Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

CFCA Resource Sheet— September 2015

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 the rates of 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 like 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). Additionally there are high numbers of children in Western Australia and Tasmania where the Indigenous status is unknown, so any attempt to interpret these data should be made with caution (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2015, p. 26).

Child protection authorities are required to intervene if a child has been, is being, or is at risk of significant harm. Between 1 July 2012 and 30 June 2014, for every 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia, 38.3 were subject to a substantiation because they had been or were at risk of being abused, neglected or otherwise harmed. 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 2013-14
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 51.2 6.5 9.0 7.9
VIC 60.3 8.1 9.0 7.4
QLD 25.5 4.1 6.0 6.2
WA b 29.0 2.2 5.2 13.3
SA 43.4 4.1 6.4 10.6
TAS b 8.1 4.1 6.2 2.0
ACT 27.4 3.3 4.0 8.2
NT 46.1 4.4 21.9 10.5
Total population 38.8 5.7 7.8 6.8

Notes: Rates were calculated using revised population estimates based on the 2011 Census and should not be compared with rates calculated based on previous Censuses. Rate calculations include unborn children and children of unknown age. *A substantiation refers to a case where an allegation that a child was "in need of protection" under state or territory law was found to be true. As legislation differs across jurisdictions in relation to children, aged 17, in some jurisdictions, children aged 17 are not substantiated. This means that the number per 1,000 children who were the subject of a substantiation may be lower for those jurisdictions. a The "rate ratio" is the number of times more likely an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is to be the subject of a substantiated report than other children (i.e., Aboriginal children in SA are 10.6 times more likely to be the subject of a substantiated report than non-Indigenous children in the state). 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.

Source: AIHW, 2015, Table 3.5, p. 26.

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 Aboriginal victims (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.

What are the most common types of abuse and neglect?

In 2013-14, harm or risk of harm from child abuse or neglect was substantiated or confirmed by statutory child protection services for 11,270 Indigenous children aged 0-17 years across Australia. Figure 1 shows the distribution of these substantiations over the four different types of maltreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect) and compares this distribution to substantiations involving non-Indigenous children. The maltreatment type most frequently experienced by Indigenous children was child neglect. 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. 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: Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated maltreatment types in 2013-14, Indigenous and non-Indigenous children

Figure 1: Percentage breakdown of primary substantiated maltreatment types in 2013-14, Indigenous and non-Indigenous children - as described in text.

Source: AIHW, 2015, Table A11, p. 78.

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 (40.6%), compared to 22.1% in non-Indigenous children. In contrast, emotional abuse is most commonly substantiated in non-Indigenous children (42.0% compared to 33.7% in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children). For both groups of children, physical abuse (16.9% in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 20.6% in non-Indigenous children) and sexual abuse (8.9% in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and 15.3% 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. 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 is 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.

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).

Health data regarding sexually transmitted infections, 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 2014, approximately 35% (n = 14,991) 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 and non-Indigenous children have continued to increase between 2010 and 2014 (AIHW, 2015).2 The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed in out-of-home care rose from 40.4/1,000 children in 2010 to 51.4/1,000 children in 2014 (AIHW, 2015). In 2014, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 9.2 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 15.5 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 2014
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 b
NSW 71.3 7.3 10.8 9.7
VIC 62.7 5.1 6.0 12.3
QLD 38.5 4.6 7.3 8.3
WA 50.8 3.3 6.3 15.5
SA 49.2 5.3 7.3 9.3
TAS 21.8 7.6 9.2 2.9
ACT 62.7 5.5 7.1 11.4
NT 29.0 3.6 14.3 8.1
Total population 51.4 5.6 8.1 9.2

Notes: Rates were calculated using revised population estimates based on the 2011 Census and should not be compared with rates calculated based on previous Censuses. a "All children" includes children whose Indigenous status is not known. b The "rate ratio" is the number of times more likely an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child is to be in care compared to a non-Indigenous child. Children whose Indigenous status is unknown are excluded from the calculations.

Source: AIHW, 2015, Table 5.4, p. 51.

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 (Lock, 1997).

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 (Lock, 1997).

The percentage of 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 2013-14, 67% of Indigenous children were placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care (AIHW, 2015).

