Who's Looking after the Kids? An Overview of Child Abuse and Child Protection in Australia

Current Issues

Who's Looking after the Kids? An Overview of Child Abuse and Child Protection in Australia

E-Brief: Online Only issued 13 September 2002; updated 16 October 2002

Greg McIntosh, Analysis and Policy
Janet Phillips, Information/E-links
Social Policy Group

Scope of E-brief

This E-brief provides an overview of child abuse and child protection in Australia, including relevant Internet links to a variety of other sites. It only covers some of the main issues and data related to child abuse and is in no way comprehensive or all-inclusive. At the end of the e-brief there are links to some overseas Internet sites that may be of interest to readers.

What is Child Abuse?

Increasing public attention and concern about child abuse has seen an increasing role for governments with respect to child protection policy. However, it is only comparatively recently that this concern has been translated into systematic strategies and programs designed to help alleviate the problem. Much has been written about how child abuse and neglect (the latter often being seen as a 'less serious' form of abuse) should, or could be defined, but in the Australian context there seems to be a fairly broad consensus as to what constitutes child abuse.

In Australia whilst there are some differences across the eight State and Territory jurisdictions (who are primarily responsible for policies to deal with child abuse) as to just how child protection matters are defined, the broad categories of abuse and neglect are essentially consistent. The four main categories of abuse are physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse.

A National Child Protection Council Report from the early 1990s (Preventing Child Abuse A National Strategy, page xv) defined 'child abuse' as 'the term for a variety of acts or behaviours which result in harm to children. It encompasses physical abuse, sexual assault, emotional abuse and, neglect'.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare publication (Australia's Welfare 1997), explains how child abuse is defined and how data is collected on child abuse:

The term 'child abuse and neglect' can mean very different things to different people, depending on the context in which it is used. For the purposes of collecting national information, however, 'child abuse and neglect' can generally be defined as occurring when a child has been, is being, or is likely to be subjected to physical, emotional or sexual actions or inaction's which have resulted in, or are likely to result in significant harm or injury to the child. In the main, it refers to situations where there are protective issues for the child because the person believed to be responsible for the abuse or neglect is a parent, family member or some other person with responsibility for the care of the child; or where the person responsible for the child is unable or unwillingly to protect the child from abuse or neglect. Only incidents of abuse or neglect notified to community services departments are included in the national data collection on child abuse and neglect. (Page 190.)

Thus, it is important to note that the main published data on child abuse and neglect only includes abuse and neglect that is reported via the various departments of community services across Australia and to that extent the data will not reveal the true extent of the problem. The rate of 'non reporting' of child abuse and neglect is largely unknown.

Child Abuse Over Time

An excellent article on the history of child abuse in Australia and how child protection measures have been developed over time is Adam Tomison's A History of Child Protection (Australian Institute of Family Studies, Family Matters, no. 60, Spring/Summer 2001).

In this article Tomison argues that child protection policies have tended to be 'cyclical' and that many present policies have been tried by governments and other agencies over many years.

In recent years there has been much more awareness of child abuse as an issue and the reporting and analysis of it is now much more 'open' than has been the case in the past. This increased awareness and reporting has meant that a number of institutions (for example, sectors of the church, various institutions that house or care for children and government departments responsible for child protection), have increasingly come under the spotlight for past and present practices that may have, or are, adversely affecting children in their care.

A major trend over the past decade or so in terms of child protection policy has been a move away from more punitive measures to an increased emphasis on early intervention and educative strategies. There is now a greater recognition of the complex nature of the causes of child abuse and the advantages of preventing child abuse before it happens as opposed to dealing with it after it has occurred. A more 'holistic' policy framework is being gradually developed whereby a whole range of areas including employment, education, health and family relationships are considered when child protection policies are being considered.

The Prevalence of Child Abuse in Australia

There are three main sets of data that are published to indicate the extent of child abuse in Australia. These are notifications of abuse; investigations of abuse and substantiations of abuse. The following tables (adapted from Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2000 01, 2002) give data in each of these areas for all States and Territories and for Australia as a whole. Data is also shown on the types of abuse and neglect.

