Emotional abuse of children is a growing problem in Australia

Content type
Short article

July 2016


Aron Shlonsky, Kerry Arabena, Robyn Mildon

We often hear stories about children being removed from the care of their parents. But how common is this in Australia? What are the main reasons for why this happens? And how does it get to this stage?

To understand this we need to take a closer look at the families that are coming into contact with the child protection system.



Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY-ND

Data shows that over the last three years, the number of child protection notifications, investigations, and substantiations for child maltreatment have increased by 11% for non-Indigenous children and 15% for Indigenous children.

And while the rate of admissions to foster care for all children (2.2 per 1000) is comparatively low to the number of children currently residing in alternative care arrangements (8.1 per 1000), this is due to the fact that many of these children will never go home.

And the picture is worse for Indigenous children.

The number of Indigenous children living in alternative care arrangements has increased by nearly 22% over the last five years while the rate for non-Indigenous children has increased by about 7%.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY-ND

It follows a history of systematic and forced removal of children from Indigenous families and communities. Between 1910 and 1970, it is estimated that between 10% to 30% of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families, resulting in intergenerational personal and community impacts that are severe and far-reaching.

There are many possible reasons for the increasing numbers of children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who receive some form of child protection. For example, there may be more child maltreatment; we may simply be better at discovering it; we have lowered our threshold for responding; or we do not know what else to do for families experiencing certain types of difficulties; or we are becoming increasingly risk averse.

Unfortunately we have very little information about any of these children and families, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, making explanations difficult.

Majority of children removed from parents due to emotional abuse

Emotional abuse – which includes exposure to domestic violence – and neglect – a failure to provide for a child’s essential needs – are by far the main forms of substantiated child maltreatment, rather than physical or sexual abuse.

Taken together, emotional abuse and neglect are estimated to be the primary form of maltreatment for about seven in ten investigated children in 2014-15.

Even when physical abuse is primary, emotional abuse and/or neglect often co-occur.

Substantiated abuse statistics: Cases of substantiated abuse nationally, 2014-15Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY-ND

These forms of maltreatment are often proxies for concerns stemming from domestic violence, substance misuse, and mental health issues.

At a broader level, maltreatment (especially child neglect) is highly related to poverty, especially long-term poverty, and Indigenous households tend to be considerably worse off than non-Indigenous households in terms of income.

Gender breakdown of substantiated abuseAustralian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY-ND

How does this affect children?

We actually don’t know as the data collected does not look at how children are doing in any stage of child protection system involvement.

More and more, we are able to use linked data to get educational test scores or ascertain whether they have experienced a health issue. But systematic, real-time assessments of how children or parents/caregivers are actually doing are rare.

At best, we know from studies that children transitioning to adulthood from care tend to fare less well than their peers.

So we have an increasing number of children and families facing complex challenges and we know next to nothing about who they are and how they are doing. We are also not providing the types of services needed to deal the issues that drive maltreatment.

How do we change this dismal picture?

The path to out-of-home care: Cases in the child protective services system, 2014-15Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY-ND


Better support for parents

We have to understand that parents are usually best placed to raise their own children, even if they have problems.

Research shows that better outcomes for vulnerable young children are better achieved by strengthening the resources and capabilities of parents, rather than focusing on more traditional services aimed primarily at children.

Focus on family wellbeing

We need to expand our focus to include child and family wellbeing rather than the more limited safety and risk paradigm we are currently stuck in.

Other child protection systems, such as those in the US, are rapidly shifting to a wellbeing approach, which incorporates the basics of safety (that is, maltreatment impacts wellbeing) and permanence (having a long-term, stable caregiver) but has a broader focus on achieving optimal child development.

For instance, the new Quality Assurance Framework for OOHC in New South Wales builds on US federal policy, which essentially defines wellbeing as consisting of the things children need to develop into healthy, well-functioning adults.

This includes maximising children’s intellectual and cognitive functioning, making sure that their physical and mental health needs are met, and supporting their development of a positive self-identity.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY-ND

Need more data

We cannot really understand what to do, either at an individual or population level, unless we better understand the children and families who need our assistance.

We are making do with poor information because it is all we have. We need to measure child wellbeing using properly validated instruments that are easy to use and provide key information to frontline practitioners.

We would not go to the doctor for a health emergency and expect them to simply guess at what the problem might be and how well it is being resolved. We would all opt for valid tests of problem and progress. These exist for parent and child wellbeing, and we should use them. If we successfully define and measure child and family wellbeing, we will work to achieve it and transform the system in the process.

Improve child protection services

We have to provide families with services that are effective for dealing with the problems identified.

Too often, our main child protection system intervention appears to be to engage with parents by pointing out the effects their behaviours are likely to have on their children (which can be good to point out) and threatening them with the loss of their children if their behaviours do not change.

Parents and caregivers in the child protection system are too often overwhelmed by their circumstances to adopt and maintain new behaviours or they just need to gain new skills.

Simply asking people to change without adequate support and corresponding systems change is insufficient. Other systems are making the switch from protection and welfare to child wellbeing. It is time Australia did as well.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The feature image is by artjouer street artCC BY-NC 2.0