Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

CFCA Resource Sheet— January 2019

If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues described in this paper, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you believe a child is in immediate danger call Police on 000.

The information in this resource sheet is current at the time of publication. Statistics in this resource sheet are based on the AIHW Child protection Australian report, with the next release expected in March 2019. This resource sheet will be updated in April 2019.

This resource sheet is designed to assist practitioners, policy makers and researchers with an understanding of the extent to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are involved in the Australian child protection and out-of-home care systems. The resource sheet is based on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Child Protection data 2016–2017 (AIHW, 2018).

Child protection statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in child protection and out-of-home care services compared to non-Indigenous1 children. The reasons for this are complex and are connected to past policies and the legacy of colonisation. Poverty, assimilation policies, intergenerational trauma and discrimination, and forced child removals have all contributed to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care, as have cultural differences in child-rearing practices and family structure (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], 1997; SNAICC, 2016a; Titterton, 2017).

Child protection authorities are required to intervene if a child has been, is being or is at risk of being significantly harmed. A child protection intervention is initiated by a notification being made to an authorised department regarding an allegation of actual abuse or neglect or the likelihood of abuse or neglect (AIHW, 2018). For definitions of child abuse and neglect, see the CFCA Resource sheet What is Child Abuse and Neglect? Once a report is made to child protection authorities there is a follow-up process of investigation, which may result in a legal order authorising child protection practitioners to supervise the child’s placement with their family or to place the child in an alternative care setting. Definitions of these key terms can be found in Box 1.

Box 1: Notifications, investigations and substantiations

  • Notifications consist of allegations of child abuse or neglect, 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, 2017, pp. 4, 20

Between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2017, the rate of substantiations of abuse, neglect or risk of harm was 46 per 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost seven times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be the subject of substantiated reports of harm/risk of harm. (see Table 1).

Table 1: Children aged 0–17 years who were the subjects of substantiations of notifications received during 2016/17, by Indigenous status, states and territories (number per 1,000)
State/territory Indigenous (per 1,000 children) Non-Indigenous (per 1,000 children) All children (per 1,000 children) Rate ratio Indigenous/non-Indigenous
NSW 58.8 8.1 10.9 7.2
Vic. 85.9 10.1 11.3 8.5
Qld 22.6 3.3 5.0 6.9
WAa 53.3 4.7 7.8 11.2
SA 28.6 2.7 4.2 10.5
Tas.a 12.2 4.4 6.7 2.8
ACT 34.5 2.6 3.5 13.1
NT 62.5 6.7 30.5 9.4
Total population 46.0 6.8 9.0 6.8

Notes:

(a) In Tasmania the higher proportion of children with unknown Indigenous status may affect the reliability of the rate ratio calculation. Rate ratios should therefore be interpreted with caution.
1. Rates for Indigenous children were calculated using population projections based on the 2011 Census. Rates for ‘All children’ were calculated using preliminary population estimates based on the 2016 Census. Population data for calculating the rates for non-Indigenous children were derived by subtracting the Indigenous projection count from the ‘All children’ Estimated Resident Populations. Refer to Table S64 for the populations used in the calculation of rates.
2. Rate calculations include unborn children and children of unknown age.
3. Legislation and practice differ across jurisdictions in relation to children aged 17. In some jurisdictions, children aged 17 are not substantiated and this means the number per 1,000 children who were the subjects of substantiations may be lower for those jurisdictions.
Source: AIHW (2018), Table S13.

Box 2: NT – Findings from the Royal Commission

In the Northern Territory (NT), where the number of notifications for all children have more than doubled since 2012 (see AIHW, 2018, Table S15), a Royal Commission into the protection and detention of children has recently been undertaken. The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory looked at how children were treated in detention centres and in the welfare system in the NT, and a final report was tabled in both the NT and Federal Parliaments on 17 November 2017 (Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017).

Overall, it was found that youth detention centres in the NT were not fit for the accommodation or rehabilitation of children and young people, and that children in detention were subjected to verbal abuse, physical control and humiliation, including being denied access to basic human needs such as water, food and the use of toilets (Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017). It also found that the Office of the Children’s Commissioner Northern Territory is under-resourced to perform its full range of statutory functions in relation to the care and protection of vulnerable children in the NT.

