Why is it important?:Child protection services ‘receive and assess allegations of child abuse and neglect, and/or harm to children and young people; provide and refer clients to family support and other relevant services; and intervene to protect children’ (SCRGSP 2005; AIHW 2010b). 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 although the processes are broadly similar (Bromfield & Holzer 2008). Child protection services are often located in agencies that are also responsible for providing or funding alternative care arrangement such as foster care, where the care of the child in their original family is not an option.
Indigenous Australians’ experience of child welfare policies has historically been traumatic, with misguided policies leading to the forcible removal of children now known as the Stolen Generations (HREOC 1997). The consequences of these removal policies have long-term resonance, including social, physical and psychological devastation for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people directly involved, as well as their families and communities, and the repeated removal of children over generations (Raphael et al. 1998; Yehuda et al. 2001).
Child protection issues continue to be very significant for Indigenous communities, reflecting this history of trauma and stressors that have impacted on parents and communities.
In responding to situations in which Indigenous children are at risk, all states and territories have adopted the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle which requires that where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed from their family, the following order of preference for their placement should be followed: the child’s extended family; the child’s Indigenous community; other Indigenous people.
Findings:In 2008–09, the rate of substantiated child protection notifications per 1,000 children aged 0–16 years was 38 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children—close to 8 times the rate for non-Indigenous children (5 per 1,000). This was an increase from 32 per 1,000 in 2006–07. Rates of children who were the subject of substantiations of notifications vary across jurisdictions, reflecting different legislation and practices and rates also vary from year to year within jurisdictions. While comparisons between jurisdictions should be made with care, rates of Indigenous children who were the subject of substantiations were higher than for non-Indigenous children within each jurisdiction (AIHW 2010b). Compared with other children, the reason for substantiated child protection notification for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is more likely to be for neglect rather than sexual or physical abuse.
As at 30 June 2009 there were 10,271 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders, an increase of 258% since June 1998. There was an 85% increase for other children over the same period.
Whilst there are some data issues that impact comparability over time, the general trends evident in the data are very significant. The increase in children on care and protection orders may be attributed to a greater awareness of child abuse and neglect but also to the cumulative effect of the growing number of children who enter the child protection system at a young age and remain on orders until they are 18 years of age (AIHW 2010b).
As at 30 June 2009, there were 10,512 Indigenous children in out-of-home care, equivalent to 4.5% of all Indigenous children. This compares with 0.5% of non-Indigenous children. Across Australia, 73% of Indigenous children in out-of-home care are placed with either an Indigenous carer or a relative/kin or in other Indigenous care. Placements with an Indigenous carer or relative/kin were highest in New South Wales (84%) and lowest in Tasmania (28%). Reasons for placements outside the Indigenous community include the unavailability of carers within the community, the impact of trauma and disadvantage on previous generations, the unwillingness of some Indigenous people to be associated with the welfare system, and the high number of Indigenous children requiring care (Berlyn & Bromfield 2009).
Implications:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be subject to higher rates of child protection substantiations, mainly for neglect. COAG has two major commitments in the area of child protection: The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 (COAG 2009) and the National Plan for Australia to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2009–2021. These commitments recognise that everyone has a right to be safe from family violence and abuse and that preventing family violence and child abuse is best achieved by families, communities, community organisations and governments working as partners to build strong and resilient families.
The National Framework acknowledges a need ‘to move from seeing ‘protecting children’ as a response to abuse and neglect to one of promoting the safety and wellbeing of children’ (COAG 2009, p7). The Framework applies a public health model approach to child protection issues in order to achieve better outcomes for children, young people and their families. With a public health model, the emphasis shifts to establishing universal supports for all families (e.g. in health and education), with more intensive (secondary) prevention interventions available for families that need additional assistance with a focus on early intervention. Tertiary child protection services are used as a last resort.
A priority is to support Indigenous community-building activities strengthening families and communities in targeted areas that put children at-risk, and speaking up about abuse. The National Plan will coordinate a national violence prevention agenda across all States and Territories. A key role for health portfolios is to strengthen child and maternal health services which can play an important role in prevention and early intervention.
Figure 107 – Children aged 0–16 years who were the subject of a substantiation: rate per 1,000 children, by Indigenous status and jurisdiction, 2008–09
Source: AIHW 2010b
Text description of figure 107 (TXT 1KB)
Figure 108 – Number of Indigenous children aged 0–17 years on care and protection orders as at 30 June 1998 to 20 June 2009
Source: AIHW 2008c and previous years
Text description of figure 108 (TXT 1KB)
Table 50 – Children (0–17 years) in out-of-home care by Indigenous status and state and territory, at 30 June 2009
Number of Children:
Rate per 1,000 children
Source: AIHW 2010b
Table 51 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care: Indigenous status and relationship of carer to child, by state and territory, at 30 June 2009
|Other Indigenous caregiver|
|Indigenous residential care|
|Other residential care|
|Total placed with relatives/kin or other Indigenous caregivers|
|Total not placed with relatives/kin or other Indigenous caregivers|
Source: AIHW 2010b