Child abuse and neglect statistics
Child abuse and neglect statistics
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 2015-16 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2017a) and the supplementary data that comes with this report (AIHW, 2017b).
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 AIHW has compiled annual national figures for child protection activity. Prior to the implementation of the Child Protection National Minimum Data Set (CP NMDS) in 2013, definitions of what constituted child abuse and neglect and the collection of child protection data varied across Australian states and territories. It was, therefore, previously difficult to obtain consistent and comparable national statistics. However, since the implementation of the CP NMDS, state and territory departments responsible for protecting children now collect and report data according to a set of agreed technical specifications.1 This means that unit record level (child-level) data have replaced aggregate data in all jurisdictions except 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 data collected since 2013-14 are 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, 2017a).2
When interpreting the national figures, different legislation, policies and procedures of each state and territory should still be taken into account. Jurisdictional variations remain in areas such as mandatory reporting, notifications, investigations and substantiation thresholds (AIHW, 2017a). 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. In some jurisdictions, all reports made are considered notifications. In other jurisdictions, a report is only considered a notification if the information received suggests that the child requires care or protection.
- 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, 2017a, pp. 4, 20.
How many notifications are made to child protection services in Australia each year?
The most recent national figures from the AIHW indicate that during 2015-16, there were 225,487 Australian children suspected of being harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect. This resulted in 355,925 notifications being issued by state and territory authorities (a rate of 42.0 notifications per 1,000 Australian children). The total number of notifications represents an increase of 11.2% from the 320,169 reports made in the previous year.
Figure 1 illustrates the trends in total notifications recorded across Australia from 2011-12 to 2015-16. The data show that the notification of cases to child protection services has steadily increased since 2011-12. The rate of notifications has risen from 33.8 per 1,000 children in 2011-12 to 42.0 per 1,000 in 2015-16 (AIHW, 2011, 2017). Table 1 contains the numbers plotted in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Total number of notifications, investigations and substantiations across Australia from 2011-12 to 2015-16, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June, 2012 to 2016
Source: AIHW (2016)
|Year||Total notifications||Total investigations||Total substantiations||Children on orders||Children in OOHC|
Notes: For detailed explanatory notes, please refer to AIHW, 2017a.
At a state level, compared to 2014-15 notifications, all jurisdictions have increased except South Australia and Tasmania, which showed decreases of 2.8% and 15.5% respectively. The proportional increase for other jurisdictions ranged from 1.0% in Queensland to 39.7% in the Australian Capital 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 2015-16, of the total number of notifications (355,935), 164,987 cases (involving 115,024 children) of child abuse were investigated or were in the process of being investigated. Of these investigations, 133,329 (96%) were finalised by 31 August 20163 and 60,989 cases were substantiated (AIHW, 2017).
The total number of substantiations of notifications received across Australia increased by 8.1% between 2014-15 and 2015-16. In recent years, while the total number of substantiations has increased each year, the rate of increase has fallen slightly compared to 2011-12 and 2012-13, where substantiations increased on previous years by 19.7% and 10.8% respectively (see Table 2), although the rate of increase was higher between 2014-15 and 2015-16 than in the previous year. The 60,989 substantiations recorded nationally involved 45,714 children, which was a 7.7% increase from the 42,457 children found to be harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect in 2014-15 (AIHW, 2016). Across the jurisdictions, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory had increased substantiations from 2014-15. In contrast, Queensland and South Australia saw substantiations drop by 13.1% and 14.7% respectively.
|Notes: There are differences in definitions and process around notification, which means figures are not comparable across jurisdictions. (a) In WA, notifications where the primary concern at notification was emotional/psychological, physical, sexual abuse or neglect are counted as notifications in this table. The definition of emotional abuse in WA has been broadened to include children witnessing family and domestic violence from 2015-16. (b) Notifications in Tas. have decreased due to changes in the way notifications have been defined.
Source: AIHW (2017b, Table 3.1)
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.
|Harm type||NSW||Vic.||Qld||WA a||SA||Tas.||ACT||NT b||Australia|
Notes: (a) The definition of emotional abuse in WA has been broadened to include children witnessing family violence from 2015-16. (b) In the Northern Territory, due to recording issues, sexual exploitation is under-reported. This has now been addressed, and it is expected that numbers in this area will be similar to those of other jurisdictions in future years.
Source: AIHW (2017b, Table S8)
Between 2011-12 and 2015-16, the rate of child maltreatment has remained steady for all types of abuse and neglect except for emotional abuse, which has increased from 2.7 to 3.8 per 1,000 children over this time (AIHW 2017a, Figure 3.11). The four types of child maltreatment are discussed in more detail below, with the same definitions as provided in the Child protection Australia 2015-16 report (AIHW, 2017a).