The Royal Commission recommended that the NT Government focus on early intervention and establish a network of at least 20 family support centres across the NT to provide services, information and support where they are most needed (Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, 2017). It also identified that more community engagement is needed with Aboriginal communities when making decisions about the improvement of local youth justice and welfare. The family support centres have been supported in-principle by the NT Government, subject to further consultation. The establishment of a tripartite forum with representatives from the NT Government, the Commonwealth Government and the community sector to coordinate and oversee policies and programs for children and young people in youth justice and child protection systems has also been supported (Department of Social Services, 2018).

What does child protection data tell us about the extent of abuse and neglect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children?

Child protection data tell us how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children come into contact with child protection services. These data are not a measure of the actual prevalence of child abuse and neglect experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as there are several problems with these data that result in:

  • some children who have been abused or neglected not being included in child protection statistics
  • some children who have not been abused or neglected being included in child protection statistics.

See Bromfield and Higgins (2004) for a detailed discussion of the limitations of using statutory child protection data for research into child maltreatment.

In addition to these known problems with child protection data, there are several issues that contribute to the under-reporting of child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. These include:

  • fear, mistrust and loss of confidence in the police, justice system, government agencies and the media, including a belief that perpetrators of sexual or family violence will not be punished (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Bailey, Powell, & Brubacher, 2017; Prentice, Blair, & O’Mullan, 2017; Willis, 2011)
  • fear of racism (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, 2013)
  • fear that the child may be removed from the community (Anderson & Wild, 2007; Funston, 2013; Taylor & Putt, 2007; Titterton, 2017)
  • community silence and denial (Gordon, Hallahan, & Henry, 2002)
  • social and cultural pressure from other members of the family or community not to report abuse or violence, the belief that reporting is a betrayal of the culture and community, and the fear of being shunned by the community (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Funston, 2013; Prentice et al., 2017; Taylor & Putt, 2007)
  • a belief in the need to protect the perpetrator because of the high number of Indigenous deaths in custody (Stanley, Tomison, & Pocock, 2003)
  • fear of repercussions or retaliation from the perpetrator or their family (Stanley et al., 2003; Willis, 2011)
  • personal and cultural factors of shame, guilt and fear (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Prentice et al., 2017; Taylor & Putt, 2007)
  • lack of understanding about what family violence and child abuse and neglect are generally, and lack of understanding about what constitutes family violence and child sexual abuse specifically (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Prentice et al., 2017)
  • high levels of violence and the subsequent normalisation of family violence (Prentice et al., 2017; Willis, 2011)
  • lack of culturally appropriate services (Prentice et al., 2017)
  • language and communication barriers, lack of knowledge about legal rights and the services available, and lack of services for victims of child sexual abuse (Anderson & Wild, 2007)
  • geographical isolation (i.e. nobody to report to, no means of reporting and minimal contact with child welfare professionals) (Gordon et al., 2002; New South Wales Ombudsman, 2012; Stanley et al., 2003).

In addition to the above, if the child is not correctly identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, the child protection data may be unreliable.

What are the most common types of abuse and neglect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children?

In 2016/17, harm or risk of harm from child abuse or neglect was substantiated or confirmed by statutory child protection services for 13,749 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0–17 years across Australia. Figure 1 shows the distribution of these substantiations over the four different primary types of child abuse and neglect (neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and physical abuse – see Box 3 for the AIHW definitions of these types of child abuse and neglect) and compares this distribution to substantiations involving non-Indigenous children.2

Child neglect and emotional abuse were the most frequent primary types of abuse and neglect experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in 2016/17. The high rates of neglect are consistent with the disadvantaged socio-economic conditions prevalent in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, such as overcrowding, unemployment and limited access to services (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2014). For a more detailed discussion of neglect, see the CFCA Paper Understanding Child Neglect (Scott, 2014).

