Child abuse and neglect statistics
Last updated May 2013
In this paper we present and discuss a snapshot of data describing child protection activity in Australia. The data presented is a summary of the data provided in Child Protection Australia 2011-2012 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2013).
In Australia, state and territory governments have the statutory responsibility for protecting children from child abuse and neglect. This fragmented system can result in some children “falling through the cracks”. This recognition has seen the development of a National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (Council of Australian Governments, 2009).1 The Framework provides a shared approach with national leadership and clearly stated “child protection is everybody’s business”. This is a move from the tertiary response-driven system that has existed in the past to a public health model with a focus on universal support for all families and more intensive, or targeted responses for families that need additional support. Involvement with the child protection system would be a tertiary response and only used as a last resort for the most vulnerable children and families.
Since 1990, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has compiled annual national figures for child protection activity. Definitions of what constitutes child abuse and neglect vary across the different states and territories. It is therefore difficult to obtain consistent and comparable national statistics. When interpreting the national figures, different legislation, policies and procedures of each state and territory should be taken into account.2 It is also important to consider that not all children identified in these statistics will necessarily have been maltreated. Child protection authorities are required to intervene if a child has been, is currently being, or is at risk of being, harmed. Therefore, a certain proportion of children in these statistics will be those who have not been harmed, but are at risk of future harm.
The most recent national figures from the AIHW indicate that in Australia, during 2011-12, there were 252,962 notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect made to state and territory authorities (a rate of 34.0 notifications per 1,000 Australian children), which is an increase of 6.6% from the 237,273 reports made in 2010-2011.
At a state level, compared to 2010-11 notifications, all jurisdictions have increased except South Australia which showed a proportional 10% decrease. The proportional increase for other jurisdictions ranged from 1% for New South Wales to 25% in Western Australia.
While these numbers may reflect an actual change in the magnitude of child maltreatment in Australia, it is also possible that the numbers of notifications may reflect changes in legislation, public awareness, and/or child protection process enquiries.
Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2013)
Notes: (a) Due to the implementation of a new information management system, New South Wales could not provide data for investigations, substantiations or children on orders in 2003-04. (b) Due to the implementation of a new information management system, Queensland was unable to provide investigation data in 2006-07 (c) The data from Victoria for previous years were updated in 2009. This data may not be matched to data published in previous publications of Child Protection Australia.
* Finalised investigations are those substantiated or not substantiated by the relevant state authority by 31 August. Any investigations that are ongoing at this point cannot be included in the data for this report (6% or 6,958 for 2011-12) and so are not included in the finalised investigation numbers.
|Year||Total notifications||Total finalised investigations||Total substantiations||Children on orders||Children in OOHC|
(a) Due to the implementation of a new information management system, New South Wales could not provide data for investigations, substantiations or children on orders in 2003-04. (b) Due to the implementation of a new information management system, Queensland was unable to provide investigation data in 2006-07 (c) The data from Victoria for previous years were updated in 2009. This data may not be matched to data published in previous publications of Child Protection Australia.
Source: AIHW (2013)
The figures show that the notification of cases to child protection services has increased through to 2008–09 and despite a decline in numbers over the 2 years to 2010-11, the overall trend of notifications has risen since 2000-01.
A child may be the subject of more than one notification - in 2011-12, the 252,962 notifications recorded during the financial year concerned 173,502 children. In the last 6 years, the number of children subject to a notification has decreased by 8%, from 188,666 to 173,502, and the number of children who were the subject of a substantiation increased by 9% from 34,028 to 37,781.
In 2011-12, a total of 116,528 notifications of child abuse were investigated and of these, 106,754 were finalised by 31 August3 (AIHW, 2013). The 2011-12 figure is an increase of 6.6% on the number of finalised investigations recorded in 2010-11 (99,649). Similar to notifications, there was a decrease in the number of investigations over a 2-year period of 2008-09 and 2010-11, but the overall trend for investigations since 2000-01 is upward (see Figure 1).
