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Risk factors for harmful sexual behaviours occurring for a child in care

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This page was updated on 15 September 2022. To view changes, please see page updates

Children in care are significantly more likely to have been sexually abused and more likely to display harmful sexual behaviours at some point in their lives, particularly those in residential care.

Research indicates that approximately 50% of sexual abuse towards children in care is perpetrated by other children, that girls in care were three times more likely to be sexually abused by their peers than boys were, and their abuse was of the most severe type. (New South Wales Office of the Senior Practitioner, Child sexual abuse What the research tell us? A literature review, 2016)

Children in care are likely to have been exposed to a number of risk factors linked to harmful sexual behaviours over a prolonged period of time. These risk factors include abuse and neglect, developmental trauma and exposure to domestic and family violence.

These risk factors can be particularly compounded by living in residential care, an environment that may:

  • provide very little privacy, particularly around showering, toileting, dressing and sleeping
  • ritualise harmful sexual acts, for example, initiation ceremonies involving harmful sexual behaviours
  • place children in a living environment with other children who display harmful sexual behaviours and who respond to their peers in sexual ways
  • limit opportunities for close connections to adult role models. For example, children are generally exposed to rotating adult staff members who are supervising a number of children and may not be able to develop close and connected relationships with one child
  • limit opportunities for positive social support systems. For example, supportive family and extended family, supportive community members (teachers, youth workers) and participation in extracurricular activities
  • expose the child with harmful sexual behaviours to homelessness and instability. For example, changes in school and neighbourhood as a result of coming into care or multiple care arrangements, or frequent suspensions and exclusions from school
  • limit the amount of contact the child with harmful sexual behaviours has with well-functioning peers. They may have decreased engagement with children who are engaged in positive activities, have strong mental health and who are strongly connected to positive social support systems.

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