Reporting on child protection

Media backgrounder

Protecting Australia's most vulnerable children is an emotive and complex issue.

This backgrounder identifies some of the key sensitivities to consider when reporting on issues about child protection.

It is intended for journalists, news commentators and other media presenters, including bloggers.

It outlines the issues around:

Twenty-first century developments in protecting children in Australia recognise that parents, communities, governments, non-government organisations and businesses all have a role to play in reducing the risk of child abuse and neglect.

Statutory child protection services are only the "tip of the iceberg" in relation to the occurrence of child abuse and neglect.

The effects of child abuse and neglect

Child abuse and neglect can affect all areas of development - physical, psychological, cognitive, behavioural and social - and these are often interrelated. Psychologists and social workers often describe the consequences of abuse and neglect as "trauma".

Problems linked to child abuse and neglect in research have included:

  • attachment problems (i.e., developing a warm, trusting relationship with a caregiver);
  • physical health problems;
  • trauma and psychological problems;
  • learning and developmental problems;
  • behavioural problems;
  • mental health problems;
  • youth suicide;
  • eating disorders;
  • drug and alcohol abuse;
  • aggression, violence and criminal activity; and
  • teenage pregnancy.

The effects of child abuse and neglect can extend into adulthood and last a lifetime. Childhood abuse often changes the way people think about themselves, the world around them, and their hopes/expectations for the future.

Abusive experiences in adulthood can reopen old wounds of past child abuse or neglect that may lead to further adverse outcomes for adult survivors.

For further information see: Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect for Children and Adolescents and Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect for Adult Survivors.

National child protection statistics

Since 1990, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has compiled annual figures for statutory child protection activity in each state and territory.

Statistics for 2010-11 indicate that:

  • 6.1 per 1,000 children were found to be harmed or at risk from harm from abuse or neglect in 2010-11;
  • 237,273 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect were made to state and territory authorities ("notifications");
  • of the 237,273 notifications, 54% (127,759) were investigated; and
  • 40,466 notifications were substantiated, relating to 31,527 children.

Each state and territory has its own legislation, policies and procedures. This should be taken into account when interpreting the national statistics.

For further details on child protection statistics, see: Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics

The latest AIHW statistics can be found in: Child Protection Australia 2010-11.

The definition of "child abuse and neglect"

What is "child abuse and neglect"?

Child abuse and neglect consists of any acts of commission or omission by a parent, other caregiver or adult that results in harm, potential for harm, or the threat of harm to a child/young person.

The five main types of child maltreatment are:

  • physical abuse;
  • sexual abuse;
  • emotional maltreatment;
  • neglect; and
  • witnessing domestic violence.

For further details see: What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Definitional issues

A number of complex issues need to be considered when defining a form of child maltreatment. For example:

  • Definitions of child maltreatment reflect cultural values and beliefs about children's rights, child development, and appropriate parenting practices.
  • Abusive and neglectful behaviours can vary markedly in terms of severity, frequency and duration of occurrence.
  • Child maltreatment can be defined either in terms of the abusive or neglectful behaviours of adults, or by the harm caused to the child as a result of such behaviours.
  • A number of instances of child abuse or neglect occur without intent (e.g., neglectful parents).

For further details, see: Australian Legal Definitions: When is a Child in Need of Protection?

The perpetrators of child abuse and neglect

Children are most likely to be abused or neglected by parents and/or caregivers.

Child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a wider group of people, including parents, other relatives, siblings, friends or others known to the child (e.g., sports coach, teacher, religious leader).

The choice of language used when referring to perpetrators of child abuse is important. When referring to perpetrators of abuse, be mindful of the context in which the abuse has occurred. Consider what other factors have been present that may have led to the parent (or other adult) engaging in the abusive or neglectful behaviour, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, or past histories of childhood abuse.

For further details, see: Who Abuses Children?

Child abuse and neglect in organisations

Although parents and caregivers are the most likely to abuse children, child abuse within organisations has received particular attention within the media.

Common portrayals of perpetrators of abuse within organisations have often been limited to an "old man lurking in the shadows"; however, perpetrators of abuse and neglect in organisations can literally be anyone.

Instead of labelling perpetrators, it is important to identify common patterns of behaviour. Perpetrators of child abuse (particularly sexual abuse) within organisations are people who:

  • take advantage of situations;
  • create opportunities; or
  • manipulate environments, in order to abuse children.

In the past decade, child abuse within organisations has been the focus of much scrutiny. Organisations have been criticised for the way in which they have responded to child abuse allegations, such as:

  • miniminising or denying initial allegations of sexual abuse;
  • having conflicts of interest, leading to bad leadership;
  • failing to encourage victims to report alleged abuse; and
  • exhibiting inappropriate responses to the police and/or legal processes.

All child-focused organisations - including: schools; churches and other religious organisations; sporting clubs; and recreational clubs such as Cubs, Scouts and youth groups - are potentially vulnerable to perpetrators of child sex abuse.

Child-focused organisations should have policies and procedures to assist in the prevention of organisational child maltreatment.

For further information, see: Child Maltreatment in Organisations: Risk Factors and Strategies for Prevention

Child disclosures of abuse and neglect

Children and young people can disclose abuse at any time.

Many children who have been maltreated do not disclose it at all during childhood. Delays in disclosure may be linked to a range of factors, including concerns regarding the consequences of talking about what they have experienced.

If a child discloses a form of abuse or neglect to you during an interview or report, please report the disclosures to your state or territory child protection department. In some states/territories, you are mandated to do so.

If you believe the child is in immediate danger, call the police on 000.

For further information, see: Responding to Children and Young People's Disclosures of Abuse (PDF 464 KB)

Families with multiple and complex problems

Families typically involved in the state/territory child protection systems are often experiencing a range of complex and interrelated problems.

The factors most commonly associated with the occurrence of child abuse and neglect are:

  • domestic violence;
  • parental substance abuse; and
  • parental mental health problems.

These families are often situated within a wider context of exclusion and disadvantage (e.g., housing instability, poverty, low education and social isolation).

Parents may also be struggling to come to terms with their own experiences of trauma and victimisation.

When writing on child protection issues or interviewing children and/or parents involved in child protection, child protection workers or foster parents:

  • please be mindful of the grief and trauma often experienced by both children and parents;
  • provide an opportunity (if possible) for families to read/see any story based on their experiences before it is published or aired publicly; and
  • include a referral to a support service, such as Lifeline, 13 11 14.

For further information, see: Helplines and Telephone Counselling Services for Children, Young People and Parents

Community reporting of child abuse and neglect

In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for responding to reports of suspected child maltreatment from members of the public.

Anyone who suspects, on reasonable grounds, that a child or young person is at risk of being neglected or physically, sexually or emotionally abused, should report it to the authority in their state or territory.

For further information, see: Reporting Abuse and Neglect: State and Territory Departments Responsible for Protecting Children

Child protection workforce issues

Workload is a critical issue facing all state and territory child protection systems.

Currently, governments face:

  • a workforce overloaded with cases;
  • a declining capacity to recruit new statutory child protection workers;
  • low retention rates;
  • difficulties in providing appropriate training to staff; and
  • budget constraints.

Working in child protection can be extremely demanding and stressful. When interviewing a child protection professional, please be mindful of the strain many may be experiencing.

Media contacts

Email: Media inquiries

  • Aileen Muldoon 0419 112 503
  • Luisa Saccotelli 0400 149 901

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