Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

CFCA Resource Sheet— October 2016

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.

This paper presents a snapshot of information relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children involved in child protection and out-of-home care.

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 influenced by past policies such as forced removals, the effects of lower socio-economic status and differences in child rearing practices and intergenerational trauma (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission [HREOC], 1997).

Child protection authorities are required to intervene if a child has been, is being, or is at risk of significant harm. Between 1 July 2014 and 30 June 2015, the rate of substantiations of abuse, neglect or risk of harm was 39.8 per 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 7 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be the subject of substantiated reports of harm/risk of harm (see Table 1).

Table 1: The number of children aged 0-17 years who were the subject of substantiated* reports of harm or risk of harm, rates per 1,000 children by Indigenous status 2014-15
State/territory Indigenous (per 1,000 children) Non-Indigenous (per 1,000 children) All children (per 1,000 children) Rate ratio Indigenous/non-Indigenous a
NSW 51.1 6.4 8.9 8.9
Vic. 67.4 9.4 10.4 7.2
Qld a 23.1 3.5 5.2 6.7
WA b 35.4 2.9 5.7 12.3
SA 35.8 3.6 5.3 9.9
Tas. b 11.5 5.2 7.3 2.2
ACT 40.2 3.3 4.5 12.3
NT 53.9 8.5 27.6 6.3
Total population 39.8 5.9 8.0 6.7

Notes: a Data produced from the CP NMDS based on nationally agreed specifications may not match Queensland figures published elsewhere. Queensland data for 2014–15 onward are not comparable with data for previous years.
b In Western Australia and 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.
Rates were calculated using revised population estimates based on the 2011 Census and should not be compared with rates calculated using populations or projections based on previous censuses. Refer to Table A46 for the populations used in the calculation of rates.
Rate calculations include unborn children and children of unknown age.
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.
Rate ratios are calculated by dividing the unrounded rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were the subject of substantiations by the unrounded rate of non-Indigenous children who were the subject of substantiations. The resulting number is a measure of how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were the subjects of substantiations for every non-Indigenous child who was the subject of substantiation.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2016, Table 3.5, p. 28.

Does child protection data tell us how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been abused or neglected?

Child protection data tells us how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children come into contact with child protection services. It is the only data routinely collected in Australia that gives an idea of the number of children experiencing child abuse and neglect. However, 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; and
  • have not been abused or neglected being included in child protection statistics.

See Bromfield and Higgins (2004) for a discussion.

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 specifically 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 (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Gordon, Hallahan, & Henry, 2002; Lievore, 2003);
  • fear of racism (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, 2013);
  • fear that the child may be removed from the community (Anderson & Wild, 2007);
  • community silence and denial (Gordon et al., 2002);
  • social and cultural pressure from other members of the family or community not to report abuse or violence, and the belief that reporting is a betrayal of the culture and community (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006);
  • 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);
  • personal and cultural factors of shame, guilt and fear (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007);
  • lack of understanding about what child abuse and neglect is generally, and lack of understanding about what constitutes child sexual abuse specifically (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007);
  • 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); and
  • 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 child protection data may be unreliable.2

What are the most common types of abuse and neglect?

In 2014-15, harm or risk of harm from child abuse or neglect was substantiated or confirmed by statutory child protection services for 11,675 Indigenous children aged 0-17 years across Australia. Figure 1 shows the distribution of these substantiations over the four different primary types of maltreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect) and compares this distribution to substantiations involving non-Indigenous children.3 Child neglect and emotional abuse were the most frequent primary types of maltreatment experienced by Indigenous children. 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. Emotional abuse refers to any act by a parent or carer that results in a child under their care suffering any kind of significant emotional deprivation or trauma (AIHW, 2016). The high rates of neglect are consistent with the disadvantaged socio-economic conditions prevalent in many Indigenous communities, such as overcrowding, unemployment and limited access to services (Steering Committee for Review of Government Service Provision, 2014). See Understanding Child Neglect for a discussion of the risks indicators associated with neglect.

Figure 1: Breakdown of primary substantiated maltreatment types in 2014-15, by percentage, Indigenous and non-Indigenous children

 Figure 1: described in text.

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, 2016, Table A11, p. 81.

How does child maltreatment differ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children?

As shown in Figure 1, the primary types of maltreatment experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and non-Indigenous children differ. Neglect is the most commonly substantiated form of harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Most substantiations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were neglect related (38.3%), compared to 21% for non-Indigenous children. In contrast, emotional abuse is most commonly substantiated for non-Indigenous children (45.5% compared to 37.7% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children). For both groups of children, physical abuse (15.3% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 19.1% in non-Indigenous children) and sexual abuse (8.7% for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 14.4% in non-Indigenous children) are the least common forms of substantiated harm. These figures are likely to be an under-estimation of the actual incidence of child sexual abuse for both groups (Stanley et al., 2003). 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 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 Northern Territory have concluded that the sexual abuse of Indigenous children was common, widespread and grossly under-reported (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Gordon et al., 2002). 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 show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are at greater risk than non-Indigenous children of being sexually abused (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2007).4

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 Northern Territory 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 boys and girls 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).

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 system. At 30 June 2015, approximately 36% (n = 15,455) of all children in out-of-home care were identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Overall, rates of out-of-home care for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have continued to increase between 2011 and 2015 (AIHW, 2016).5 The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed in out-of-home care rose from 43.2/1,000 children in 2011 to 52.5/1,000 children in 2015 (AIHW, 2016). In 2015, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 9.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care nationally with rate ratios ranging from 2.9 in Tasmania to 16.3 in Western Australia.

In all jurisdictions there were higher rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care than non-Indigenous children.