Figure 1: Children who were the subjects of substantiations of notifications received during 2016/17, by Indigenous statues and type of abuse (%)

Figure 1: Children who were the subjects of substantiations of notifications received during 2016/17, by Indigenous statues and type of abuse (%)

Note: For each child, the type of abuse/neglect reported is the type identified for their first substantiation in the year. Where multiple types of abuse were reported in the same substantiation, the data reflect the abuse type that is most likely to place the child at risk, or be most severe in the short term.
Source: AIHW (2018), Figure 3.8.

Box 3: Definitions of the primary types of child abuse and neglect

  • Emotional abuse: 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.
  • Neglect: 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.
  • Physical abuse: Any non-accidental physical act inflicted upon a child by a person having the care of a child.
  • Sexual abuse: 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.

Source: AIHW (2018), pp. 73, 77, 78 and 80.

How does child abuse and neglect differ between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous children?

The prevalence of child abuse and neglect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is not known; however, child protection data show a consistent pattern of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being substantially over-represented in every area of the child protection system (AIHW, 2018). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely than others in the community to experience problems commonly associated with child abuse and neglect (e.g. alcohol abuse and domestic violence) (Scott & Higgins, 2011).

Several prominent inquiries conducted in Australia over the last few decades have highlighted concerns that children in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are at high risk of experiencing abuse and neglect (Anderson & Wild, 2007; Atkinson, 1990; Gordon et al., 2002; Memmott, Stacy, Chambers, & Keys, 2001; Northern Territory Government, 2010; Robertson, 2000). The Child Protection Australia report showed that children in very remote areas were four times as likely as those in major cities to be the subject of substantiation in 2016/17 (AIHW, 2018). This is an area of current political focus; one recent response includes a five-point action plan released by Territory Families, NT, in order to enhance service responses and keep families safe and supported in the Barkly region in the NT (Davies, 2018). The initiatives of the plan include: enhancing locally based child protection services; working in a connected way with local Indigenous organisations; respecting, listening and acting with community elders; enhancing domestic and family services; and expanding responses to young people (Davies, 2018).

In addition to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system, there are differences between the primary types of abuse and neglect experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and non-Indigenous children, as shown in Figure 1. A greater number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (34.1%) were the subject of substantiations of neglect when compared with non-Indigenous children (19.8%).

Emotional abuse is the most commonly substantiated abuse type for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (42.7%) and non-Indigenous children (49.8%). For both groups of children, physical abuse (14.7% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 16.8% in non-Indigenous children) and sexual abuse (8.3% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 13.4% for non-Indigenous children) are the least common forms of substantiated harm. However, these figures are likely to under-estimate the actual prevalence of child sexual abuse (Bailey et al., 2017; Mathews et al., 2016). In the NT, in particular, sexual exploitation is under-reported due to recording issues (AIHW, 2018). Additionally, many children are victims of more than one type of harm and these data only represent the primary type of substantiated harm.

Child sexual abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

It has been estimated that less than 30% of all sexual assaults on children in Australia are reported and that the reporting rate is even lower for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (Stanley et al., 2003). Inquiries into child sexual abuse in Western Australia, New South Wales and the NT, as well as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, concluded that the sexual abuse of Indigenous children was common, widespread and significantly under-reported (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Gordon et al., 2002; Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2017). Robertson (2000) estimated that up to 88% of all sexual assaults in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities go unreported (see also Willis, 2011 for more information on non-disclosure of violence in Australian Indigenous communities).

In contrast to the low rates of sexual abuse substantiated by child protection services, police data on reported victims of sexual assault indicate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children may be at greater risk than non-Indigenous children of being sexually abused (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2014).3

Health data regarding sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which have been associated with child sexual abuse, showed that over twice the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were diagnosed with an STI compared with non-Indigenous children (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2014).

Recorded victim statistics suggest that girls are more likely to be a victim of sexual abuse than boys (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2014). However, inquiries in the NT and New South Wales present evidence to suggest that there is widespread sexual abuse of boys in some communities (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007).