Any act by a person having the care of a child that results in the child suffering any kind of significant emotional deprivation or trauma. Children affected by exposure to family violence would also be included in this category.
Overall, emotional abuse was the most common type of substantiated child maltreatment in Australia during 2015-16 (45% of all substantiations). However, this varied by jurisdiction, where in Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory neglect was the most common type of substantiated maltreatment. Victoria had the largest proportion of emotional abuse substantiations (64.5%) compared to other states and territories, whereas South Australia had the smallest proportion of emotional abuse cases (25.2%).
Emotional abuse was also the most common secondary type of maltreatment to co-occur with other primary types of child maltreatment. For example, emotional abuse as a secondary type of maltreatment co-occurred in 50.8% of cases of physical abuse and 28.8% of cases of substantiated sexual abuse (AIHW, 2017b, Table 3.3).4
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).
Any serious act or omission by a person having the care of a child that, within the bounds of cultural tradition, constitutes a failure to provide conditions that are essential for the healthy physical and emotional development of a child.
Neglect was the second most common type of child maltreatment in 2015-16 (24.9% of all substantiations), although this ranges considerably by jurisdiction. Victoria had the smallest proportion of child neglect cases (4.1% of all substantiations), whereas in all other jurisdictions substantiated cases of child neglect ranged from 27.8% in Western Australia to 42.9% in the Northern Territory.
Any non-accidental physical act inflicted upon a child by a person having the care of a child.
Physical abuse was the third most common type of child maltreatment for 2015-16 (18.3% of all substantiated cases). This ranged between 13.1% of cases in Tasmania to 23.3% of cases in South Australia. Of all primary forms of abuse and neglect, physical abuse was also the most likely to have secondary types of maltreatment co-occur—emotional abuse co-occurred in 50.8%, and neglect in 26.2%, of all cases where physical abuse was the primary form of maltreatment.
Any act by a person having the care of a child that exposes the child to, or involves the child in, sexual processes beyond his or her understanding or contrary to accepted community standards.
Sexual abuse was the least common form of substantiated harm (or risk of harm) from child maltreatment for 2015-16 (12.2% of all substantiations). While there were some gender differences for all abuse and neglect types, girls were significantly more likely to be the subject of substantiation cases of sexual abuse (15.8%) compared to boys (8.5%). The proportion of substantiated cases of harm/risk of harm from child maltreatment related to sexual abuse ranged from 3.4% in the Northern Territory to 16.6% in New South Wales and Western Australia (AIHW, 2017b, Table S8).
Figure 2: Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated harm types in Australia in 2015-16
Source: AIHW (2017b, Table S8)
What are the characteristics of children who are the subject of substantiations?
In 2015-16, 45,714 children were the subject of substantiated abuse or neglect. Of this number, 51% were girls (23,048) and 49% were boys (22,188) This varied between jurisdictions, with Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania having slightly more boys than girls being subjects of substantiations. Nationally, girls were more likely as boys to be the subjects of a substantiation of sexual abuse (16% and 9% respectively). For girls, sexual abuse substantiations ranged from 5.5% in Tasmania to 23.6% in Western Australia. For boys, the range was from 0.8% in the Northern Territory to 11.0% in New South Wales. In contrast, boys were more likely to be the subjects of a substantiation of physical abuse, neglect or emotional abuse than girls, although this varied across jurisdictions. For example, in Tasmania girls were more likely to be subjects of a substantiation of neglect (33.3%) than boys (31.2%). Girls were also more likely than boys to be the subjects of substantiated emotional abuse in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT (AIHW, 2017b, Table S8).
Across Australia in 2015-16, the rates of substantiated harm or risk of harm decreased as age increased. Infants (children aged less than 1 year) were most likely to be the subject of a substantiation (16.1 per 1,000 infants), followed by children aged 1-4 years (9.0 per 1,000 children aged 1-4). Children aged 15-17 years were the least likely to be the subjects of a substantiation (3.9 per 1,000 children aged 15-17).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
In 2015-16, 12,903 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were the subject of a substantiation. Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost seven times more likely to be the subject of substantiated reports than non-Indigenous children (with rates of 43.6 per 1,000 children compared with 6.4 per 1,000 respectively) (AIHW, 2017a). 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.
Remoteness and socio-economic areas
Children from remote and very remote areas were most likely to be the subject of a substantiation (16.2 per 1000 and 23.5 per 1000 respectively) compared with children in major cities (6.2 per 1000). Children in lower socio-economic areas were more likely to be the subject of a substantiation than children in higher socio-economic areas, with 6.9% of substantiations occurring in the highest socio-economic areas compared with 35.7% in the lowest socio-economic areas (AIHW, 2017b).