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 on 30 June 2015
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 
NSW b 67.4 6.6 9.9 10.2
Vic. 71.5 5.5 6.6 12.9
Qld c 40.0 4.7 7.5 8.5
WA 55.3 3.4 6.7 16.3
SA 52.3 5.7 7.9 9.2
Tas. d 22.5 7.9 9.3 2.9
ACT 74.8 5.7 7.7 13.1
NT 33.4 3.4 16.0 9.8
Total population 52.5 5.5 8.1 9.5

Notes: a “All children” includes children whose Indigenous status was unknown.
b New South Wales data for children in out-of-home care at 30 June 2015 do not include children and young people on finalised third-party parental responsibility orders.
c Data produced from the CP NMDS based on nationally agreed specifications may not match Queensland figures published elsewhere. Queensland data for 2014–15 onward are not comparable with data for previous years.
d Tasmanian 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.
Rates were calculated using revised population estimates based on the 2011 Census and should not be compared with rates calculated using populations or projections based on previous censuses. Refer to Table A47 for the populations used in the calculation of rates.
Rate ratios are 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 is unknown are excluded from the calculations.

Source: AIHW, 2016, Table 5.4, p. 54.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle has been endorsed in legislation or policy in all Australian states and territories. The principle states the preferred order of placement for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child who has been removed from their birth family. The preferred order is for the child to be placed with:

  1. the child's extended family (kin);
  2. the child's Indigenous community (kith); or
  3. other Indigenous people.

Only if an appropriate placement cannot be found from the three groups can an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child be placed with a non-Indigenous carer (Arney, Iannos, Chong, McDougall, & Parkinson, 2015).

The principle provides an important acknowledgement that previous policies caused suffering to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and reflects the right of Indigenous people to raise their children in their communities (Arney et al., 2015).

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 Australia, in 2014-15, 65.7% of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care (AIHW, 2016).

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 2015, by percentage
Carer relationship (%) NSWa Vic.b Qldc WA SA Tas.d ACTb NTa Total
Indigenous relative/kin 41.0 32.0 25.0 43.7 34.9 5.0 35.5 28.6 35.2
Other Indigenous caregiver 23.5 4.8 14.7 10.1 13.8 12.5 1.1 6.2 16.0
Other relative/kin 14.7 20.0 16.8 10.6 17.9 21.3 19.1 0.0 14.6
Total placed with relatives/kin other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care 79.2 56.8 56.5 64.4 66.6 38.8 55.7 34.8 65.8
Other caregiver 20.8 43.2 43.5 35.6 33.5 61.3 44.3 65.2 34.3
Total not placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care 20.8 43.2 43.5 35.6 33.5 61.3 44.3 65.2 34.3
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

Notes: 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 may not total exactly 100.0% due to rounding. Family group homes and residential care are reported under “Other caregiver”.
a Aggregate data were provided by New South Wales and the Northern Territory for this table.
b Children for whom the relationship of carer and/or their Indigenous status were unknown are included in the categories “Other caregiver” and “Total not placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care” for Victoria (314) and the Australian Capital Territory (2).
c Data produced from the CP NMDS based on nationally agreed specifications may not match Queensland figures published elsewhere. Queensland data for 2014–15 onward are not comparable with data for previous years. 
d Tasmanian 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. A high number of carers whose Indigenous status is unknown may affect the identification of children placed in accordance with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.

Source: AIHW, 2016, Table A38, p. 105.

For more information, see Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle.

Why would children not be placed in accordance with the principle?

There are several barriers that prevent some 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;
  • 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; and
  • 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 for out-of-home care 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; and
  • eligibility criteria that exclude some carers (Arney et al., 2015).

See Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Policy and practice considerations (Arney et al., 2015) for a discussion of these factors.

Despite the willingness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to provide care, there is, overall, less capacity to do so due to the multiple forms of disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples (Arney et al., 2015). Even when children are placed in accordance to the principle they may become disconnected from their culture. This may occur when children are placed with, for example, the "white" 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.

For more information see Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Policy and practice considerations (Arney et al., 2015).

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 (Calma, 2008; Cripps & McGlade, 2008; Stanley et al., 2003).

The 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 out-of-home care were:

  • the legacy of past policies of forced removal and cultural assimilation;
  • intergenerational effects of forced removals; and
  • cultural differences between child protection agencies’ and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ understandings of child-rearing practices (see Box 1).

Box 1: 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). 

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). 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; Robertson, 2000; Silburn et al., 2006; Stanley et al., 2003).

Are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children abused or neglected more often than non-Indigenous children?

Child protection data do not reliably tell us how many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children are abused or neglected in any given year. However, they do show a consistent pattern of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being substantially over-represented in every area of the child protection system (AIHW, 2016). 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, domestic violence) (Scott & Higgins, 2011). Several prominent inquiries conducted in Australia over the last two 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). Responding to the entrenched social and economic factors that contribute to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in statutory care and protection services is a critical challenge recognised by Australian state, territory and Commonwealth governments (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008).

The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Governments, 2009) aims to reduce child maltreatment and improve child protection responses for all Australian children but also 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 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 includes a cross-cutting focus area on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families. 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).

References

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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 This is particularly the case in Western Australia and Tasmania where there are a high number of children whose Indigenous status is unknown, so any attempt to interpret these data should be made with caution (AIHW, 2016).

3 Primary types of maltreatment are the forms of maltreatment 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 maltreatment with other types of abuse and neglect varies by type. See Table 3.3 of the AIHW (2016) report for more information.

4 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.

5 For a more in-depth discussion of out-of-home care for all Australian children see Children in Care.

Authors and Acknowledgements

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

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

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CFCA Resource Sheet
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, October 2016.

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