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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2003  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 03/06/2003   
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Contents >> Family and Community >> Services: Child protection

Services and Assistance: Child protection

In 2001-02 there were 30,500 substantiated reports of child neglect or abuse made to state or territory community services departments in Australia.

Although most children in Australia are cared for in their family, some come to the attention of authorities because of neglect, or physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Child abuse became a prominent issue in the early 1960s, when research carried out in the USA highlighted the ‘battered-child syndrome’ - where radiological surveys had revealed untreated fractures and broken bones caused by physical abuse. This research galvanised research in other countries, including Australia. Since then, public and government concern, fuelled by strong media attention, has led to the existing government programs designed to detect and respond to cases of neglect and child abuse.1 In 2000-01, recurrent expenditure on child protection and out-of-home care services in Australia was at least $712 million, an 8% increase on expenditure in 1999-2000. Well over half (58%) of this expenditure was on out-of-home care of children.2

Child protection
The majority of data and information used in this article is sourced from Child Protection Australia 2001-02, published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In this article children are defined as aged 0-17 years.

Government involvement in child protection in Australia is the responsibility of the community services departments in each state or territory. Because of differences in legislation, policies and practices, data on child abuse are not readily comparable between different states and territories.

Hospitalisations refer to hospital separations, which are episodes of care in hospital. A separation can be a total hospital stay (from admission to discharge, transfer or death), or a portion of a hospital stay beginning or ending in a change of type of care (e.g. from acute to rehabilitation). Out-patient treatment at a casualty or emergency department is not included in hospital separations.

Child protection notifications consist of reports made to authorised departments by persons or other bodies making allegations of child abuse or neglect. A notification can only include one child and one incident of abuse or neglect. If a notification was received for the same child but related to another incident then it would be regarded as another notification.

Substantiations are notifications that have been investigated and it was found that there was reasonable cause to believe that the child had been, was being, or was likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed.

Care and protection orders cover any child for whom the community services department has a responsibility as a result of some formal legal order or an administrative/voluntary arrangement. They only include orders issued for protective reasons.

Out-of-home care is the placement of children away from their parents for protective or other family welfare reasons. These placements may be voluntary or in conjunction with care and protection orders.

Abuse-related hospitalisation and death among children
For a small number of children, the abuse they suffer can be so severe as to cause hospitalisation or death. In 2000-01, there were 476 recorded hospitalisations of children aged 0-17 years due to assault that were classified by hospitals to ‘neglect and abandonment’ or ‘other maltreatment syndromes’. Nearly a third (30%) of these hospitalisations were for children less than one year of age, and a further 30% were aged 1-4 years. Overall, in 57% of these hospitalisations the parents were recorded as being the perpetrators of the abuse. In general, the proportion of abuse recorded as being perpetrated by a parent was higher for hospitalisations of younger children - with proportions ranging from 82% of hospitalisations for children aged less than 1 year, to 15% of hospitalisations for children aged 17 years.

Tragically, a small number of children die from confirmed neglect or abuse. Over the three years spanning 1999-2001, 17 children died from neglect and abandonment or other maltreatment syndromes. Most of these children were very young - 10 were aged less than 1 year old, 6 were aged 1-4 years, and one was aged 5-9 years. This reinforces the observation that very young children are the most likely to suffer neglect or abuse.

Graph - Age distribution of hospitalisations for neglect and abandonment, and other maltreatment syndromes(a) among children - 2000-01

(a) Counts hospital admissions, not individual children. Does not include out-patients attending casualty departments.

Source: AIHW, National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Child protection notifications
All states and territories have policies and programs that are intended to identify and help children who are the victims of abuse or at risk of abuse. Although policy and legislation varies by jurisdiction, in general, reports of suspected child abuse or neglect are made to state or territory community services departments. Reports can be made by professionals with a mandate to report, such as general medical practitioners, police officers and school teachers, by any other organisation or individual that has contact with the family or child, or by the child or family themselves. These reports are examined and assessed to determine whether they should be passed on to another agency or taken under the jurisdiction of the community services department. If further action is required, the report will generally either be classified as a family support issue or as a child protection notification.

Graph - Child protection notifications(a)

(a) Data not available for 1996-97 and 1998-99.

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2000-01 and 2001-02.