The total number of substantiations of notifications received across Australia increased between 2010-11 and 2011-12. There were 48,420 substantiations across Australia in 2011-12, which was a 19.7% increase on the number of substantiations recorded in the previous financial year (40,466) (see Table 2). The 48,480 substantiations recorded during the financial year concerned 37,781 children.
Overall, the total number of substantiations in Australia has nearly doubled since 2001 (1.77 times higher) but have shown a downward trend since 2005-06 (see Table 2).
Compared to 2010-11 the jurisdictions of South Australia and Tasmania both recorded falls in the number of substantiations while all other jurisdictions increased (see Table 2).
(a) The data for 2002-03 onwards should not be compared with previous years. New South Wales implemented a modification to the data system to support legislation and practice changes during 2002-03 which would make any comparison inaccurate. New South Wales was able to provide limited data for 2003-04 due to the introduction of a new client information system. (b) The increase in substantiations in Tasmania is considered to be in part due to increased application of the Tasmanian Risk Framework as well as greater adherence to the definition of "substantiation" published by the AIHW. (c) The decrease in substantiations in 2002-03 reflects the decrease in notifications in Western Australia. (d) The increase in substantiations in 2003-04 relates to the increase in notifications in the ACT. (e) Data relating to substantiations for Tasmania for 2005-06 and 2006-07 should be interpreted carefully due to the high proportion of investigations in process by 31 August. (f) Due to new service and data reporting arrangements, the Victorian child protection data for 2006-07 may not be fully comparable with previous years' data. (g) 2006-07 data for Queensland was updated in 2008. Data is different to the interim data published in Child Protection Australia 2006-07. (h) 2006-07 substantiation figures for Queensland are affected by a change in recording practice. From March 2007, any new child protection concerns received by the department that relate to an open notification or investigation and assessment are recorded as an additional concern and linked to the open notification/investigation and assessment. Previously, any new child protection concerns received by the department were recorded as an additional notification. If an investigation relating to these notifications was substantiated, each notification was recorded as a separate substantiation. Because new concerns are now recorded as additional concerns and not notifications, only the original notification is counted as a substantiation, where the investigation outcome is substantiated. (i) The decrease in the number of substantiated investigations reflects a requirement of staff to substantiate emotional abuse or neglect only if there was, or is likely to be, significant harm and there was no one with parental responsibility willing and able to protect the child/young person. Recording an outcome of an appraisal as not substantiated does not exclude ongoing work with the child or young person. (j) NSW data are not comparable with other jurisdictions. NSW has a differential investigation response whereby an investigation may be undertaken over two stages. Only the more serious cases lead to a recorded substantiation outcome. Following the NSW Keep Them Safe Reforms, the 2010-11 data reflect the first full year of reporting under legislative changes to the NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 proclaimed on 24 January 2010.
Note: Data may include unborn children
Source: AIHW (2013, p.20; 2012, p. 18; 2005, p. 18)
Substantiations are categorised into one of four harm types: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Table 3 shows the breakdown of substantiations for the four different types of harm in Australian states and territories. In Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania emotional abuse was the most commonly substantiated harm type. In New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Northern Territory neglect was the most commonly substantiated harm type.
Source: AIHW (2013, p. 59)
The maltreatment types most commonly substantiated across Australia were emotional abuse and child neglect (see Figure 2). Emotionally abusive behaviours included verbally abusing, terrorising, scape-goating, isolating, rejecting and ignoring. Children who witness domestic violence are also typically categorised as having experienced emotional abuse. The high proportion of substantiations of emotional abuse is a relatively new phenomenon (AIHW, 2011). The inclusion of children who have witnessed domestic violence is likely to be one of the key reasons for the high rates of substantiated emotional abuse (Holzer & Bromfield, 2008).
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. Neglectful behaviours could be physical, emotional, educational or environmental (Child Family Community Australia, 2012).
Source: AIHW (2013, p.59)
Type of harm
Twenty-one percent of Australian children who were substantiated for abuse were substantiated for physical abuse. Sexual abuse was the substantiated form of maltreatment in 13% of substantiations.
