This study demonstrates that the elevated risk of violence against Aboriginal women is not restricted to adults but commences around puberty and accelerates through adolescence. By the age of 14-17 years the risk of hospital admission for assault for Aboriginal girls is twice the corresponding rate for Aboriginal boys and more than 30 times greater than non-Aboriginal girls of the same age.
Dysfunctions within family, peer groups, intimate partners and the communities in which adolescent Aboriginal girls live contribute in diverse and inter-related ways to the very high level of violence they experience. Underlying these intermediary factors is the on-going damage to Aboriginal families, culture and society resulting from the invasion and colonization of their land 234 years ago. In Aboriginal society, protection within families and communities is supported by the positive influence of cultural factors such as caring for country, knowledge and beliefs, language, kinship responsibilities and cultural expression [20, 21]. All of these have been severely damaged over many generations by the racial discrimination and cultural genocide that colonization brought to Aboriginal Australians, as to First Nations peoples worldwide ..
Family violence: direct and indirect effects
Family violence is considerably more common for Aboriginal than other Australians . Family violence contributes directly to the very high levels of violence inflicted on Aboriginal girls during adolescence, as is apparent in their high incidence of physical and sexual maltreatment and the high proportion of family members (usually not parents) among perpetrators of assault requiring hospitalization. Family dysfunction and violence also contributes indirectly, in several ways. This study found that maltreatment during childhood increases the risk of serious assault during adolescence. This overlap of risk is unsurprising. The extended family and the broader community environment play an important role in keeping children and adolescents safe. Drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and domestic violence within the family increase the risk of child maltreatment and compound the child’s continuing vulnerability into adolescence. If the environment remains unchanged as the child moves through to adulthood, the increased risk remains. Additionally, traumatic childhood experience of disrespect, abuse and violence (including observing that experienced by other family members) can normalize these behaviors as part of peer, partner and parenting relationships . Abusive and violent behavior is thus perpetuated from generation to generation.
Peer groups, identity and independence
Violence towards adolescent Aboriginal girls may occur in the context of complex peer group dynamics as part of the passage to adulthood. As noted in a study of a remote Northern Territory community, young women engage in behaviors of ‘walking about at night’  as a defining feature of adolescence, with the result often being pregnancy. The study examined participants’ perceptions of their agency and sense of control within these behaviors; relationships and pregnancy during adolescence linked to their identity. Where young women are powerless in the relationship, or taught to be submissive and inferior to men, they are at risk of coercive behavior and violence, both physical and sexual. Dangerous family and community circumstances can lead to adolescent girls seeking a level of compromised independence, the compromise being to their own safety. Adolescent girls may remove themselves from dangerous family or community circumstances, seeking independence and connection through relationships with their peers, that also may involve a level of risk .
Intimate partner violence and exploitation
Parents and carers are the most commonly recorded perpetrator for younger Aboriginal children; this pattern shifts through adolescence and for 14-17 year old girls the most commonly reported perpetrators (40%) are their partners. Violence can also come from boys or men who engage adolescent girls in exploitative transactional sexual activity through payment of money, alcohol or drugs. Through such rewards, some girls seek power and independence. Examples from the research include where girls are aware of the risks of violence within intimate partner relationships that include coercive control of their behaviors, the way they dress and the violence surrounding jealousy by their partner . The agency of adolescent girls within such consensual or exploitive relationships suggests awareness of the dynamics yet only limited practical strategies for remaining safe in circumstances that are realistically outside their control. Some girls report the preference to remain single and allow the boys to fight between themselves rather than with their partner.
Gaps in systems and responses
Aside from the initial health response, the primary agencies tasked with responding to children who have been physically or sexually harmed are child protection and police. However, a response to the harm of adolescent girls is a grey area of policy and practice across both agencies and there are many scenarios suggestive of harm that do not meet each agency’s threshold for intervention. The response from child protection services focuses on harm caused by family members, or through the inability of parents to protect the child from someone within or outside the family. The child protection service would not usually respond to harm caused by someone outside the family such as the young person’s partner (unless the adolescent girl is also the mother of a child considered in danger of harm or neglect). Police responses are limited by the ‘investigative’ nature of policing; the capacity of police to protect adolescent girls is limited if the details of the perpetrator are not disclosed. There are many complex reasons why the perpetrator of violence is not disclosed, even when police or medical responses are initially required. The silencing and silence of Aboriginal girls can serve to prohibit the involvement of child protection and criminal justice responders, rendering the investigatory-oriented system ineffective in tackling the problem of violence towards adolescent Aboriginal girls.
The NT government’s ‘Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Reduction Framework, 2018-2028’  focuses on the high level of violence inflicted on Aboriginal women and children and the need for a multi-faceted approach to prevention and protection, but it does not recognize the particularly parlous situation of many adolescent girls and their specific circumstances and needs. The findings of this study present an opportunity to recognize gaps in existing policy and services to anticipate and mitigate the violence experienced by adolescent Aboriginal girls that is perpetrated by those outside family, within family, within intimate partner relationships, throughout pregnancy and as young mothers.
Within the NT the reporting to police of imminent violence by a partner is already mandated for all Territorians, as it is for child abuse. However, there is no clear pathway of support or referral where Aboriginal adolescent girls can proactively seek support to be kept safe from violent partners, other than through a Domestic Violence Order. Although there remains a role for investigative responses by police and child protection authorities to violence against children when they are young or through adolescence, a more sophisticated and comprehensive approach would ensure the assessment of danger, the engagement of the perpetrator of violence and the early connection of appropriate networked supports for each.
Role of Aboriginal culture in system response
Critical in framing the response is the recognition of culture. The Territory Families, Housing and Communities’ Aboriginal Cultural Security Framework  sets the benchmark for individual and agency-wide practice for engaging Aboriginal young people at risk and their families. One small study involving Aboriginal women through pregnancy  identified the need for assuring cultural safety, being non-judgmental, and providing support and validation when inquiring about intimate partner violence. Another recent study identified the disempowered and silenced voices of Aboriginal women that resulted in the tolerance of increased levels of violence ..
While better systems are needed to improve the safety of adolescent girls and reduce the recurrence of violence after it occurs, improving the capacity and function of Aboriginal families and society is the long-term solution to this problem, as it is for so many of the health, social and economic issues disproportionately afflicting Aboriginal Australians and other First Nations peoples. For community approaches, it can be reasonably argued that investigative responses to the physical and sexual harm caused to young children and adolescents can only play a small part in addressing a wider social phenomenon but that it can be a component part of community-led and supported strategies for tackling violence. For example, a study of community-involved primary prevention of family violence in regional Western Australia  recognized the factors that impact community readiness for preventive intervention, and that such change would necessarily be intergenerational and could be supported by greater community-wide education on the gendered causes of family violence.
Strengths and limitations
There are strengths and limitations to this study. A strength is that population-level linked data provides a comprehensive coverage and representativeness of the study population. The study also allows appropriate comparison between the four groups reported. There are also limitations. As described earlier in the paper, while hospital admission data provides a reliable record for serious assault, admissions are only a small proportion of all assault events. Victims of assault-related injuries may be treated in emergency departments or in primary care clinics, while many others do not access any medical care. A second limitation is that while the use of linked administrative data provides an important but uncommon insight into the vulnerability of adolescent Aboriginal girls, administrative data does not capture critical social and cultural dimensions of Aboriginal girls’ experiences that may benefit from a mixed methods approach. Such an approach would also allow the collection of information on modifiable risk and protective factors, including from the girls themselves, that would illuminate opportunities for preventive intervention.