Table 1: Number of notifications and substantiations, Australia, 1995 96 to 2000 01

Note: Missing years not shown due to lack of data

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2000 01, 2002, Tables 2.3 and 2.4, pp. 13 14.

Table 1 shows that the number of reports or notifications of child abuse has been increasing over the period 1995 96 to 2000 01. In the latter year there were over 115 000 notifications of abuse, compared to a figure of almost 92 000 in 1995 96. However, these figures in themselves do not necessarily mean that the rate of abuse is increasing. The increasing number of notifications may well be due to a greater awareness of child abuse over the period reviewed and the fact that some of the States and Territories have changed the way they report on matters of child abuse. As well, the amount of non-reporting of child abuse is not known.

Table 1 also shows the number of substantiations over the period 1995 96 to 2000 01 and the line indicates that substantiations have in fact declined slightly over the period covered from 29 800 in 1995 96 to 27 300 in 2000 01. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare the reason for the decline in substantiations over the period is more to do with changes in administrative procedures related to child abuse in some of the States and Territories rather than a reduction in the amount of abuse.

Table 2: Number of notifications, by State and Territory, 1995 96 to 2000 01


  1. Data for the 1996 97 financial year were not available from New South Wales.
  2. Data for the 1998 99 financial year were not available from the Northern Territory.
  3. Data for Queensland 1996 97 refer to the calendar year 1996, rather than the financial year.
  4. The number of notifications in 1999 00 in the Northern Territory was higher than in previous years due to the introduction of a new information system that enabled improved reporting of all reports received.
  5. In 2000 01 the classification of notifications in South Australian was changed to exclude reports that did not meet the criteria of reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2000 01, 2002, Table 2.3, p. 13.

Table 3: Number of substantiations, by State and Territory, 1995 96 to 2000 01


  1. Data for the 1996 97 financial year were not available in New South Wales.
  2. Data for the 1998 99 financial year were not available from the Northern Territory.
  3. Data for Queensland 1996 97 refer to the calendar year 1996, rather than the financial year 1996 97.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2000 01, 2002, Table 2.4, p. 14.

Tables 2 and 3 show notifications and substantiations by State and Territory over the period 1995 96 to 2000 01. The same qualifications noted for Table 1 apply to these two Tables.

Table 4: Substantiations, by main type of abuse or neglect and State and Territory, 2000 01

Notes: The category 'other' used for New South Wales comprises children identified as being at hight risk but with no identifiable injury or harm

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child Protection Australia 2000 01, 2002, Table 2.5, p. 16.

Table 4 shows substantiations by State and Territory by the main type of abuse. The Table shows that child neglect is the highest category of abuse in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland whilst physical abuse is the largest category in New South Wales. In Victoria the most reported category is emotional abuse. Again, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare the differing results by jurisdiction is more likely to be with the way the types of abuse are defined and reported rather than real differences in terms of the type of abuse.

The Consequences of Child Abuse

The following summary of some of the effects of child abuse comes from the web site of the Abused Child Trust, a Queensland based professional organisation that provides specialised treatment programs for abused children and their families:

The long-term impact of child abuse and neglect cannot be easily predicted. Many factors must be taken into account, including the degree and duration of abuse, the perpetrator, family structure and support, types of interventions, and resiliency factors of those involved (Cicchetti & Toth, 1995; Edari & McManus, 1998). Current research tends to conceptualise child maltreatment in a developmental framework.

Research has indicated that child abuse and neglect can have the following consequences on subsequent growth and development:


  • Retarded cognitive development
  • Poor self development
  • Poor language development
  • Diminished verbal skills
  • Possible psychiatric disorders
  • Lower self esteem


  • Inability to form meaningful relationships
  • Lower in social maturity
  • Diminished life coping skills

Increased likelihood of:

  • Poor health
  • Self destructive behaviours
  • Homelessness & depression
  • Abusing own children
  • Future delinquency
  • Adult crime - violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Personality abnormalities
  • Youth suicide
  • Violence or aggressive behaviour
  • Sexual adjustment

These events have a significant impact upon an individual's ability to function within society, specifically with employment, educational attainment, relationship development, and parenting.

Many of these consequences also incur a significant cost to the community. For example, it costs $60 000 per year to maintain one prisoner in a high security jail cell.

