Child abuse and neglect statistics

Child abuse and neglect statistics

CFCA Resource Sheet— July 2015
Child abuse and neglect statistics

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In this paper we present and discuss a snapshot of data describing child protection activity in Australia. The data presented is a summary of the data provided in Child Protection Australia 2013-14 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2015).

In Australia, state and territory governments have the statutory responsibility for protecting children from child abuse and neglect. Having separate jurisdictions can result in some children "falling through the cracks". This recognition has seen the development of a National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Governments, 2009). The Framework provides a shared approach with national leadership as reflected in its title, Child Protection is Everybody's Business. This is a move from the crisis-driven system that has existed in the past to a public health model focused on universal support for all families with more intensive, or targeted responses for families that need additional support. Under this framework, crisis-driven or "tertiary" responses should only be used as a last resort for the most vulnerable children and families.

Since 1990, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has compiled annual national figures for child protection activity. Definitions of what constitutes child abuse and neglect vary across the different states and territories. It has, therefore, been difficult to obtain consistent and comparable national statistics in the past. However, in recent years the Child Protection National Minimum Data Set (CP NMDS) has been under development. As of 2013, the CP NMDS has replaced aggregated data and allows for analysis of data at the unit record level in all jurisdictions except for Queensland and New South Wales (aggregate data are supplied instead). The collection of unit record-level data substantially improves the quality of information available on child protection, and will benefit national reporting and research. It provides a more comprehensive and accurate picture of children within the Australian statutory child protection system than has been previously available. This change means that 2013-14 data is able to include unique child counts across the three areas of notification, investigation and substantiation; care and protection orders; and out-of-home care (OOHC) (AIHW, 2015).

When interpreting the national figures, different legislation, policies and procedures of each state and territory should still be taken into account. Jurisdictional variations do exist in areas such as mandatory reporting, notifications, investigations and substantiation thresholds (AIHW, 2015). It is also important to consider that not all children identified in these statistics will necessarily have been maltreated. Child protection authorities are required to intervene if a child has been, is currently being, or is at risk of being, harmed. Therefore, a certain proportion of children in these statistics will be those who have not been harmed, but are at risk of future harm.

Box 1: Notifications, investigations and substantiations

  • Notifications consist of allegations of child abuse or neglect, child maltreatment or harm to a child made to an authorised department.
  • Investigations are the process whereby the relevant department obtains more detailed information about a child who is subject to a notification and staff make an assessment about the harm and the child's protective needs.
  • Substantiations of notifications occur when an investigation has concluded and there is reasonable cause to believe that the child had been, was being, or was likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed.

Source: AIHW, 2015, p. 18.

How many notifications are made to child protection services in Australia each year?

The most recent national figures from the AIHW indicate that during 2013-14, there were 198,966 Australian children suspected of being harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect. This resulted in 304,097 notifications being issued by state and territory authorities (a rate of 37.8 notifications per 1,000 Australian children). The total number of notifications represents an increase of 11.4% from the 272,980 reports made in the previous year.


Figure 1 illustrates the trends in total notifications recorded across Australia from 2009-10 to 2013-14. The data show that the notification of cases to child protection services has increased over the last 3 years despite previously decreasing from 2009-10 through to 2010-11.Table 1 contains the numbers plotted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Total number of notifications, investigations and substantiations across Australia from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June, 2010 to 2014

Total number of notifications, investigations and substantiations across Australia from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June, 2010 to 2014 - see Table 1.

Source: AIHW (2015).

Table 1: Total number of notifications, investigations and substantiations across Australia from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June, 2010 to 2014
Year Total notifications Total finalised investigations Total substantiations Children on orders Children in OOHC
2009-10 286,437 162,321 46,187 37,730 35,895
2010-11 237,273 127,759 40,466 39,058 37,648
2011-12 252,962 116,528 48,420 40,962 39,621
2012-13 272,980 122,496 53,666 43,136 40,549
2013-14 304,097 137,585 54,438 45,746 43,009

Notes: For detailed explanatory notes, please refer to (AIHW, 2015): Total notifications, Table A12, p. 80; Total substantiations, Table A13, p. 81; Children on Orders and Children in OOHC, Table A39, p. 106.

Source: AIHW (2015)

At a state level, compared to 2012-13 notifications, all jurisdictions have increased except Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, which showed a decrease of 6.1% and 21.6% respectively. The proportional increase for other jurisdictions ranged from 2.4% in South Australia to 29.7% in Northern Territory.
 While these numbers may reflect an actual change in the magnitude of child maltreatment in Australia, it is also possible that the numbers of notifications may reflect changes in legislation, public awareness, and/or child protection process enquiries.

How many reports are investigated and substantiated by child protection services in Australia each year?

