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Children who are seen to be in need of protection can come to the attention of child protection authorities through a report by an individual or organisation, or by the children themselves. Reports of suspected abuse or neglect can lead to the matter being dealt with as a family support issue (whereupon services will be provided) or as a child protection notification. Departments then determine if a notification requires an investigation or is better dealt with by other means, such as referral to other organisations or family support services. If an investigation is carried out, the outcome can be a substantiation, meaning that the investigating authority concludes that the child has been, is being, or is likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed. A range of services may then be provided to the child and the child's family.
The departments provide assistance to these children through the provision of, or referral to, a wide range of services. Non-government agencies are often contracted by the departments to provide these services which range from family support to the placement of children in out-of-home care.
In more serious cases, the department may also apply to the relevant court to place a child under a care and protection order. Care and protection orders vary between jurisdictions but can provide for a supervisory role for the department or transfer of legal guardianship to the department. The issuing of a care and protection order is often a legal requirement if a child is to be placed in out-of-home care. This option can be used to protect the child from further harm, where there is family conflict and 'time out' is needed, or where parents are ill or unable to care for the child.
The three areas of child protection services for which national data are collected are:
Each state and territory has its own legislation, policies and practices in relation to child protection, so the data provided by jurisdictions are not strictly comparable, and national data are limited. This is particularly the case with the data on notifications, investigations and substantiations, where jurisdictions use different definitions and processes (AIHW 2007d). It is also worth noting that the quality of Indigenous data varies across jurisdictions due to differences in the practices used to identify and record the Indigenous status of children and young people in the child protection system.
In 2005-06, the rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were the subject of a child protection substantiation were substantially higher than the rates for other children in all jurisdictions except Tasmania (table 11.2). Data for Tasmania, however, should be interpreted with caution due to the low incidence of child protection workers recording Indigenous status at the time of the substantiation.
Substantiations are classified into one of the following four categories depending on the main type of abuse or neglect that has occurred: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. While more than one type of abuse or neglect may be recorded, only the most serious type of abuse or neglect for the first substantiation of the year for each child is reported. Thus, it is difficult to measure the real patterns of abuse or neglect that each child may experience. The precise definition of type of abuse or neglect, as well as the types of incidences that may be substantiated, vary according to the policies and practices of the different jurisdictions.
The pattern of substantiated abuse and neglect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children differs somewhat from the pattern for other children. Indigenous children were more likely to be the subject of a substantiation of neglect than other children. For example, in Western Australia 40% of Indigenous children in substantiations were the subject of a substantiation of neglect, compared with 30% of other children (table 11.3). However, other Australian children were more likely than Indigenous children to have substantiations where the main type of abuse was sexual. For example, in New South Wales, 17% of other Australian children had substantiations where the main type of abuse was sexual abuse, compared with 9% of Indigenous children. Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory had a relatively high proportion of substantiations that were classified as 'emotional abuse' for both Indigenous and other children.
Care and protection orders and out-of-home care
The rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being placed on care and protection orders and in out-of-home care was around seven times the rate for other Australian children (table 11.4). The rate ratios varied considerably by jurisdiction and were highest in Victoria (12.3 for children on care and protection orders and 11.4 for children in out-of-home care) and lowest in Tasmania (2.3 for children on care and protection orders and 2.2 for children in out-of-home care). Again, however, it should be noted that data from Tasmania should be interpreted with caution due to the low incidence of child protection workers recording Indigenous status at the time of the substantiation.
One of the most significant changes in child welfare policy in relation to Indigenous children was the introduction of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle (box 11.5). The Principle outlines a preference for placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children with relatives/kin or other Indigenous carers. All jurisdictions have adopted the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle in legislation and policy.
The impact of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle is reflected in the relatively high proportion of Indigenous children who are placed with Indigenous caregivers or with relatives, though this proportion varies by state and territory. At 30 June 2006, the proportion of Indigenous children in out-of-home care placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care was at least 62% in all jurisdictions, except Tasmania (table 11.6). These data do not necessarily reflect the effort made to place a child in accordance with the Principle, however, as the availability of Indigenous caregivers and other considerations in relation to the suitability of the placement can impact on the placement outcomes.