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 are 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 four sub-categories of home-based care: relative/kinship care, foster care, third-party parental care arrangements 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 (2017a, p. 47).
Nationally, the rate of children living in OOHC rose between 2012 and 2016, from 7.7 to 8.6 per 1,000 children. On 30 June 2016, 46,448 children were living in OOHC compared to 39,621 living in OOHC on 30 June 2012. As a total number of children living in OOHC, this represents an increase of 17.2% since 30 June 2012. This increase may be a reflection of the cumulative impact of children being admitted to, and remaining in, OOHC. The number of children in OOHC is also influenced by the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC. At 30 June 2016, there were 16,846 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC, a rate of 56.6 per 1,000 Indigenous children. The national rate of Indigenous children in OOHC was 9.8 times the rate of other children (AIHW, 2017a).
For more information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC, see the CFCA Resource Sheet: Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Overall, more than half of the children in OOHC were aged 9 years or under (54.5%). A further 31.6% of all children were aged 10-14 years and 14.3% were aged 15-17 years.
Between the years 2014-15 and 2015-16 there was a 10.8% increase in children (from 11,581 to 12,829 children) admitted to OOHC; however, these trends differed according to jurisdiction. New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania had increases in the number of children admitted into OOHC, while all other jurisdictions had decreases (ranging from 1.4% in the ACT to 12% in the Northern Territory). The number of children admitted to OOHC has consistently outweighed the number of children leaving care, in 2015-16 there were 3,035 more children admitted to OOHC than were discharged (AIHW, 2016a, p. 60). Although legislative changes led to a reduction in the number of children in OOHC between 2013-15, numbers of children admitted to OOHC in 2015-16 have now returned to similar levels to those seen in 2012-13 (AIHW, 2016a).
Notably, the overall figures indicate that children admitted into OOHC are increasingly younger and remain in care for longer. In 2015-16, the median age of admission to OOHC was 6 years, with 46% of children admitted to OOHC aged under 5. In comparison, the median age of discharge from OOHC was 9 years and 32% were aged 15-17, compared with 8% admitted to OOHC.
Most children who were in OOHC on 30 June 2016 were residing in home-based care (94%). Of these children, 39% were in foster care, 49% were in relative/kinship care, 5% in third-party parental care and 1% were in some other type of home-based care. A small proportion of children (5.4%) 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 Tasmania to 14.8% in South Australia.
For a more detailed discussion on children in OOHC, see the CFCA Resource Sheet: 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 the CFCA Resource Sheet: Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Nationally, in 2015-16, members of the police force, followed by school personnel, medical professionals and family members were the most common sources of notifications that lead to investigations. The least common sources of notifications were from child care personnel and children/young people reporting risks to their own wellbeing/safety (AIHW, 2017b, Table S6).
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 a lack of evidence to substantiate the crime (CFCA, 2015). The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that many victims may not disclose the abuse for many years, and some may never disclose at all (Mathews et al., 2016). 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 (Mathews et al., 2016).
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. However, since the introduction of the CP NMDS, the total number of children involved in notifications and substantiations is now provided (AIHW, 2016).5
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. See CFCA Resource Sheet: The prevalence of child abuse and neglect, for more information.
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Holzer, P. J., & Bromfield, L. M. (2008). NCPASS comparability of child protection data: Project report. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Mathews, B., Walsh, K., Dunne, M., Katz, I., Arney, F., Higgins, D. et al. (2016). Scoping study for research into the prevalence of child abuse in Australia: Report into the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (SPRC Report 13/16). Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW in partnership with Australian Institute of Family Studies, Queensland University of Technology and the Australian Centre for Child Protection.
1 See Appendix F of Child Protection Australia, 2014-15 (AIHW, 2016) and A new approach to national child protection data: implementation of the Child Protection National Minimum Data Set (AIHW, 2014) for more information.
2 Unit level data is not available for all components of child protection data. This includes intensive family support services data in all jurisdictions and in cases where jurisdictions were unable to provide unit level data (AIHW, 2016). Please see explanatory notes in the tables below for further details.
3 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.
4 Not all jurisdictions were able to provide data for all types of co-occurring abuse or neglect—some jurisdictions are able to report only primary and secondary types. See Table 3.3 of AIHW 2016 for more information about rates of co-occurrence.
5 For child-based counts, children are counted only once regardless of the number of contacts the child had with the component of child protection being reported. There may be some small level of double-counting due to movements between jurisdictions. (AIHW, 2016, p. 8)
Authors and Acknowledgements
This paper was updated by Jessica Smart, Senior 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 Adam Dean, Kathryn Goldsworthy, Deborah Scott, Shaun Lohoar, Lalitha Nair, Leah Bromfield, Briony Horsfall, Alister Lamont and Mel Irenyi.
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