Nationally, girls were twice as likely as boys to be the subject of a substantiation of sexual abuse. This ranged from 3% in the Northern Territory to 22% in Western Australia. In Western Australia, more than three times as many girls were subject to a substantiation of sexual abuse than boys.
The rates of substantiated harm or risk of harm decreased as age increased. Children aged less than 1 year were the most likely to be the subject of a substantiation of abuse or neglect (13.2 per 1,000 children), followed by children aged 1–4 years (8.4 per 1,000 children). Children aged 15–17 years were the least likely to be the subject of a substantiation (3.2 per 1,000 children).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were more likely to be the subject of substantiated reports than were other children. Across Australia, Indigenous children were 8 times more likely to be the subject of substantiation than non-Aboriginal children in 2011-12 (with rates of 41.9 per 1000 children compared with 5.4 per 1000). For further details of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system see the Child Protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children.
Some children who are found to have been harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and neglect are removed from their homes by child protection authorities and placed in out-of-home care.
Box 1: Types of out-of-home care
- Residential care: placement is in a residential building whose purpose is to provide placements for children and where there are paid staff.
- Family group homes: provide care to children in a departmentally or community sector agency provided home. These homes have live-in, non-salaried carers who are reimbursed and/or subsidised for the provision of care.
- Home based care: placement is in the home of a carer who is reimbursed for expenses for the care of the child. There are 3 categories of home based care: relative or kinship care, foster care and other home based out-of home care.
- Independent living: including private board and lead tenant households.
- Other: placements that do not fit into the above categories and unknown placement types. This may include boarding schools, hospital, hotels/motels and the defence force.
- Placements solely funded by disability services, medical or psychiatric services, juvenile justice facilities, overnight child care services or supported accommodation assistance placements, and children in placements with parents where the jurisdiction makes a financial payment are excluded.
Source: AIHW, 2013, p. 36.
Nationally, the number of children in out-of-home care has risen each year from 2000 to 2012. There were 39,621 children in out-of-home care on 30 June 2012, which equates to a rate of 7.7 per 1,000 Australian children. Nationally, the rate of children in out-of-home care has increased every year with an increase of 27% since 30 June 2008. Between 2010-11 and 2011-12 there was an increase of 5% (from 11,613 to 12,240 children) admitted to out-of-home care. The rise in children who are living in out-of-home care is a reflection of the number of admissions outnumbering discharges and remaining in out-of-home care. Almost half (43%) of children in out-of-home care were aged less than 5 years. A further 23% were aged 5-9 years, 23% were between 10 and 14 years, and 11% were aged 15-17 years.
Most children who were in out-of-home care in the 2011-12 period were residing in home-based care (93%).
Of those children in home-based care, 44% were in foster care, 47% were in relative/kinship care, and 2% were in some other type of home-based care.
A small proportion of children (5%) removed from their homes were placed in residential care, where staff were paid to care for them. Residential care is primarily used for children with complex needs. The proportions of children in residential care ranged from 3% in New South Wales to 10% in Tasmania. No child in the Northern Territory resides in a residential care setting.
At 30 June 2012, there were 13,299 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care, a rate of 55.1 per 1000 children. The national rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care was almost 10 times the rate for other children.
For a more detailed discussion on children in out-of-home care, see Children in Care.
Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused and/or neglected or is at risk of being abused and/or neglected may make a report to child protection authorities.
Each state and territory has its own legislation stipulating those people who are mandated by law to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. The requirements vary between each state/territory. Mandatory reporting requirements are outlined in Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Nationally, in 2011-12 notifications were most commonly made by members of the police force, followed by school personnel and social workers. The least common sources of notifications were the subject child and childcare personnel.
Child protection statistics tells us how many children come into contact with child protection services. It is the only data routinely collected in Australia that give an idea of the number of children experiencing child abuse and neglect. However there are several problems (see Box 2) 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 neglect being included in child protection statistics.
Child protection statistics are the best available indicator of the extent of the problem of child abuse and neglect in Australia, but they do not tell us how many children in the community have been abused or neglected.
