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Tier 2 - Determinants of health

2.12 Child protection

Key facts

Why is it important?

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being raised in safe environments, where their parents are teaching them to be active contributors to family and community life (Lohoar et al. 2014). However, Indigenous Australian children are over-represented in all aspects of the child protection system (COAG 2009). Indigenous Australians’ experience of child welfare policies has historically been traumatic, with the policy of forcible removal of children leading to what is now known as the Stolen Generations (The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997). The consequences of these removal policies have long-term effects, including social, physical and psychological impacts for those directly involved, as well as for their families and communities (Atkinson 2013). Child protection issues continue to be very significant for the Indigenous Australian population, reflecting this history of trauma and stressors that have impacted on parents, parenting skills and communities. Issues such as substance abuse, poverty and family violence are also key factors (AHRC 2015; de Bortoli et al. 2015).

Experience of maltreatment (physical, emotional and psychological abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and witnessing family violence) during childhood has serious and long-term effects on social and emotional wellbeing and health (Emerson et al. 2015). Exposure to trauma, neglect and experience of out-of-home care is associated with suicidal behaviour (Atkinson 2013; Robinson et al. 2011). Children and young people who have been abused or neglected are also at greater risk of engaging in criminal activity and of entering the youth justice system (AIHW 2019a).

In responding to situations in which Indigenous Australian children are at risk, all states and territories have adopted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle. The fundamental goal of the principle is to enhance and preserve Indigenous Australian children’s connection to family and community, and their sense of identity and culture. The principle recognises the importance of connections to family, community, culture and Country in child and family legislation, policy and practice, and emphasises the importance of self-determination in supporting and maintaining those connections (Burton et al. 2018). Where Indigenous Australian children are removed from their family, the principle requires the following order of preference for their placement to be followed: the child’s extended family; the child’s Indigenous community; other Indigenous Australians. Barriers to this principle include a shortage of foster and kinship carers, issues of support for kinship carers and inconsistency in child protection decision-making (Arney et al. 2015; Kiraly & Humphreys 2016).

All jurisdictions have legislative requirements on the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. In Australia, child protection functions are undertaken at the state and territory level of government. Each jurisdiction has its own legislation, policies and practices in relation to child protection (AIHW 2019a, 2019b; Guthridge et al. 2014).

The recently established National Agreement on Closing the Gap has identified the importance of addressing child protection, community safety and juvenile justice with specific outcomes, targets and indicators to direct policy attention and monitor progress in these areas. Reporting arrangements for the new agreement are being established. The data presented in this report predates the establishment of these targets.

Findings

What does the data tell us?

Substantiated child protection notifications

Between 2008–09 and 2016–17, for all jurisdictions, the rate of Indigenous children aged 0–17 who were the subject of a substantiated child protection notification increased from 28 per 1,000 (8,172) to 42 per 1,000 (13,749). The rate for non-Indigenous children also increased over the same period, from 5.2 per 1,000 (24,469) to 6.8 per 1,000 (34,915) (Table D2.12.1).

In 2017–18, substantiations data excluded New South Wales as data was unavailable due to the implementation of a new client management system. This resulted in a lower national count for substantiations than in recent years. For the seven jurisdictions with available data, there were 8,425 Indigenous children and 22,880 non-Indigenous children aged 0–17 who were the subjects of substantiated child protection notifications.

This increase may not necessarily reflect an increase in abuse, neglect or harm but could indicate an increase in community awareness, a greater willingness to report suspected cases for investigation or changes to the legislation and definitions (AIC 2005). Increases could also reflect changes in laws, policies or child protection practices (for example, changes relating to mandatory reporting and increased access and availability of services) (SCRGSP 2016).

Although the processes that each jurisdiction uses to protect children are broadly similar, there are some important differences between jurisdictions’ legislation, child protection policies and practices that should be taken into account when making cross-jurisdiction comparisons (AIHW 2019c). Noting that comparisons between jurisdictions should be made with care, the rate of Indigenous children who were the subject of child protection substantiations was higher than for non-Indigenous children in all jurisdictions (ranging between 4.1 and 11.3 times the rate for non-Indigenous children) (Table D2.12.3, Figure 2.12.1).