Despite the low rates of child sexual abuse substantiated by child protection services, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are at greater risk of being sexually abused than non-Indigenous children. However, it is important to keep in mind that patterns of sexual assault will vary in relation to community location and factors such as substance use and family and community dynamics (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Fien & Charlesworth, 2012; Sorensen, Fowler, Nash, & Bacon, 2010).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in out-of-home care

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in the Australian out-of-home care (OOHC) system. OOHC is overnight care for children aged 0–17, where the jurisdiction makes a financial payment to a carer or where a financial payment has been offered but has been declined by the carer (AIHW, 2018). The different types of OOHC are defined in Box 4. For Indigenous children, preferred placement is with other Indigenous families, in accordance with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: a placement to ensure that children remain connected to their family, community, culture and country. The principle has been adopted by all jurisdictions in legislation and policy (Lock 1997; Tilbury et al., 2013 as cited in AIHW, 2018).

Box 4: Types of out-of-home care

  • Residential care: Placement is in a residential building where the purpose is to provide placements for children and there are paid staff.
  • Family group homes: Homes for children provided by a department or community-sector agency, which have live-in, non-salaried carers who are reimbursed and/or subsidised for providing 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 categories: relative or kinship care; foster care; third-party parental care; and other home-based, out-of-home care.
  • Independent living: Includes private board and lead tenant households.
  • Other: Placements that are not otherwise classified and unknown placement types. These may include boarding schools, hospitals, hotels/motels and the defence forces.

Source: AIHW (2018), Box 5.1.

At 30 June 2017, 17,664 children in OOHC were identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, at a rate of 58.7 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in every 1,000  children (see Table 2). This is 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children, at 5.8 per 1,000. In all jurisdictions, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC was much higher than that for non-Indigenous children. Overall, rates of OOHC for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous children have continued to increase between 2013 and 2017 (AIHW, 2018, Table S62).4 The number of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed in OOHC rose from 48.2 per 1,000 children in 2013 to 58.7 per 1,000 children in 2017 (AIHW, 2018). During 2016–17, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 10 and under were 10 times as likely as their non-Indigenous counterparts to be admitted to OOHC nationally, while those aged 10–14 or 15–17 were eight times as likely (AIHW, 2018). The rate ratios of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to non-Indigenous children in OOHC on 30 June 2017 ranged from 3.4 in Tasmania to 17.9 in Western Australia.

Table 2: State and territory data comparing rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care compared to non-Indigenous children at 30 June 2017
State/territory Indigenous (per 1,000 children) Non-Indigenous (per 1,000 children) All children (per 1,000 children)a Rate ratio Indigenous/non-Indigenous
NSWb 72.8 6.7 10.3 10.8
Vic. 95.9 6.0 7.5 15.9
Qld 41.7 4.8 7.8 8.7
WAc 61.4 3.4 7.1 17.9
SA 69.7 6.4 9.5 10.8
Tas.d 29.1 8.5 10.7 3.4
ACTe 90.1 6.5 8.8 13.9
NT 35.4 3.1 16.8 11.6
Total population 58.7 5.8 8.7 10.2

Notes:

(a) ‘All children’ includes children whose Indigenous status was unknown.
(b) NSW data exclude children and young people on ‘Guardianship Orders’ (finalised third-party parental responsibility orders: non-out-of-home care funded).
(c) WA data exclude children on third-party parental responsibility orders and from 2015–2016 this includes children placed in boarding schools.
(d) Tasmanian data exclude children not under care and protection orders placed with relatives for whom a financial contribution is made under the Support Extended Family or Relatives Allowance programs.
(e) Out-of-home care data for the ACT includes some young people 18 years and over whose carers receive a full carer payment. This is generally to facilitate completion of school without change to the placement.
Rates for Indigenous children were calculated using population projections based on the 2011 Census. Rates for ‘All children’ were calculated using preliminary population estimates based on the 2016 Census. Population data for calculating the rates on non-Indigenous children were derived by subtracting the Indigenous projection count from the ‘All children’ Estimated Resident Populations. Refer to AIHW, 2018, Table S65 for the populations used in the calculation of rates.
Rate and rate ratio calculations include unborn children and children of unknown age but exclude children of unknown Indigenous status.
Rate ratio were calculated by dividing the unrounded rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were in out-of-home care by the unrounded rate of non-Indigenous children who were in out-of-home care. The resulting number is a measure of how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were in out-of-home care for every non-Indigenous child who was in out-of-home care. Children whose Indigenous status was unknown are excluded from the calculation.
Source: AIHW (2018), Table S43.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle

