Developments to strengthen systems for child protection across Australia

CFCA Paper No. 44 – November 2017


Australian state and territory child protection systems are facing significant challenges including:

  • insufficient capacity to meet the quantity and complexity of cases into statutory child protection and out-of-home care (OOHC);
  • practice concerns in statutory child protection;
  • presentation of families with more chronic and complex risks and needs requiring a response that crosses the boundaries of government agencies that isn’t always available;
  • the intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect;
  • failure to improve outcomes for children in OOHC;
  • unstable OOHC placements, poor outcomes for care leavers; and
  • over-representation of Aboriginal children in statutory child protection and OOHC (see reports of public inquiries and reviews referenced in Appendix A and Katz, Cortis, Shlonsky, & Mildon, 2016).

This has created an imperative to go beyond incremental adjustments and aim for transformational change. There is no single optimal system to protect children from abuse and neglect (Katz, 2015) and as Munro stated, there “was no golden age” of child protection (2010, p. 9). Each country must work within its own particular cultural, community, resource and societal context to tackle the task of protecting children. However, jurisdictions can learn from each other and, in particular, from other sectors who take a similar approach to building child protection systems (Connolly, 2014).

The aim of this paper is to chart the changes in Australia in recent years, so jurisdictions can learn from reform happening elsewhere. The paper includes some broad observations on how our systems are evolving and how they can be steered towards their objectives for children and families in the future.

Box 1: Describing and comparing child protection systems

There is a growing body of research that describes and analyses how different countries and jurisdictions manage and implement systems for protecting children. This research helps facilitate discussion about the objectives of such systems and their impact on children, and brings into focus the way systems are developing within a particular country or jurisdiction.

Bromfield and Higgins (2005) provided detailed descriptions of the process of providing statutory child protection services in Australia. Bromfield and Holzer (2008) collected additional information about strategies to integrate statutory child protection with other sectors (health, education and justice) and early intervention approaches to prevent child protection involvement. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) Child Protection Australia series also includes accompanying information about jurisdictions’ mandatory reporting requirements, child welfare legislation, grounds that indicate a child is in need of protection as well as policy and practice differences that affect the reporting and aggregation of child protection statistics (see AIHW, 2017). Recent changes to jurisdictions’ policies and data systems are also included as an appendix to the annual Child Protection Australia report. The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 annual report to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) 2012–13 includes information about major and planned state and territory child protection reforms across Australia since 2000 (see Department of Social Services [DSS], 2014).

There is also a body of international research that analyses and compares various aspects of child protection systems. For example, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) recently compared aspects of the protection and care system in New Zealand with several other jurisdictions around the world, including the Australian state of New South Wales (see Katz, Cortis, Shlonsky, & Mildon, 2016). The HESTIA research project is currently comparing three quite different welfare states (England, Germany and the Netherlands) in order to discover the nature and impact of variations in child protection systems (see <>).

Typologies cluster different child protection systems according to shared characteristics and enable the analyst to focus on similar patterns that recur across jurisdictions (UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children & World Vision, 2013b). The typology approach helps us to better understand the nature of different systems and the implications of different approaches to protecting children. This approach builds on the work of Gilbert (1997), who divided child protection systems into “child protection” and “family support” orientated systems by their position on four dimensions: problem frame (individualistic/social), preliminary intervention (legalistic/therapeutic), state/parent relationship (adversarial/partnership) and OOHC placements (voluntary/involuntary). Child focus/child development and community care orientations have since been added to Gilbert’s dichotomy (Gilbert, Parton, & Skivenes, 2011).

The validity and usefulness of protection typologies in describing modern child protection systems, which are more dynamic, complex and multidimensional, has since been challenged. Emerging child protection systems in low and middle income countries have also challenged the fit, nature and scope of typologies built upon the experience of high-income countries.

Experts agree that there are a number of dimensions that can describe child protection systems, such as

  • the level of service integration and shared responsibility for children (single or multi-agency responsibility for children);
  • the emphasis on early intervention and prevention (preventative vs responsive child protection/response measures);
  • the focus of protection efforts (families, institutions, community);
  • the degree to which interventions are established or sanctioned by the government (degree of formality/informality);
  • overall approach of the system to the child in his/her family and community (e.g., from punitive to a rights-based system);
  • the context within which the child protection system operates (fragility/complexity of systems); and
  • the performance of the system (see Katz, 2015; UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children & World Vision, 2013b).