Figure 2.12.1: Children aged 0–17 who were the subject of a substantiated child protection notification, by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2017–18

This bar chart shows that, 84 per 1,000 of Indigenous children aged 0–17 in Victoria were the subjects of substantiations of notifications, followed by the Northern Territory (57 per 1,000) and Western Australia (51 per 1,000), the lowest rate was in Tasmania (11 per 1,000); for non-Indigenous children, it was 11 per 1,000 in Victoria, followed by the Northern Territory (7 per 1,000).

Note: New South Wales substantiation data was unavailable for 2017–18.
Source: Table D2.12.3 AIHW 2019. Child protection Australia 2017–18. Table S13. Child welfare series no. 70. Cat. No. CWS 65. Canberra: AIHW.

In 2017–18 (excluding New South Wales), the most common reason for substantiated notifications for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children was emotional abuse (4,179 or 50% and 14,325 or 63%, respectively), followed by neglect (2,528 or 30% and 2,661 or 12%, respectively), and physical abuse (1,195 or 14% and 3,373 or 15%, respectively) (AIHW 2019c) (Table S14).

Care and protection orders

As at 30 June 2018, 20,545 Indigenous children were the subject of care and protection orders—a rate of 62 per 1,000 (Table D2.12.6, Table D2.12.11). This was a significant increase from the rate of 34 per 1,000 (10,271) at 30 June 2009 and an annual increase of 3.2 per 1,000. Over the same period, the rate for non‑Indigenous children increased from 5.3 per 1,000 (25,052) to 6.8 per 1,000 (35,651) (Table D2.12.11, Figure 2.12.2).

Figure 2.12.2: Children aged 0–17 on care and protection orders, by Indigenous status, 30 June 2009 to 30 June 2018

This line graph shows that, Indigenous children aged 0–17 who were on care and protection orders was increased from 34 per 1,000 in 2009 to 62 per 1,000 in 2018, and it increased from 5.3 per 1,000 to 6.8 per 1,000.

Source: Table D2.12.11. AIHW Child protection Australia 2008–09 to 2017–18.

By jurisdiction, the rate of Indigenous children who were the subject of care and protection orders was highest for Victoria (2,751 or 115 per 1,000 children), followed by the Australian Capital Territory (278 or 97 per 1,000 children), and lowest for Tasmania (423 or 37 per 1,000 children) and the Northern Territory (1,000 or 38 per 1,000 children) (Table D2.12.7, Figure 2.12.3).

Figure 2.12.3: Children aged 0–17 on care and protection orders, by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 30 June 2018

This bar chart shows that, 62 per 1,000 of Indigenous children and 7 per 1,000 of non-Indigenous children were in out-of-home care on 30 June 2018; for Indigenous children, the highest rate was in Victoria (115 per 1,000), followed by the ACT (97 per 1,000), and the lowest was in Tasmania (37 per 1,000); for non-Indigenous children, the highest was in Tasmania (9 per 1,000) and the lowest in the Northern Territory (3 per 1,000).

Source: Table D2.12.7. AIHW 2019. Child protection Australia 2017–18. Table S29. Child welfare series no. 70. Cat. No. CWS 65. Canberra: AIHW.

Of Indigenous children who were the subject of substantiations in 2016–17, 29% (2,564) were subsequently placed on a care and protection order within 12 months. The proportion was lowest in the Northern Territory (238 or 14%) and highest in Victoria (991 or 51%), for the seven jurisdictions with available data (excludes New South Wales) (Table D2.12.16).

Out-of-home care

At 30 June 2018, of the 45,756 children in out-of-home care in Australia, 17,900 (or 39%) were Indigenous. Between 30 June 2009 and 30 June 2018, the rate for Indigenous children who were in out-of-home care rose from 35 per 1,000 (10,512) to 54 per 1,000 (17,900). Indigenous children were 10 times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care (54 compared with 5.3 per 1,000 children or 17,900 compared with 27,894) (Table D2.12.1, Figure 2.12.4).

Figure 2.12.4: Children aged 0–17 in out-of-home care, by Indigenous status, 30 June 2009 to 30 June 2018

This line chart shows that the rate of children aged 0–17 in out-of-home care increased from 35 per 1,000 to 54 per 1,000 for Indigenous, and around 5 to 6 per 1,000 for non-Indigenous.

Source: Table D2.12.1. AIHW 2019. Child protection Australia 2017–18. Table S61. Child welfare series no. 70. Cat. No. CWS 65. Canberra: AIHW.