In terms of child sexual abuse a recent study, Long Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse, (Paul Mullen and Jillian Fleming, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, no. 9, Autumn 1998), found that it is widely held that child sexual abuse is a major cause of mental (and other) health problems when these children are adults.

According to the study:

Child sexual abuse is not randomly distributed throughout the population. It occurs more frequently in children from socially deprived and disorganised family backgrounds Marital dysfunction, as evidenced by parental separation and domestic violence, is associated with higher risks of child sexual abuse, and involves intrafamilial and extrafamilal perpetrators Similarly, there are increased risks of abuse with a step-parent in the family, and when family breakdown results in institutional or foster care. Poor parent-child attachment is associated with increased risk of child sexual abuse, though it is not always easy to separate the impact of abuse on intimate family relationships from the influence of poor attachments on vulnerability to abuse There is also a considerable overlap between physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and children who are subject to one form of abuse are significantly more likely to suffer other forms of abuse There is now an established body of knowledge clearly linking a history of child sexual abuse with higher rates in adult life of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders.

The findings of this study are supported by Professor Kim Oates (Chief Executive of the New Children's Hospital in Sydney) who has carried out extensive research on the long term effects of child abuse. Professor Oates says that:

almost half of sexually abused children are sad or depressed, have low self-esteem and higher level of anxiety five years after the incident nine years after the abuse, victims still had low levels of self-esteem, were depressed, anxious, felt despair, had behavioural problems and were more likely to have had adverse life experiences. They also were significantly more likely to have been involved in self-induced vomiting and binge eating, as well as amphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy use. It is quite clear that the sexual abuse of children is something which in addition to the initial adverse effects on the child and family has serious ongoing effects for many of the children These include suicide and other cause of death, behavioural problems, low self-esteem, depression, and anti-social behaviour. Treatment efforts should be directed towards these areas in the hope of ameliorating some of the adverse consequences of abuse and neglect. (As reported in the West Australian, 'More Children Victims of Abuse and Neglect', 18 October 1999.)

The Response of the Church to Child Abuse

In recent times there has been media coverage of alleged child abuse by the Church and discussion of how child abuse matters are dealt with by various parts of organised religion in Australia. Below is a selection of church related Internet links that give some background information on this area, including examples of how some denominations are responding to child abuse.

  • Anglican Church of Australia's news page with links to an apology to child abuse victims, 21 February 2002, and their Child Protection Committee's progress
  • Anglican Diocese of Brisbane site links to the inquiry into past handling of complaints of sexual abuse
  • Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn pastoral letter on child abuse
  • Anglican Diocese of Sydney pastoral letter on child abuse
  • Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference Towards Healing report, 2000, including an apology to victims in the introduction
  • Australian Catholic Bishops Conference sexual abuse page
  • Pope's apology to victims of sexual abuse, 22 November 2001, (in 'Life of the Ordained' section)
  • Uniting Church in Australia letter to all congregations on child abuse, 2002.

Child Protection and Policies/Strategies Designed to Alleviate Child Abuse

One key response to child abuse in recent times has been the introduction by most of the States and Territories of mandatory reporting of child abuse. This means that medical practitioners, and often other professionals such as teachers, police and health workers, are required by law to report any suspected or actual cases of child abuse to the relevant authorities for an overview of the mandatory reporting regime across Australia see Appendix 4 of the AIHW publication Child Protection Australia 2000 01.

(a) States/Territories

The basic framework of protection and support services aimed at preventing child abuse and helping children and families affected by child abuse is essentially a State responsibility. In essence there are two direct strands of policies aimed at preventing and reducing child abuse child protection services (the receiving and assessment of abuse cases, provision and referral of clients to support services and the use of statutory responses where necessary) and supported placement services (essentially 'out of home' services to remove the child from harmful situations). The various Departments of Community Services (or similar) in each State and Territory provide the bulk of the services and support aimed at preventing and reducing child abuse. According to the Report on Government Services 2002 (Productivity Commission) there was recurrent expenditure of $712 m in 2000 01 across Australia on child protection and supported placement services.

The following links direct you to the relevant Departmental sites in each State and Territory and also to a copy of the main legislation that covers child protection in each jurisdiction.