In 2013-14, of the total number of notifications (304,097), 137,585 cases (involving 99,210 children) of child abuse were investigated. Of these investigations, 127,614 (93%) were finalised by 31 August 20141 and 54,438 cases were substantiated (AIHW, 2015).

The total number of substantiations of notifications received across Australia increased by 1.4% between 2012-13 and 2013-14. This increase in substantiations was much lower than the previous year, where there was more than a 10% increase between 2011-12 and 2012-13 (see Table 2). The 54,438 substantiations recorded nationally involved 40,844 children, which was a 0.7% increase from the 40,571 children found to be harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect in 2012-13. Across the jurisdictions, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory had increased substantiations from 2012-13. In contrast, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory substantiations dropped by 24.8% and 37.6% respectively.

Table 2: Number of substantiations, states and territories, 2009-10 to 2013-14
Year NSWa VIC QLDb WAc SA TAS ACT NT Total
2009-10 26,248 6,603 6,922 1,652 1,815 963 741 1,243 46,187
2010-11 18,596 7,643 6,598 1,907 2,220 1,225 636 1,641 40,466
2011-12 23,175 9,075 7,681 2,759 2,139 1,025 861 1,705 48,420
2012-13 26,860 10,489 8,069 2,915 2,221 1,035 720 1357 53,666
2013-14 26,215 11,952 7,406 3,267 2,737 778 449 1,634 54,438

Notes: a NSW data are not comparable with other jurisdictions. NSW has a differential investigation response whereby an investigation may be undertaken over two stages. Only the more serious cases lead to a recorded substantiation outcome. Following the NSW 'Keep Them Safe Reforms', the 2010-11 data reflect the first full year of reporting under legislative changes to the NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 proclaimed on 24 January 2010. b During 2011-12, additional staff focused on investigations and assessments were deployed across Queensland. This resulted in a decrease in the number of investigations not yet finalised, and an increase in the number of investigations with a finalised outcome of "substantiated", "unsubstantiated" or "no investigation and assessment". c Data for 2009-10 for Western Australia are not comparable with other years due to the introduction of a new client information system in March 2010. Proxy data were provided for that year.

Source: AIHW (2015, p. 81)

What are the most common types of substantiated reports of harm from child maltreatment?

Substantiations are categorised into one of four harm types: emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Table 3 shows the breakdown of substantiations by type in Australian states and territories. In Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory, emotional abuse was the most commonly substantiated harm type. In New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory, neglect was the most commonly substantiated harm type.

Table 3. Primary substantiated harm types in Australian states and territories, 2013-14
Harm type NSW VIC QLD WA SAa TASa ACTa NTb Australia
Emotional abuse 4,767 6,453 2,420 1,003 601 315 97 437 16,093
Neglect 4,740 572 2,883 967 1,013 212 142 665 11,194
Physical abuse 2,686 2,927 1,040 480 367 114 33 259 7,906
Sexual abuse 2,881 1,443 342 603 208 57 14 33 5,581
Total 15,074 11,395 6,685 3,053 2,109 712 1,394 1,394 40,844

Notes: a In South Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory, the abuse type for some of the substantiations was recorded as "not stated" (70 cases) and could not be mapped to physical, sexual, emotional or neglect. These substantiations are included in the totals: as such, totals may not equal the sum of categories. b In the Northern Territory, due to recording issues, sexual abuse is under-reported. This has been addressed and it is expected numbers in this area will be similar to other jurisdictions in future years.

Source: AIHW (2015, p. 73)

Nineteen percent of substantiations of harm/risk of harm were related to physical abuse and 14% were related to sexual abuse. However, the harm types most commonly substantiated across Australia were emotional abuse and child neglect (see Figure 2). Emotional abuse is any act that results in a child suffering significant emotional deprivation or trauma. Children who witness domestic violence are also typically categorised as having experienced emotional abuse (AIHW, 2015). The high proportion of substantiations of emotional abuse is a relatively new phenomenon (AIHW, 2011). The inclusion of children who have witnessed domestic violence is likely to be one of the key reasons for the high rates of substantiated emotional abuse (Holzer & Bromfield, 2008). Recognition that children who witness domestic violence suffer harm is captured in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, which outlines a goal of significantly reducing violence against women and children over a 12-year period (Council of Australian Governments, 2010).

Neglect refers to the failure (usually by the parent) to provide for a child's basic needs, including failure to provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, supervision, hygiene or medical attention. Neglectful behaviours could be physical, emotional, educational or environmental (Child Family Community Australia, 2012).

Figure 2: Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated harm types in Australia in 2013-14

Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated harm types in Australia in 2013-14 - as described in text

Source: AIHW (2015, p. 72)

What are the characteristics of children who are the subject of reports?

