Child abuse and neglect statistics

Child abuse and neglect statistics

CFCA Resource Sheet— January 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 2012-13 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2014).

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. 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. For the first time, 2012-13 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, 2014).

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 and substantiation thresholds (AIHW, 2014). 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, 2014, p. 17.

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

The most recent national figures from the AIHW indicate that during 2012-13, there were 184,216 Australian children suspected of being harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect. This resulted in 272,980 notifications being issued by state and territory authorities (a rate of 35.5 notifications per 1,000 Australian children). The total number of notifications represents an increase of 7.9% from the 252,962 reports made in the previous year.

Figure 1 illustrates the trends in total notifications recorded across Australia from 2008-09 to 2012-13. The data show that the notification of cases to child protection services has increased over the last 3 years despite previously decreasing from 2008-09 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 2008-09 to 2012-13, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June 2009 to 2013

Figure 1: Total number of notifications, investigations and substantiations across Australia from 2008-09 to 2012-13, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June 2009 to 2013. as described in text.

Source: AIHW (2014).

Table 1: Total number of notifications, investigations and substantiations across Australia from 2008-09 to 2012-13, and total number of children on orders and in out-of-home care at 30 June 2008 to 2013
Year Total notifications Total finalised investigations Total substantiations Children on orders Children in OOHC
2008-09 339,454 203,225 54,621 35,409 34,069
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

Notes: For detailed explanatory notes, please refer to (AIHW, 2014): Total notifications, Table A12, p. 81; Total investigations, Table A36, p. 106; Total substantiations, Table A13, p. 82; Children on Orders and Children in OOHC, Table A37, p. 107)

Source: AIHW (2014)

At a state level, compared to 2011-12 notifications, all jurisdictions have increased except Queensland, which showed a small decrease of less than 1%. The proportional increase for other jurisdictions ranged from less than 1% for Tasmania to 25% 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 2012-13, of the total number of notifications (272,980), 122,496 cases (involving 91,370 children) of child abuse were investigated. Of these investigations, 113,341 (93%) were finalised by 31 August 2013 (AIHW, 2014)1 and 53,666 cases were substantiated.

The total number of substantiations of notifications received across Australia increased by 10.8% between 2011-12 (48,420) and 2012-13 (53,666), after a decrease in substantiations in previous years from 2008-09 to 2010-11 (see Table 2). The 53,666 substantiations recorded nationally involved 40,571 children, which was a 29% increase from the 31,527 children found to be harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect in 2010-11. Across the jurisdictions, all states and territories had increased substantiations from 2011-12, except for the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

Table 2: Number of substantiations, states and territories, 2008-09 to 2012-13
2008-09 34,078 6,344 7,315 1,523 2,419 1,188 896 858 54,621
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

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 (2014, p. 82)

What are the most common types of 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 in 2012-13
 Harm type NSW VIC QLD WAa SAb TASb ACTb NT Australia
Emotional abuse 4,895 5,537 2,636 858 468 459 187 424 15,464
Neglect 5,176 483 2,987 843 855 265 127 567 11,303
Physical abuse 3,100 2,709 1,249 451 351 128 29 197 8,214
Sexual abuse 3,065 1,319 277 527 161 38 18 16 5,421
Total 16,326 10,048 7,149 2,686 1,836 918 494 1,204 40,571

Notes: a Western Australia is currently unable to report a child's characteristics based on their first substantiation. As a result, a small number of children may be double-counted in this table where they have more than one substantiation and the notifications had differing characteristics, such as age or abuse type. b In South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, the harm type for some of the substantiations was recorded as "not stated" (169 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.

Source: AIHW (2014, p. 73)

Twenty percent of substantiations of harm/risk of harm related to physical abuse and 13% were related to sexual abuse. However, the harm types most commonly substantiated across Australia were emotional abuse and child neglect (see Figure 2). Emotionally abusive behaviours included verbally abusing, terrorising, scapegoating, isolating, rejecting and ignoring. Children who witness domestic violence are also typically categorised as having experienced emotional abuse. 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 2012-13

Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated harm types in Australia in 2012-13. as described in text.

Source: AIHW (2014, p. 19)

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


Nationally, girls were twice as likely as boys to be the subjects of a substantiation from sexual abuse (17% and 9% respectively). For girls, this ranged from 2% in the Northern Territory to 28% in Western Australia and for boys, the range was from under 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.


Across Australia in 2012-13, 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 subjects of a substantiation (14.4 per 1,000 children), followed by children aged 1-4 years (8.7 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 all 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

Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were more likely to be the subject of substantiated reports than were other children. Across Australia, Indigenous children were eight times more likely to be the subjects of substantiation than non-Aboriginal children in 2012-13 (with rates of 45.3 per 1000 children compared with 5.7 per 1000). For further statistical details of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system see the Child Protection Statistics for 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 (2014, p. 46).

Nationally, the number of children living in OOHC has risen each year from 2009 to 2012. There were 40,549 children in OOHC on 30 June 2013, which equates to a rate of 7.8 per 1,000 Australian children. This represents an increase of 19% since 30 June 2009. 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 2013, there were 13,911 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC, a rate of 57.1 per 1000 Indigenous children. The national rate of Indigenous children in OOHC was more than 10 times the rate for other children.

Overall, over half of children in OOHC were aged less than 9 years (54.3%). Of these around 41% were below the age of 4 years. A further 30.8% of all children were aged 10-14 years and 14.8% were aged 15-17 years.

Between 2012 and 2013 there was a 7% decrease in children (from 12,240 to 11,341 children) admitted to OOHC, however, these trends differed according to jurisdiction. Western Australia and Tasmania had increases in the number of children admitted into OOHC, while all other jurisdictions had decreases (ranging from 5% in Queensland to 18% in the Australian Capital Territory). Despite the overall decrease in admissions over the past four years, the number of admissions has consistently outweighed the number of discharges. In 2012-13 almost 2,000 more children were admitted to out-of-home-care than discharged.

Notably, the overall figures indicate that children admitted into OOHC are increasingly younger and remain in care for longer. In 2012-13, the median age of admissions was 6 years and nearly half (43%) of all children were under the age of 9. In comparison, the median age of children discharged was 11 and 34% were aged 15-17.

Most children who were in OOHC on 30 June 2013 were residing in home-based care (93.4%). Of these children, 43% were in foster care, 48% were in relative/kinship care, and 3% 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 2% in Tasmania to 10% in the Northern Territory.

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 2012-13, 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.

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 (Hunter, 2011). 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 (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.


  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2014). Child protection Australia 2012-13. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <>
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2012). Child protection Australia 2010-11. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <>.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Child protection Australia 2009-10. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <>.
  • 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. (2012). What is child abuse and neglect? Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone's business: National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020. Canberra: FaHCSIA. Retrieved from <>.
  • 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 <>
  • Holzer, P. J., & Bromfield, L. M. (2008). NCPASS comparability of child protection data: Project report. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Hunter, C. (2011). Responding to children and young people's disclosures of abuse (NCPC Practice Brief). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Additional CFCA readings

Children in care

Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect

The good practice guide to Child Aware Approaches: Keeping children safe and well


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.


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.

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

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