As Arney, Iannos, Chong, McDougall, & Parkinson (2015) note in their CFCA paper, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle grew from a grassroots community movement initiated by Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agencies (AICCAs)5 during the 1970s. AICCAs strongly advocated for the best interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and aimed to abolish the harsh practices and policies of forced removal. The fundamental goal of the Principle is to enhance and preserve Aboriginal children's connection to family and community and sense of identity and culture (Tilbury, Burton, Sydenham, Boss, & Louw, 2013).

SNAICC – National Voice for our Children (SNAICC), Australia's peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, suggests that the aims of the Principle must be conceptualised in broad terms; that is, to:

  1. recognise and protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, family members and communities in child welfare matters
  2. increase the level of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in child welfare matters
  3. reduce the disproportionate representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system (Tilbury et al., 2013).

From these three broad aims, five inter-related elements of the Principle flow: prevention, partnership, placement, participation and connection (Tilbury et al., 2013).

In child protection legislation, policy and practice, the Principle has often been more narrowly conceptualised as a placement hierarchy for Aboriginal children who are not able to remain in the care of their parents. While this hierarchy is important, a focus on the hierarchy alone demonstrates a limited understanding and only partial application of the Principle across Australia.

In general, placement priorities in descending order start with:

  • the child’s family and kinship networks
  • the child’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community
  • other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers.

If no other suitable placement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers can be found, children are placed with non-Indigenous carers as a last resort, provided they are able to maintain the child's connections to their family, community and cultural identity.

The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 has introduced a broader understanding of the spirit and intent of the Principle in national policy. Through the National Framework’s action plans, all Australian governments have committed to implement all five elements of the Principle (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015, 2018).

The data in Table 3 is only considered a proxy measure for reporting on compliance with the Principle, as it only provides information about where a child is placed and not whether all five elements of the Principle have been implemented. The percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in an Indigenous residential care facility varied substantially across jurisdictions (see Table 3). In 2016–17, 67.6% of Indigenous children in Australia were placed either with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care (AIHW, 2018).

Table 3: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, by Indigenous status and relationship of carer, states and territories, at 30 June 2017, by percentage
Carer relationship (%) NSWa,b Vic.c Qld WAd SA Tas.e ACTf NTa Total
Indigenous relative/kin 40.6 44.5 23.8 39.8 32.5 9.4 37.7 27.6 35.5
Other Indigenous caregiver 24.2 4.4 13.9 8.4 11.3 8.1 0.9 4.7 15.3
Other relative/kin 16.1 29.0 19.3 12.0 18.7 23.8 21.5 0.0 17.0
Total placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care 80.9 77.9 57.0 60.2 62.5 41.3 60.1 32.3 67.8
Total not placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care 19.1 22.1 43.0 39.8 37.5 58.8 39.9 67.7 32.4
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Notes:

(a) Aggregate data were provided by NSW and the NT for this table.
(b) NSW data exclude children and young people on ‘Guardianship Orders’ (finalised third-party parental responsibility orders: non-out-of-home care funded).
(c) WA data exclude children on third-party parental responsibility orders and from 2015/16 includes children placed in boarding schools.
(d) Tas. data exclude children not under care and protection orders placed with relatives for whom a financial contribution is made under the Supported Extended Family or Relatives Allowance programs.
(e) Out-of-home care data for the ACT includes some young people 18 years and over whose carers received a full carer payment. This is generally to facilitate completing of schooling without change to the placement. These young people have been included in the 15–17 age group.
This table does not include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were living independently or for whom the relationship of carer and/or their Indigenous status were unknown. Percentages in the table may not add to 100 due to rounding. Family group homes and residential care are reported under ‘Other caregiver’.
Source: AIHW (2018), Table S45.

