Child protection matters typically involve the parent or legal guardian of the child being investigated by the Queensland Department of Families because of allegations of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect of the child.
Of the children subject to child protection matters, 25 percent of the male children and 11 percent of the female children eventually offended as a juvenile. Although the statistical comparison with children who are not the subject of a child protection matter is not given, it is stated in the study that this data proves ‘a causal relationship between maltreatment and juvenile offending.’
The study also researches the difference 11 variables make on offending by maltreated children. The 11 variables were:
Of these 11 variables the data showed that seven contributed to an increased offender rate. They were gender, Indigenous status, timing of maltreatment, number of notifications, experience of neglect or physical abuse and an out of home placement. This means that neglect and physical abuse are the two forms of child abuse that most significantly increase the rate of juvenile offending by maltreated children. Surprisingly, the data showed that sexual and emotional abuse did not increase the chance of a child offending before their eighteenth birthday.
Dr Stewart explained the link between child maltreatment and juvenile offending by pointing to the lack of good role models in these children’s lives. She told the Canberra Times that ‘children who are not in loving, caring families don’t learn social rules, so they tend to be less socially aware.’ Physical abuse and neglect cause children to develop feelings of anger and powerlessness, which are important factors that can lead to young people breaking the law.
The research also shows that Indigenous children who are maltreated are four times more likely to offend than non-Indigenous children who are maltreated. Forty-two percent of maltreated Indigenous children committed offences compared with 14 percent of non-Indigenous maltreated children. This significant impact of the variable of Indigenous status on the offending rate is one of the most alarming findings to come out of the study. The authors propose that the impact of Indigenous status on the offending rate is generated by the finding that, ‘Indigenous children were more likely than non-Indigenous children to have experienced maltreatment, and experienced more maltreatment over a longer duration.’ This finding highlights the devastating effect that child abuse has on Indigenous communities, and reinforces the message to Indigenous leaders and governments of the importance of addressing and eradicating child abuse.
The final conclusion of this study is that ‘preventing child abuse in the first place is likely to produce a larger reduction in offending.’ Given the very significant increase in the offender rate for maltreated Indigenous children, this conclusion is all the more important in an Indigenous policy context.
Lachlan Harris is the editor of the Australian Indigenous Law Reporter. Issue 7.4 (2002) of the Australian Indigenous Law Reporter (forthcoming) contains an international survey of Indigenous child welfare.
 Anna Stewart, Susan Dennison and Elissa Waterson, ‘Pathways from child maltreatment to juvenile offending’, (No 241, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2002). The full study is available at <www.aic.gov.au>.
 Ibid 6.
 John Wellfare ‘Study links abuse, juvenile offences’, Canberra Times (Canberra), 07/01/2003.
 Stewart, Dennison and Waterson, above n 1, 5.
 Ibid 6.