Gender

Nationally, girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be the subjects of a substantiation from sexual abuse (18% and 10% respectively). For girls, this ranged from 4% in the Northern Territory to 28% in Western Australia and for boys, the range was from 1% in the Northern Territory to 13% in New South Wales. In contrast, boys were more likely to be the subjects of a substantiation from physical abuse, neglect or emotional abuse than girls, although this varied across jurisdictions.

Age

Across Australia in 2013-14, the rates of substantiated harm or risk of harm decreased as age increased. Children aged less than 1 year were most likely to be the subject of a substantiation (14.7 per 1,000 children), followed by children aged 1-4 years (8.4 per 1,000 children). Overall, the Northern Territory rates were higher than other jurisdictions for all age categories, while Western Australia had the lowest rates for children aged younger than 1 and the Australian Capital Territory had the lowest rates for all other age categories. Children aged 15-17 years were the least likely to be the subjects of a substantiation (3.5 per 1,000 children).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

In 2013-14, 11,270 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were the subject of a substantiation. Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 7 times more likely to be the subject of substantiated reports than non-Aboriginal children (with rates of 38.8 per 1,000 children compared with 5.7 per 1,000) (AIHW, 2015). For further statistical details of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system see Child Protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children.

How many children are removed and live in out-of-home care?

Some children who are found to have been harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and neglect are removed from the care of their parents by child protection authorities and placed in out-of-home care (OOHC).

Box 2: Types of out-of-home care

  • Residential care: placement is in a residential building where the purpose is to provide placements for children and where there is paid staff.
  • Family group homes: homes for children provided by a department or community-sector agency that have live-in, non-salaried carers who are reimbursed and/or subsidised for the provision of care.
  • Home-based care: placement is in the home of a carer who is reimbursed for expenses for the care of the child. There are three categories of home-based care: relative or kinship care, foster care and other home-based OOHC.
  • Independent living: including private board and lead tenant households.
  • Other: placements that do not fit into the above categories and unknown placement types. This may include boarding schools, hospitals, hotels/motels and the defence forces.

Placements solely funded by disability services, medical or psychiatric services, juvenile justice facilities, overnight child care services or supported accommodation assistance placements, and children in placements with parents where the jurisdiction makes a financial payment are excluded.

Source: AIHW (2015, p. 46).

Nationally, the number of children living in OOHC has risen each year from 2010 to 2014. There were 43,009 children in OOHC on 30 June 2014, which equates to a rate of 8.1 per 1,000 Australian children. This represents an increase of 20% since 30 June 2010. This increase may be a reflection of the cumulative impact of children being admitted to, and remaining in, out-of-home care. The number of children in out-of-home care is also influenced by the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC. At 30 June 2014, there were 14,991 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC, a rate of 51.4 per 1,000 Indigenous children. The national rate of Indigenous children in OOHC was almost 10 times the rate of other children.

Overall, over half of children in OOHC were aged less than 9 years (54.3%). A further 31.1% of all children were aged 10-14 years and 14.7% were aged 15-17 years.

Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 2% decrease in children (from 11,341 to 11,085 children) admitted to OOHC, however, these trends differed according to jurisdiction. New South Wales, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory had increases in the number of children admitted into OOHC, while all other jurisdictions had decreases (ranging from 0.6% in Western Australia to 31.6% in Tasmania). The number of children admitted to OOHC has consistently outweighed the number of children discharged. However, due to a large decrease in discharges in 2013-14, the gap between admissions and discharges increased from 1,981 children in 2012-13 to 2,676 children in 2013-14.

Notably, the overall figures indicate that children admitted into OOHC are increasingly younger and remain in care for longer. In 2013-14, the median age of admissions was 6 years and nearly half (44%) of all children admitted were under the age of 5. In comparison, the median age of children discharged was 11 and 37% were aged 15-17.

Most children who were in OOHC on 30 June 2014 were residing in home-based care (93%). Of these children, 41% were in foster care, 48.5% were in relative/kinship care, and 3.9% were in some other type of home-based care. A small proportion of children (5.5%) removed from their homes were placed in residential care, where children primarily have complex needs. The proportions of children in residential care ranged from 3% in New South Wales to 13% in South Australia.

For a more detailed discussion on children in OOHC, see Children in Care.

Who makes reports to child protection authorities?

Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused and/or neglected or is at risk of being abused and/or neglected may make a report to child protection authorities.

Each state and territory has its own legislation stipulating who is mandated by law to report suspected cases of harm or risk of (serious) harm from child abuse or neglect. Mandatory reporting requirements are outlined in Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect.

Nationally, in 2013-14, members of the police force, followed by school personnel and social workers, most commonly made notifications. The least common sources of notifications were from child care personnel and children/young people reporting risks to their own wellbeing/safety (AIHW, 2015).