Why would Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children not be placed in accordance with the principle?

There are several barriers that prevent some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from being placed in accordance with the principle. These barriers include:

  • the increasing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the statutory child protection system
  • a shortage of Indigenous foster and kinship carers
  • poor identification and assessment of carers, due to inconsistencies in practitioners’ knowledge and skill
  • inconsistent involvement of, and support for, Indigenous people and organisations in child protection decision making
  • deficiencies in the provision of cultural care and connection to culture and community
  • practice and systemic issues affecting the operation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child care agencies
  • inconsistent quantification, measurement and monitoring of the principle across jurisdictions (Arney et al., 2015).

The shortage of Indigenous foster and kinship carers is one of the major factors preventing the implementation of the principle. Recruitment and retention of carers is a problem across the sector for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous carers (see Foster Families by Osborn, Panozzo, Richardson, & Bromfield, 2007). However, there are several other factors that are unique to Indigenous communities and put severe strain on the ability of OOHC services to recruit appropriate Indigenous carers. The main factors include:

  • a ‘youth dependency ratio’ imbalance due to the high numbers of Indigenous children to adults
  • inadequate methods for identifying kin relationships and assessing carers
  • carer burnout
  • fear and mistrust of child welfare systems among some families
  • eligibility criteria that exclude some carers (Arney et al., 2015).

Despite the willingness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to provide care, overall there is less capacity to do so due to the multiple forms of disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people (Arney et al., 2015). Even when children are placed in accordance with the principle they may become disconnected from their culture. This may occur when children are placed with, for example, the non-Indigenous side of the family, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander carer who is not from the child's own cultural group, or kin who may have (because of their own removal) been disconnected from their traditional culture (Arney et al., 2015).

For more information about the Child Placement Principle see Enhancing the Implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Policy and Practice Considerations (Arney et al., 2015); and The Family Matters report 2017: Measuring Trends to Turn the Tide on the Over-Representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in Out-of-Home Care in Australia (Burton et al., 2017).

Why might Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children be more likely to be abused or neglected?

The reasons why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children might be more likely to be abused or neglected are complex and need to be approached with consideration of multiple historical, social, community, family and individual factors (AIHW, 2018; Calma, 2008; Cripps & McGlade, 2008; Fien & Charlesworth, 2012; Funston, 2013; Stanley et al., 2003).

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Community (HREOC) 1997 report, Bringing Them Home, concluded that some of the underlying causes for the poor outcomes experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and for the over-representation of Indigenous children in child protection and OOHC were:

  • the legacy of past policies of forced removal and cultural assimilation
  • intergenerational effects of forced removals
  • cultural differences between child protection agencies’ and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ understandings of child-rearing practices (see Box 5).

Historical and ongoing dispossession, marginalisation and racism experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have led to high levels of unresolved trauma and grief (HREOC, 1997). Internalised trauma may be expressed by individuals in various ways including psychological distress and destructive behaviours (Atkinson, 2002; Funston, 2013). Concerns have been voiced that some Indigenous communities are experiencing intergenerational cycles of adversity and trauma, leading to entrenched social problems including poverty, high levels of violence, child abuse and neglect, and individual, family and community dysfunction (Atkinson, 2002; Fien & Charlesworth, 2012; Funston, 2013; Robertson, 2000; Silburn et al., 2006; Sorensen et al., 2010; Stanley et al., 2003) – but it must be remembered that ‘not all Aboriginal communities are dysfunctional’ (Sorensen et al., 2010, p. 28).

Box 5: Cultural differences in child-rearing practices

One of the underlying issues that has led to an over-representation of Indigenous children in the child protection system is the cultural differences between Indigenous communities and welfare agencies in their understandings of family structure and child-rearing practices. Historically, this has meant that Indigenous family structures and child-rearing practices have at times been mistakenly perceived as ‘unstable’ or ‘dysfunctional’ (HREOC, 1997). However, it is important to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family structures and approaches to raising children can be a source of cultural strength and not, themselves, a source of dysfunction.