Between 1995-96 and 2001-02, the total number of notifications in Australia increased from 91,700 to 137,900. Over the period 1995-96 to 1999-2000 the number of substantiated cases of abuse or neglect decreased slightly, while notifications increased. This may indicate a greater propensity to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect rather than an increase in the number of children in the community suffering abuse or neglect. For example, the number of notifications in New South Wales increased from 30,400 in 1999-2000 to 40,900 in 2000-01 and then to 55,200 in 2001-02, an 82% increase over the period. However, this coincided with the introduction of new legislation in New South Wales which expanded the categories of risk of harm, and added to the list of agencies and professionals that were mandated to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect. Conversely, over the past two years decreases in the number of notifications were experienced in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, which could be related to changes that were made to their child protection policies.3

Child protection notifications came from a diverse range of sources. In 2001-02 the most common sources for notifications that were investigated were the police (18%), school personnel (18%), parents and guardians (11%), friends and neighbours (9%), and other relatives (8%).3

Child protection substantiations
Whereas notifications represent possible cases of child abuse or neglect, substantiations are confirmed cases of abuse, neglect or harm. Depending on the policies and practices of particular states or territories, notifications are either: unactionable, referred on to other bodies (such as the police or family services), or investigated. A notification is said to be substantiated if, upon investigation, there is reasonable cause to believe that a child has been, or is likely to be, abused or neglected or otherwise harmed. Child protection substantiations are not a complete measure of the prevalence of neglect or child abuse in the community, as an unknown number of cases may not be reported to child protection authorities for investigation.

Graph - Child protection substantiations(a)

(a) Data not available for 1996-97 and 1998-99.

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2000-01 and 2001-02.

In 2001-02 there were 30,500 substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect in Australia - involving 25,600 children aged between 0 and 17 years. Of these cases, the same proportion involved physical abuse, as involved emotional abuse or neglect (27% each). The proportion involving sexual abuse was smaller (14%). The number of substantiations declined from 29,800 in 1995-96 to 24,700 in 1999-2000. Between 1999-2000 and 2001-02 the number increased to 30,500.

Graph - Substantiations of abuse among children aged 0-17 years: type of substantiation - 2001-02

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02.

Children aged less than 1 year had the highest rate of substantiation in 2001-02, 8.7 per 1,000 children in that age group. Rates of substantiation decreased with age such that by the age of 15-17 years, the rate was 2.7 per 1,000.

In 2001-02, 59% of children who were subject to substantiated abuse or neglect were aged 5-14 years and 9% were aged 15-17 years. A further 8% were aged less than 1 year. Because of the greater number of substantiated cases of girls suffering sexual abuse (2,700 girls compared with 940 boys), overall there were more girls (52%) than boys who were subject to substantiated abuse in 2001-02. However, boys were slightly more likely to be involved in all other types of substantiated cases (i.e. physical abuse 52%, emotional abuse 51%, or neglect 53%).

Graph - Children with substantiated abuse: rates by age group - 2001-02

(a) Rate per 1,000 children of the same age in the Australian population at 30 December 2001.

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02 and ABS Estimated Resident Population, December 2001.

...and family type
Information collected by community services authorities about the family circumstances of children in substantiated cases of abuse or neglect indicates that, in general, the incidence of abuse or neglect was lower among two-parent families and higher among one-parent families. This is consistent with factors linked to abuse and neglect, such as low income and financial stress, social isolation and lack of family support, which are more likely to occur in one-parent families.3

Although the neglect or abuse may not necessarily have been perpetrated by a member of the child's family, the most common perpetrator in all states and territories was a natural parent. In nearly all states and territories over half of the people believed to be responsible for substantiated cases of neglect or abuse were natural parents.3

...and Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples
Indigenous children are more likely to be the subject of substantiated abuse or neglect than non-Indigenous children (16.3 compared with 5.1 per 1,000 children aged 0-16 years respectively). In 2001-02, 13% of the substantiated cases of abuse or neglect among children aged 0-16 years involved children identified as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. In all states and territories, apart from Tasmania, the rate of substantiations among Indigenous children was higher than that for non-Indigenous children. These differences in substantiation rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children have been linked to their poor socioeconomic status and possibly the intergenerational effects of previous separations from family and culture.3

The Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an internationally agreed set of standards and obligations which place children centre-stage in the quest for a just, respectful and peaceful society. The Convention spells out the basic human rights of all children - the right to survive, to develop to their fullest, to be protected from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. Australia formally ratified the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children, and its associated Plan of Action in May 1991.

Care and protection orders
Most of the cases of confirmed abuse or neglect, or other problems, that come before state or territory departments of community services are assisted by the provision of support services, such as parent education, family mediation or counselling, and in-home family support. However, at any stage, and generally as a last resort, a community services department can intervene to protect a child by applying to the relevant court (usually the Children's Court) for a care and protection order. Care and protection orders can also refer to legal processes that are available to community services departments without application to a court.

