National comparison of cross-agency practice in investigating and responding to severe child abuse

National comparison of cross-agency practice in investigating and responding to severe child abuse

James L. Herbert and Leah Bromfield

CFCA Paper No. 47 — February 2018
Photo of the blue lights on the police car

Key messages

Multi-disciplinary teams acknowledge the multi-dimensional impacts of abuse and the needs of children and families affected by abuse by bringing together workers from different disciplines and agencies (e.g., police and child protection) to discuss, plan and carry out responses to cases of child abuse.

There is evidence to support the idea that multi-disciplinary teams can result in improvements, particularly in criminal justice outcomes and increased referral to and/or uptake of therapeutic and support services.

Most Australian jurisdictions have detailed arrangements in place for joint investigations by specialist child abuse police and child protection workers.

It appears that multi-disciplinary teams with demonstrated effectiveness in responding to severe child abuse allegations share many of the same characteristics (e.g., evidence-based child interviewing protocols, information-sharing mechanisms, joint planning and independent child advocacy). The national comparison conducted for this paper suggests that Australian jurisdictions have many of these characteristics.

A few jurisdictions have examples of co-located fully integrated cross-agency teams. In these jurisdictions, police, child protection and built-in support services work alongside the investigation, with co-located therapeutic services.

Some of the more populous jurisdictions have statewide plans in place to foster effective cross-agency practice; while the smaller states tend to rely on centralised responses based out of the capital cities.

Australian jurisdictions have a variety of approaches to developing effective cross-agency responses. There is a need for ongoing research and evaluation of these rapidly changing arrangements considering the complex and interconnected outcomes associated with protecting children from future harm, the prosecution of offenders and the amelioration of harm to children post-disclosure.


The response to severe child abuse (namely abuse requiring police investigation) requires many different workers across agencies and disciplinary backgrounds to work together effectively. This paper reports on the arrangements in place in each state/territory to support a cross-agency response based on characteristics associated with effective cross-agency responses identified in the research literature. This paper was prepared to provide practitioners and policy makers with a national view on cross-agency policies to encourage cross-jurisdictional learning and sharing of approaches. The authors also hope that this paper will lead to a national discussion around effective policies and practices in cross-agency responses. Each state/territory was compared on the characteristics of their response to severe child abuse, arrangements for joint planning, interviewing and investigation, the degree of integration of therapeutic and supportive services, and governance arrangements.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Dr James Herbert is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Child Protection, University of South Australia. Dr Herbert has recently completed a three-year fellowship looking at cross-agency responses to severe child abuse. This work has focused on the potential benefits of more integrated responses to abuse for children and families.

Professor Leah Bromfield is one of Australia's foremost child protection researchers and is Co-Director at the Australian Centre for Child Protection. Professor Bromfield is a well-regarded research expert in issues affecting child protection systems. She was also Professorial Fellow to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. She has worked closely with state, national and international governments on establishing and implementing child welfare reforms, including the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children.

The authors would like to thank Parkerville Children and Youth Care Inc. for providing salary support for Dr Herbert's Post-Doctoral Fellowship. The authors would also like to acknowledge the support of the NSW Ombudsman for their assistance with undertaking the national comparison, and thank all of the state/territory agencies that commented on the information summaries provided to them; and Debbie Scott and Will Douglas for their feedback and input into the paper.

Featured image: © istockphoto/artolympic

Publication details

CFCA Paper
No. 47
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, February 2018.
36 pp.

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