For more information, see Strengths of Australian Aboriginal Cultural Practices in Family Life and Child Rearing (Lohoar, Butera, & Kennedy, 2014).

What action is being taken?

The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009–2020 (Council of Australian Governments, 2009) aims to reduce child abuse and neglect and improve child protection responses for all Australian children but makes specific mention of the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The Framework takes a public health approach to improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children through: addressing issues of disadvantage; recognising and promoting family, community and cultural strengths; and using community-wide strategies to address specific risk factors such as alcohol or substance abuse and/or domestic violence.

To help achieve this, the Third Action Plan 2015–2018 features an overarching consideration of the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in its strategies, while also reflecting the key message that ‘protecting children is everyone’s business’. It is closely connected to the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Senate inquiries into Out-of-Home Care and Grandparents take Primary Responsibility for Raising their Grandchildren. Specifically, the Third Action Plan calls for a sustained commitment to ensure that the five domains of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (prevention, partnership, placement, participation and connection) are applied to the implementation of strategies and actions across all other focus areas. For more information, see the Driving Change: Intervening Early. National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children: Third Three-Year Action Plan 2015–2018 (Department of Social Services, 2015).

Family Matters: Strong Communities. Strong Culture. Stronger Children is a national campaign led by SNAICC that aims to eliminate the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC by 2040. The plan to achieve this is based on four building blocks (SNAICC, 2016b):

  1. All families enjoy access to quality, culturally safe, universal and targeted services necessary for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to thrive.
  2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations participate in and have control over decisions that affect their children.
  3. Law, policy and practice in child and family welfare are culturally safe and responsive.
  4. Governments and services are accountable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (SNAICC, 2016b).

As part of the campaign, a Family Matters report was released in 2016 describing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in OOHC, and exploring the economic, social and community-level factors that contribute to this over-representation. The second report, released in 2017, raises significant concern that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in OOHC ‘will more than triple by 2036’ if solutions are not ‘aggressively pursue(d)’, and that the ‘trajectory over the next 20 years has worsened since the last Family Matters report’ (SNAICC, 2017a, p. 5). The report makes recommendations for policy, practice and systemic reform.

For more information, see Driving Change: Intervening Early. National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children: Third Three-Year Action Plan 2015–2018 (Department of Social Services, 2015). Family Matters Roadmap (SNAICC, 2016b) and the Family Matters Reports (SNAICC, 2016a; SNAICC, 2017a).

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1 The terms ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ and ‘non-Indigenous’ are used throughout this paper. This reflects the use of these terms in the source publications.

2 Primary types of abuse and neglect are the forms of abuse and neglect most likely to place the child at risk or to be most severe in the short term (AIHW, 2016). The co-occurrence of primary types of abuse and neglect with other types of abuse and neglect varies by type. See Table 3.1 of the AIHW (2018) report for more information.

3 See Conceptualising the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse (Quadara, Nagy, Higgins, & Siegel, 2015) for an overview of the risk factors involved in child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities.

4 For a more in-depth discussion of out-of-home care for all Australian children, see the CFCA Resource sheet  Children in Care .

5 While specific roles of AICCAs vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, AICCAs generally provide support to families including family support and family preservation services, which aim to keep families together and prevent child removal, advocacy for children and families, as well as keeping children connected to family and culture if they are to be removed (SNAICC, 2005).

Authors and Acknowledgements

This paper was updated by Nicole Paterson, Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle section in this resource sheet draws on the work of the 2015 CFCA paper written by Fiona Arney, Marie Iannos, Alwin Chong, Stewart McDougall and Samantha Parkinson, and was developed with the assistance of John Burton (Manager, Policy and Resources, SNAICC).

Previous editions were compiled by Jessica Smart, Adam Dean, Kathryn Goldsworthy, Deborah Scott, Lalitha Nair, Dr Leah Bromfield, Briony Horsfall, Alister Lamont and Mel Irenyi.

Publication details

CFCA Resource Sheet
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, January 2019.
Last updated March 2019

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