Graph - Children aged 0-17 years on care and protection orders

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02.

In 2000-01, the proportion of cases of substantiated abuse or neglect that subsequently required care and protection orders within 12 months of substantiation ranged from 14% in South Australia to 52% in Tasmania. Much of the variation is likely to reflect the different policies and legislation in different jurisdictions. The number of children on care and protection orders in Australia has been steadily increasing - from 15,700 at June 1997 to 20,600 at June 2002.

Graph - Children admitted to care and protection orders: rates by age - 2001-02

(a) Rate per 1,000 children of the same age in the Australian population at 30 December 2001.

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02 and ABS Estimated Resident Population, December 2001.

This increase in children on orders is largely the result of the number being admitted to orders exceeding the number discharged from orders each year. For example, in 2001-02 there were 9,600 children admitted to orders while 6,600 were discharged from orders. At June 2002 there were similar proportions of boys (51%) and girls (49%) on care and protection orders. The rates of children admitted to care and protection orders in 2001-02 were much higher for young children than for older children: ranging from 4.7 per 1,000 children among those less than 1 year of age to 0.8 per 1,000 among those aged 15-17 years. Of the children admitted to orders in 2001-02, 67% were aged less than 10 years. However, because children can remain under an order for a long period, 52% of all children on care and protection orders at 30 June 2002 were aged less than 10 years.

Early intervention
Although this article focuses on programs aimed at identifying and helping children currently suffering abuse, current social policy in Australia is also concerned with preventing child abuse. Preventative programs are mainly intended to identify families at risk and provide help and advice before their problems can escalate into abuse. The main programs operating in Australia are family support programs and community development programs. These initiatives have taken place at all levels of the community, from government to small community groups.4

Out-of-home care
Although community services authorities try to keep children with their families, in some cases, children's interests are best served by removing them from their home environment and placing them in out-of-home care. This can include foster parenting, placements with relatives or kin, or residential care.

Graph - Children aged 0-17 years in out-of-home care

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02.

The number of children in out-of-home care has steadily increased, particularly in recent years. At June 2002, there were 18,900 children in out-of-home care, an increase of 35% since 1996. As was the case for care and protection orders, during the year more children were placed in out-of-home care than were discharged. In 2001-02, 12,800 children were admitted to out-of-home care and 10,000 were discharged. Many children placed in out-of-home care stay in it for a long time. At June 2002, 46% of children in out-of-home care had been in continuous care for more than 2 years.

The majority of children in out-of-home care are placed in home-based foster care (51% at June 2002). A further 39% were placed with relatives or kin and 6% in facility-based care (residential). Most children (87% at June 2002) who were in out-of-home care were also on care and protection orders. This reflects the necessity in some jurisdictions for a court order before a child is placed in out-of-home care.3

Graph - Children in out-of-home care: rates by age - June 2002

(a) Rate per 1,000 children of the same age in the Australian population at 30 June 2002.

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02 and ABS Estimated Resident Population, June 2002.

At June 2002, children aged 10-14 years were the most likely to be in out-of-home care (with a rate of 4.4 per 1,000 children of that age). Very young children less than 1 year of age had the lowest rate of out-of-home care (2.1 per 1,000 children in that age group). At June 2002, 32% of children in out-of-home care were aged 10-14 years, 30% were aged 5-9 years and 15% were aged 15-17 years. There were slightly more boys (52%) than girls (48%) in out-of-home care.

At June 2002, 22% (4,200) of children in out-of-home care were Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander children. This represented a much higher rate of children in out-of-home care among Indigenous children than non-Indigenous children (20.1 per 1,000 compared with 3.2 per 1,000). In all jurisdictions, the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle outlines a preference for Indigenous children to be placed with other Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander peoples, preferably within the child's extended family or community.3

Graph - Children aged 0-17 years in out-of-home care at June 2002: time in continuous placement

Source: AIHW, Child Protection Australia, 2001-02.

1 Tomison, A. M. 2001, 'A history of child protection: back to the future?' Family Matters, no. 60, pp. 46-57.
2 Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision 2002, Report on Government Services 2002, Ausinfo, Canberra.
3 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2003, Child protection Australia, 2001-02, AIHW cat. No. CWS 20, AIHW, Canberra.
4 Poole, L. & Tomison, A. 2000, ‘Preventing child abuse in Australia: Some preliminary findings from a National Audit of prevention programs’, paper presented at the 7th Australian Family Research Conference, ‘Family futures: issues in research and policy’, Sydney.

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