By jurisdiction, the rate of Indigenous children who were in out-of-home care was highest for the Australian Capital Territory (260 or 91 per 1,000 children), followed by Victoria (1,975 or 83 per 1,000 children) and lowest for Tasmania (389 or 34 per 1,000 children) and the Northern Territory (953 or 37 per 1,000 children) (Table D2.12.12, Figure 2.12.5).

Figure 2.12.5: Children aged 0–17 in out-of-home care, by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 30 June 2018

This bar chart shows that 54 per 1,000 of Indigenous children aged 0–17 and 5 per1,000 of non-Indigenous children were in out-of-home care at 30 June 2018; the rate for Indigenous children was highest in the ACT 91 per 1,000), followed by Victoria (83 per1,000), and lowest in the Northern Territory (37 per 1,000); for non-Indigenous children, the highest was in Tasmania (8 per 1,000) and lowest in the Northern Territory (3 per 1,000).

Source: Table D2.12.12. AIHW 2019. Child protection Australia 2017–18. Table S43. Child welfare series no. 70. Cat. No. CWS 65. Canberra: AIHW.

As at 30 June 2018, 65% (11,350) of Indigenous children in out-of-home care were placed with a relative/kin, other Indigenous carer or in Indigenous residential care. These placements were highest in Victoria (79% or 1,343) and New South Wales (74% or 4,967) and lowest in the Northern Territory (33% or 315) (AIHW 2019c) (Table S45).

Youth justice supervision

From 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2018, Indigenous Australians aged 10–17 who were in the child protection system, were more likely than non-Indigenous Australians of the same age to be under youth justice supervision at some time in the 4-year period: 23% (1,391) of Indigenous males and 9.3% (640) of Indigenous females, compared with 7.4% (1,362) of non-Indigenous males and 3.1% (633) of non-Indigenous females (AIHW 2019a) (Table S5a and S5b).

In NSW prisons, nearly half of all Indigenous inmates were placed in care as children, twice the non-Indigenous rate. Indigenous inmates were also more likely to report their parents had been placed in care as a child (27% of women and 14% of men) (Indig et al. 2010).

What do research and evaluations tell us?

Indigenous Australian children are more vulnerable to experiencing disadvantage across a range of domains, including health and education outcomes, and over-representation in child protection and youth justice systems (AHRC 2019; AIHW 2019b). The reasons for the over-representation of Indigenous Australian children in child protection and out-of-home care systems are complex and include intergenerational effects of previous separations from family and culture and the legacy of past policies of forced removal (AIHW 2019b).

Involvement with the child protection system is not only more likely for Indigenous families, it is also more likely to be repeated (Family Matters 2019). Factors associated with recurrence of child protection notifications in Australia include prior child protection involvement in the household and parental characteristics, including drug use, mental health problems and a history of maltreatment as a child (Jenkins et al. 2017). There is a connection between higher rates of ‘neglect’ and lower socioeconomic status, alcohol and substance abuse and malnutrition or ‘failure to thrive’ (AHRC 2015). Family violence is often categorised as ‘emotional abuse’. An inquiry in Victoria has found that family violence, in combination with parental alcohol and/or drug abuse, is the leading cause of Indigenous children’s entry into out-of-home care. Of the Indigenous children reviewed, 88% were impacted by family violence and 87% were affected by a parent with alcohol or substance abuse issues (Commission for Children and Young People 2016). This inquiry also found that the child protection system had failed to preserve, promote and develop cultural safety and connection for Indigenous children in out-of-home care.

Research has shown that child abuse can have consequences on subsequent growth and development, including lower self-esteem, diminished life coping skills and self-destructive behaviours. Indigenous Australian young people are 17 times as likely as non-Indigenous youth to have received both child protection services and youth justice supervision (AIHW 2019b).

Implications

Understanding and addressing the underlying causes that lead to children being at risk of child abuse is essential if sustainable change is to occur (SCRGSP 2016; McIntosh & Phillips 2002). Indigenous Australian children continue to be subject to higher rates of child protection substantiations. The long-term impact of child abuse is difficult to predict, as consideration needs to be given to many factors, including the type and duration of the abuse, family structure and support, and types of intervention. However there is universal recognition that preventing child abuse as opposed to dealing with it after it has occurred, is optimum.