Table 3: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, by Indigenous status and relationship of carer, states and territories, 30 June 2014 (Percentage)
Carer relationship NSWa VICb QLDa WA SA TAS ACT NTa Total
Indigenous relative/kin 46.1 28.5 23.2 43.6 35.1 5.6 25.0 33.6 37.1
Other Indigenous caregiver 19.7 5.0 16.9 10.5 13.2 12.5 2.0 9.0 15.5
Other relative/kin 15.6 18.8 15.0 11.8 19.0 22.4 28.3 0.0 14.8
Total placed with relatives/kin other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care 81.4 52.2 55.1 65.9 67.2 40.5 55.3 42.6 67.4
Other caregiver 18.6 47.8 44.9 34.1 32.8 59.5 44.7 57.4 32.6
Total not placed with relatives/kin, other Indigenous caregivers or in Indigenous residential care 18.6 47.8 44.9 34.1 32.8 59.5 44.7 57.4 32.6
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 New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory for this table. b For Victoria, 286 children for whom 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".

Source: AIHW, 2015, Table A33, p. 101.

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?

States and territories may be unable to place children in accordance with the preferred placement types in the principle primarily because there is a shortage of Indigenous carers. 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. Three of the main factors are:

  • trauma and disadvantage associated with the stolen generations that affects many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults today, to the extent that they are not able to care for children;
  • the unwillingness of some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be associated with the "welfare" system due to past government practices, including forced removal; and
  • the disproportionately high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children compared to adults.

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 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 Why is There a Shortage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Carers? (Bromfield, Higgins, Higgins, & Richardson, 2007).

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 Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (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 in child-rearing practices.

Historical and ongoing dispossession, marginalisation and racism experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 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).

Some of the key individual, family and community problems associated with unresolved trauma that have also been associated with heightened rates of child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities include:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse. There is extensive research establishing links between drug and alcohol abuse and child maltreatment (Dawe, Harnett, & Frye, 2008). While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are less likely to consume alcohol than non-Indigenous Australians, those who do so are more likely to drink at risky levels. Research indicates that Indigenous people may be more likely to have tried illicit drugs and to have used them in the past 12 months (Pink & Allbon, 2008). In recent inquiries, substance misuse, particularly alcohol abuse, has been noted as a principal factor contributing to child abuse and neglect (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Gordon et al., 2002; Robertson, 2000).
  • Family violence. Over the period 2006-07 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence compared to non-Indigenous people (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2009). The true rate of violence in many communities is also likely to be higher than what is reported (Robertson, 2000; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2009). The level of family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities presents an enormous risk to the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and increases the likelihood that they will experience other forms of maltreatment (Anderson & Wild, 2007; Robertson, 2000).
  • Pornography. Several prominent enquiries and reports discuss concerns about the use of pornography in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and child sexual assault (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Gordon, 2006; Stanley et al., 2003). Exposing children to pornography is in itself a form of abuse. There is also anecdotal evidence of access to pornography being used by adults to barter for sex with children and young people and of sexual attacks in communities escalating after the arrival of a shipment of pornography. Further, concerns have been raised about the role of pornography in conveying a distorted view of male and female sexual behaviour, normalising violent sexual behaviour and inappropriately sexualising communities (Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, 2006; Anderson & Wild, 2007; Gordon, 2006; Stanley et al., 2003).
  • Overcrowded and inadequate housing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely than non-Indigenous people to live in overcrowded or inadequate housing (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2011). Inadequate housing is a major contributing factor to issues of child neglect. Stress associated with overcrowding can also contribute to family violence. Inadequate housing can place children at risk of physical and sexual assault as carers may not be able to lock doors and so protect children (and themselves) from intruders (Robertson, 2000). Concerns have also been raised that overcrowding and lack of privacy puts children at higher risk of sexual abuse and may expose children to adult sexual activity and/or pornographic materials leading to inappropriate child sexualisation (Anderson & Wild, 2007).
  • Gambling. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participate in gambling activities more frequently, and spend a larger proportion of their income, than non-Indigenous populations (Hing & Breen, 2014; Stevens, 2013). Significant financial losses caused by gambling can further exacerbate poverty and disadvantage, and often effect children disproportionately (Anderson & Wild, 2007; Breen, 2012; Hing & Breen, 2013). The prevalence of gambling in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Indigenous communities is also associated with a lack of child supervision (Anderson & Wild, 2007; Northern Territory Government, 2010; Stevens, 2013). Where there is inadequate supervision by parents who are gambling, children are at an increased risk of being physically and emotionally neglected (Stevens, 2013), sexually abused (Anderson & Wild, 2007) and exposed to strangers who may cause them harm (Northern Territory Government, 2010).

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, 2015). 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 Government, 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 like alcohol or substance abuse and/or domestic violence.

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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 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 Kathryn Goldsworthy, Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Previous editions were compiled by 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, September 2015.

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