Do child protection statistics tell us how many children are abused or neglected in Australia?

Child protection statistics tell us how many children come into contact with child protection services. They are the only data routinely collected in Australia that give an idea of the number of children experiencing child abuse and neglect. However, there are several problems (see Box 3) with these data that has resulted in some children who have been abused or neglected not being included in child protection statistics; and some who have not been abused or neglected being included in child protection statistics.

Child protection statistics are the best available indicator of the extent of the problem of child abuse and neglect in Australia. However, they do not reveal with accuracy how many children in the community have been abused or neglected.

Box 3: The limitations of child protection statistics as an indicator for child maltreatment incidence

Traditionally, child protection data have been perceived as a conservative estimate of the occurrence of child maltreatment (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004). Child abuse and neglect often go undetected due to the private nature of the crime, the difficulties children experience in making disclosures and being believed, and lack of evidence to substantiate the crime (Child Family Community Australia, 2015). Child protection data only include those cases of abuse and neglect that were detected and reported and are therefore likely to be an underestimation of the number of children abused or neglected.

In addition to the under-reporting of abuse and neglect, system issues may also contribute to the underestimation of the number who are abused or neglected. Child protection data exclude cases where the abuse or neglect was not perpetrated by the parent and the parent is protecting the child (e.g., a child sexually abused by a non-family member who lives in the community) (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004). These cases are generally considered to be a police matter rather than a child protection matter. Child protection data also include some children who were not abused or neglected:

  • reports to child protection include cases in which children need care and protection, but the children have not been abused or neglected (e.g., parent hospitalised and there is no-one to care for the child) (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004); and
  • cases in which the state became involved to protect children who were at risk of being abused or neglected, but had not yet experienced any maltreatment (e.g., mother's new partner is a known child sex offender) (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004).

The total number of notifications and substantiations reported by child protection services in any given year will also include some children who are reported to child protection services more than once in a 12-month period. Each new notification or substantiation does not necessarily represent a different child, so there is the possibility of a small level of double counting (AIHW, 2012). However, with the introduction of the CP NMDS, the total number of children involved in notifications and substantiations is now provided.

Finally, it is worth noting that child protection data reflect only those families reported to child protection services. Economically disadvantaged families are more likely to come in contact with, and therefore under the scrutiny of, public authorities. This means that it is more likely that abuse and neglect will be identified in economically disadvantaged families if it is present (Beckett, 2003).

Other countries such as Canada, the US, and the UK have undertaken national prevalence or incidence studies to enable more accurate estimates of how much abuse and neglect occurs in the community. "Prevalence" refers to the total number of children who have experienced abuse or neglect at some point in their childhood. "Incidence" refers to the total number of children who experienced abuse or neglect during a specified time period. Such information is usually collected via a large survey of the population.

References

  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2015). Child protection Australia 2013-14. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=60129550762>
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2012). Child protection Australia 2010-11. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737421016>.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Child protection Australia 2009-10. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publications/index.cfm/​title/10859>.
  • Beckett, C. (2003). Child protection: An introduction. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Bromfield, L. M., & Higgins, D. J. (2004). The limitations of using statutory child protection data for research into child maltreatment. Australian Social Work, 57(1), 19-30.
  • Child Family Community Australia. (2015). Responding to children and young people's disclosures of abuse. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/responding-children-and-young-people-s-disclosures-abu>
  • Child Family Community Australia. (2012). What is child abuse and neglect? Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/what-child-abuse-and-neglect>
  • Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone's business: National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020. Canberra: FaHCSIA. Retrieved from <www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/families-and-children/publications-articles/protecting-children-is-everyones-business.>.
  • Council of Australian Governments. (2010). National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children: Including the first three year action plan. Canberra: COAG. Retrieved from <www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/women/programs-services/reducing-violence/the-national-plan-to-reduce-violence-against-women-and-their-children-2010-2022>
  • Holzer, P. J., & Bromfield, L. M. (2008). NCPASS comparability of child protection data: Project report. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

1  Finalised investigations are those substantiated or not substantiated by the relevant state authority by 31 August each year. Any investigations that are ongoing beyond 31 August in the most recent year cannot be included in the data for the Child Protection Australia report and so are not included in the finalised investigation numbers.

 

Authors and Acknowledgements

This paper was updated by Kathryn Goldsworthy, Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Previous versions of this paper have been compiled by Deborah Scott, Shaun Lohoar, Lalitha Nair, Leah Bromfield, Briony Horsfall, Alister Lamont and Mel Irenyi.

The feature image is by Daniel Novta, CC BY 2.0.

Publication details

CFCA Resource Sheet
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2015.

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