Moving forward, policy initiatives targeting prevention and early intervention programs to reduce the numbers of children entering child protection systems should be prioritised. Primary prevention includes initiatives such as universal access to services, and activities and programs with a whole-of-community focus, while early intervention encompasses family support services targeted at families that may be experiencing difficulty in caring for children. Statutory intervention (for children and families where maltreatment has been identified) aims to ensure safety, appropriate care and prevent harm from re-occurring (AHRC 2019; Family Matters 2019).

Maintaining a connection to family, community and culture is particularly important given the historical experiences of Indigenous Australian families. However, evidence shows that there are barriers to maintaining this connection, including a shortage of Indigenous carers and resources to accommodate Indigenous children needing to be placed in out-of-home care (Arney et al. 2015). More support is necessary to strengthen and ensure the successful implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle.

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap was developed in partnership between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The agreement has recognised the importance of addressing child protection, community safety and juvenile justice by establishing the following outcomes and targets to direct policy attention:

  • Outcome 12—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are not over-represented in the child protection system.
    • Target—By 2031, reduce the rate of over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent.
  • Outcome 13—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and households are safe.
    • Target—A significant and sustained reduction in violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children towards zero.
  • Outcome 11—Young people are not over-represented in the criminal justice system.
    • Target—By 2031, reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (10–17 years) in detention by 30 per cent.

The policy context is at Policies and strategies.

References

  • AHRC (Australian Human Rights Commission) 2015. The Social Justice and Native Title Report 2015. Sydney: AHRC.
  • AHRC 2019. Children's Rights Report 2019-In Their Own Right: Children's Rights in Australia.
  • AIC (Australian Institute of Criminology) 2005. Children on care and protection orders in Australia. Canberra: AIC.
  • AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019a. Young people in child protection and under youth justice supervision 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2018. Canberra: AIHW.
  • AIHW 2019b. Youth justice in Australia 2017–18. Canberra.
  • AIHW 2019c. Child protection Australia: 2017–18. Child Welfare series no. 70. Cat. no. CWS 65. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Arney F, Iannos M, Chong A, McDougall S & Parkinson S 2015. Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Policy and practice considerations. Canberra: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Atkinson J 2013. Trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care for Indigenous Australian children. Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Burton J, Young J, Jayakody N, Ruggiero E & Thwaites R 2018. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: A guide to support implementation. The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC).
  • COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2009. Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020. Canberra.
  • Commission for Children and Young People 2016. ‘Always was, always will be Koori children’: Systemic inquiry into services provided to Aboriginal children and young people in out- of-home care in Victoria. Melbourne: Commission for Children and Young People.
  • de Bortoli L, Coles J & Dolan M 2015. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in child protection: A sample from the Victorian Children’s Court. Journal of Social Work 15:186-206.
  • Emerson L, Fox S & Smith C 2015. Good Beginnings: Getting it right in the early years. . Melbourne: The Lowitja Institute.
  • Family Matters 2019. The Family Matters Report 2019: Measuring trends to turn the tide on the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia.
  • Guthridge SL, Ryan P, Condon JR, Moss JR & Lynch J 2014. Trends in hospital admissions for conditions associated with child maltreatment, Northern Territory, 1999-2010. The Medical Journal of Australia 201:162-6.
  • Indig D, McEntyre E, Page J & Ross B 2010. 2009 NSW Inmate Health Survey: Aboriginal Health Report. Sydney: Justice Health.
  • Jenkins BQ, Tilbury C, Mazerolle P & Hayes H 2017. The complexity of child protection recurrence: The case for a systems approach. Child abuse & neglect 63:162-71.
  • Kiraly M & Humphreys C 2016. ‘It's about the whole family’: family contact for children in kinship care. Child & Family Social Work 21:228-39.
  • Lohoar S, Butera N & Kennedy E 2014. Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing. Canberra: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • McIntosh G & Phillips J 2002. Who's Looking after the Kids? An Overview of Child Abuse and Child Protection in Australia.
  • Robinson G, Silburn S & Leckning B 2011. Suicide of Children and Youth in the NT 2006-2010: Public Release Report for the Child Deaths Review and Prevention Committee. Darwin: Menzies SHR.
  • SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Services Provision) 2016. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: Key indicators 2016. Canberra: Productivity Commission.
  • The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997. Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Sydney: HREOC.

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