Department of Community Services
Commission for Children and Young People

Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998


Department of Human Services

Children and Young Persons Act 1989


Department of Families

Child Protection Act 1999


Department for Community Development

Child Welfare Act 1947


Department of Human Services

Children's Protection Act 1993 (select C, then act title)


Commissioner for Children

Children Young Persons and their Families Act 1997


Department of Education, Youth and Family Services

Children and Young People Act 1999


Department of Health and Community Services

Community Welfare Act

(b) Commonwealth

In recent years there has been a trend towards a more systematic and national approach with respect to child abuse issues and as a consequence the Commonwealth has become more involved in the area of child abuse prevention and child abuse monitoring. The role of the Commonwealth in this area can perhaps be best divided into two parts an indirect role and a direct role.

The Commonwealth's Indirect Role in Child Abuse Prevention

Many of the mainstream programs that the Commonwealth funds and administers in the field of human and community services can be viewed as indirectly impacting on the goal of child abuse prevention. These programs all help to indirectly (and in some cases directly) protect children. For example:

  • health (early prevention programs, immunisation programs)
  • social security (the payment of an array of benefits to those in need)
  • housing (rent assistance, programs under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement and other joint programs like the Supported Accommodation Program)
  • disability services (programs funded under the Commonwealth-State-Territory Disability Agreement)
  • family policy (the 'Stronger Families Strategy' and various activities of the Attorney General's Department and the Family Court that are designed to help and strengthen families)

One of the major reasons why child abuse occurs is because families are under some sort of stress (poverty, unemployment, illness or disability etc.). The mainstream programs that the Commonwealth funds all are designed to help individuals and families 'cope' better and be more able and equipped to raise their children in a caring environment. Thus, much of what the Commonwealth does in a whole range of portfolio areas can be viewed as at least having some impact on protecting children. This impact, because it covers such a wide range of activities, is essentially impossible to quantify or measure in any meaningful way.

The Commonwealth's Direct Role in Child Abuse Prevention

The main role in child abuse prevention directly carried out by the Commonwealth is via programs funded by the Department of Family and Community Services. As well, to help provide advice to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, there is the Australian Council for Children and Parenting that provides a community perspective on issues relating to children and parents, including child abuse prevention.

In 2001 02, the Commonwealth, via the Department of Family and Community Services, outlaid about $4 million on direct child abuse prevention projects. According to information provided to a recent Estimates Committee (Community Affairs Legislation Committee Budget Estimates 2002 03, August 2002, Volume 1, p. 81), these projects were divided into three broad categories:

  • Early Intervention Parenting ($3.4m) a range of projects run by community groups aimed at child abuse prevention and improved parenting
  • Good Beginnings Prototype Projects ($157 000) further projects aimed at preventing child abuse
  • National Child Protection Clearinghouse ($359 000) a major 'one stop' shop on research and background on child abuse in Australia.

Tomorrow's Children A National Plan of Action Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

The Commonwealth has also recently undertaken a National Plan to help stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children. On 9 August 2000 the Federal Minister for Community Services, Larry Anthony, launched Tomorrow's Children Australia's National Plan of Action against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, to help reduce the incidence of sexual exploitation of children. Among the various recommendations contained in the Plan are:

  • the need for early intervention programs to help prevent the risk factors that lead to sexual abuse
  • the need to constantly review existing legislation to ensure that the new technologies are not an avenue for sexual exploitation
  • the need to ensure that children are aware and understand what sexual exploitation is
  • the need for Australia to continue efforts at international cooperation so that those who sexually exploit children are caught and dealt with
  • that Australia continue to help countries where such exploitation is rife with a view to lessening its incidence.

At the launch of the plan, Mr Anthony said that Australia had recently strengthened the legislation dealing with pornography on the Internet and also with respect to Australians engaging in sex with children whilst overseas. (The Age, 10 August 2000.)

General Resource Material on Child Abuse and Protection in Australia

An excellent Internet site containing a wealth of material and useful links related to child abuse is that of the National Child Protection Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse is a key information and research resource on child abuse and is part of the National Strategy for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. It is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services (FACS).

Child Protection Links




For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.

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