Who is Targeted for Abuse? Risks and protective factors

In recent years there has been growing recognition that everyone is at risk of abuse; in other words, that anyone could be a victim/survivor. However, we do know that some groups are more at risk than others as the data that is available demonstrates clear patterns, usually cross-culturally, relating to increased risk to women, children and young people, disabled people (all forms of disability) and older people. Whereas, in comparison, men are at greater risk than women in terms of physical assault and murder by strangers in the street or community. Indeed, it is estimated that 62 million adult women in Europe report have experienced sexual or physical abuse since age 15. Worldwide, one in three women is effected by domestic violence (The European Agency for Fundamental Human Rights 2014) and according to the World Bank, women aged 15-44, are more at risk of domestic violence and rape than they are of experiencing cancer, car accidents, war and malaria, combined.

That said, our knowledge and understanding of the abuse of boys and men, is hampered by a lower tendency for victims, professionals and criminal justice systems to recognise and report abuse. For victims, lack of reporting is probably due to notions of masculinity and not being seen by others as a victim. For professionals, many still do not understand how boys and men can be victims and for criminal justice systems, the issue is the same.

In relation to children and youth, whilst some in these age groups are at higher risk for abuse, others are less likely to be abused; this first group are often talked about as having ‘risk factors’ that make their experience of abuse more likely, whereas the latter group are commonly discussed in academic studies as having ‘protective factors’ that mitigate the probability of the experience of abuse. Risk factors appear to be cumulative in their relationships with the likelihood of experiencing abuse; this means that the more risk factors one experiences, the higher one’s chance or the probability of experiencing abuse. Children and youth who are at greater risk include those with the risk factors of, having had complications at birth (neo-natal ill health or being born premature), children from larger families, children who are ‘looked after’ in care systems, children and young people who are away/separated from their families in a variety of circumstances (such as unaccompanied refugees), children and youth in families where carers have serious mental health issues, substance abuse problems or chaotic lives (e.g. due to circumstances such as homelessness or serious mental health issues), low socio-economic status and poverty (Australian Government 2017).

Protective factors are conditions or attributes (skills, strengths, resources, supports or coping strategies) that the individual, group, family or society have, or provide, which support someone in dealing more successfully with stressful events, these lessen or remove risk in families and communities. Protective factors can include, living with your family of birth, strong parent/child relationships, child resilience (that is having skills and abilities or circumstances that help a child or young person cope with upsetting, abusive and stressful situations) and supportive social networks around the child/young person and/or family. If a child or young person has more protective factors in their lives, these can buffer or safeguard them to some extent, meaning they are less likely to experience abuse and that, if they do, the longer term outcomes for them may not be as harsh or devastating. However, it must be remembered that the presence of protective factors in a child or young person’s life does not guarantee that they will never experience abuse. Conversely, other children with multiple risk factors will not be abused. Therefore, whilst risk and protective factors are useful, they should not be viewed as a strong diagnostic or identification tool but merely as a range of factors to be considered in an overall, holistic view of a child or young person’s life.

It is best, and safest, to assume that all kinds of children and young people might experience abuse and therefore, to regard their protection and safeguarding as a premier concern, whether you are a volunteer youth worker for a faith group, a fully qualified social worker or youth worker or individual who finds themselves sometimes working around children or young people or community contexts etc.

Dilemma: Is Abuse Always seen or defined as a Crime?

Some acts of abuse are seen as criminal and are clearly understood to be so within criminal justice policy in a variety of countries and there are penalties for perpetrators. However, there is a difficult relationship between the ideas of abuse and crime. Quite often an action may be defined as abusive but it may not be seen in that country or jurisdiction as a crime. This raises difficult issues for victims/survivors in terms of understanding what has happened to them and for professionals and criminal justice systems, in how to respond and protect the victim and other people from the perpetrator. In particular, for victims/survivors, in countries where certain acts are not seen as criminal or if abuse is not taken to court, societies may be more likely to blame the victim, see them as not a ‘real’ victim and/or question their status as a wronged person. In other countries, where the crime may be recognised, the issue may hang on how much evidence exists for the crime.

Activity 4: Can you think of any activities that are abusive but would not be thought of as a crime in your country?



There are many activities that could be seen as abusive but that your local or national policy force may not take action over. A classic case would be found around bullying in school settings. Many children and youth experience bullying at school and adults, bullying at work; however, these are often not crimes. The impact on targets or victims can be very negative and profound but there is little that can be done if there are few channels to deal with the issue.