Box 2: The limitations of child protection statistics as an indicator for child maltreatment incidence
Traditionally, child protection data have been perceived as a conservative estimate of the occurrence of child maltreatment (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004). Child abuse and neglect often goes undetected due to the private nature of the crime, the difficulties children experience in making disclosures and being believed, and lack of evidence to substantiate the crime (Irenyi, 2007). Child protection data only include those cases of abuse and neglect that were detected and reported and are therefore likely to be an underestimation of the number of children abused or neglected.
In addition to the under-reporting of abuse and neglect, system issues may also contribute to the underestimation of the number who are abused or neglected. Child protection data exclude cases where the abuse or neglect was not perpetrated by the parent and the parent is protecting the child (e.g., child sexually abused by a non-family member who lives in the community) (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004). These cases are generally considered to be a police, not a child protection matter.
Child protection data also include some children who were not abused or neglected:
- reports to child protection include cases in which children need care and protection, but the children have not been abused or neglected (e.g., parent hospitalised and there is no one to care for the child) (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004); and
- cases in which the state became involved to protect children who were at risk of being abused or neglected, but had not yet experienced any maltreatment (e.g., mother's new partner is a known child sex offender) (Bromfield & Higgins, 2004).
The total number of notifications and substantiations reported by child protection services in any given year will also include some children who are reported to child protection services more than once in a 12-month period. Each new notification or substantiation does not necessarily represent a different child as there is the possibility of a small level of double-counting (AIHW, 2012).
Finally, it is worth noting that child protection data reflect only those families reported to child protection services. Economically disadvantaged families are more likely to come in contact with, and therefore under the scrutiny of, public authorities. This means that it is more likely that abuse and neglect will be identified in economically disadvantaged families if it is present (Beckett, 2003).
Other countries such as Canada, the US and the UK have undertaken national prevalence or incidence studies to enable more accurate estimates of how much abuse and neglect occurs in the community. "Prevalence" refers to the total number of children who have experienced abuse or neglect at some point in their childhood. "Incidence" refers to the total number of children who experienced abuse or neglect during a specified time period. Such information is usually collected via a large survey of the population.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2013). Child protection Australia 2011-12. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=60129542755>
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2012). Child protection Australia 2010-11. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737421016>.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Child protection Australia 2009-10. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publications/index.cfm/title/10859>.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2005). Child protection Australia 2003-04. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from <www.aihw.gov.au/publications/cws/cpa03-04/cpa03-04.pdf>
- Beckett, C. (2003). Child protection: An introduction. London: SAGE Publications.
- Bromfield, L. M., & Higgins, D. J. (2004). The limitations of using statutory child protection data for research into child maltreatment. Australian Social Work, 57(1), 19-30.
Child Family Community Australia. (2012). What is child abuse and neglect? Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/pubs/factsheets/a142091/index.html>
Council of Australian Governments. (2009). Protecting children is everyone's business: National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020. Canberra: FaHCSIA. Retrieved from <www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/families-and-children/publications-articles/protecting-children-is-everyones-business>
- Holzer, P. J., & Bromfield, L. M. (2008). NCPASS comparability of child protection data: Project report (PDF 1.4 MB). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from: <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/reports/ncpass/ncpass.pdf>.
- Irenyi, M. (2007). Responding to children and young people's disclosures of abuse (NCPC Practice Brief 2). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/brief/pb2/pb2.html>.
Additional CFCA readings
- Children in Care
- Child Protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children
- Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect
This paper was updated by Deborah Scott, Research Fellow, with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The authors acknowledge the work of Lalitha Nair, Dr Leah Bromfield, Briony Horsfall, Alister Lamont and Mel Irenyi on previous versions of this paper.
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, May 2013
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2 For more information on the legal definitions across the states and territories, see Australian Legal Definitions: When is a Child in Need of Protection?
3 Finalised investigations are those substantiated or not substantiated by the relevant state authority by 31 August. Any investigations that are ongoing at this point cannot be included in the data for this report (6% or 6,958 for 2011-12) and so are not included in the finalised investigation numbers.
- See topics - Child abuse and neglect