Drivers for out-of-home care trends
This chapter examines the drivers for the increase in the number of
children placed in out of home care, types of care that are increasing and
demographics of the children in care.
The committee heard that there is no single reason children enter and
remain in out-of-home care, but a 'myriad of complex structural constraints,
system issues and social factors'.
Mr Andrew McCallum AM from the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies told
the committee at its Sydney hearing:
...out-of-home care is a symptom of a whole range of other
things that happen...The notion of looking at the system in its totality and at
the things that have gone wrong that have driven the out-of-home care system
is, I think, where we need to focus our attention.
Drivers identified by submitters and witnesses for the increased numbers
of children in out‑of-home care, particularly Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander children, include:
children remaining longer in care;
social factors linked to disadvantage (including family violence,
drug and alcohol misuse, poverty and homelessness); and
systemic factors (including risk averse approaches to child
removal and lack of family support services).
These drivers are examined in detail below.
Reasons children enter out-of-home care
The committee notes there are no national data available on the reasons
children are placed in out-of-home care.
Representatives from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) told
the committee that data on the reasons children enter care are challenging to
identify and measure due to their complex and inter‑related nature:
From our perspective...this type of national unit record
collection...is not something we would generally be able to unravel. It is probably
something you would do more on a case-by-case basis.
Concerns about the 'the absence of data documenting the criteria and
decisions leading to placements' across Australia were raised by the United
Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN Committee) in its 2012
The National Children's Commissioner, Ms Megan Mitchell, told the committee that
the UN Committee recommended:
Australia take all necessary efforts to examine the root
causes of the extent of child abuse and neglect and provide general data on the
reasons children are placed in care.
AIHW suggested some reasons children may be placed in out-of-home care include:
where children require a more protective environment as a result of a substantiated
child protection notification; where parents are incapable of providing
adequate care; or where alternative accommodation is needed during times of
While AIHW does not collect data on the reasons children enter
out-of-home care, it does report on the reasons for substantiations of child
protection notifications. As noted in Chapter 2, 91 per cent of children in
out-of-home care are subject to substantiated child protection notifications.
Substantiations refer to child protection notifications that are investigated
and found to have reasonable cause to 'believe that the child had been, was
being, or was likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed'.
AIHW's definitions of these reasons are outlined in Box 3.1.
Box 3.1 – Definitions of reasons for substantiations
AIHW reports on the following categories of reasons for child protection notification
Neglect – Any serious acts or omissions by a person having the care of a child that, within the
bounds of cultural tradition, constitute a failure to provide conditions that are essential for the
healthy physical and emotional development of a child.
Emotional abuse – Any act by a person having the care of a child that results in the child suffering
any kind of significant emotional deprivation or trauma. Children affected by exposure to family
violence would also be included in this category.
Physical abuse – Any non-accidental physical act inflicted upon a child by a person having the
care of a child.
Sexual abuse – Any act by a person, having the care of a child, that exposes the child to, or
involves the child in, sexual processes beyond his or her understanding or contrary to accepted
Source: AIHW, Child
Protection Australia 2013–14, pp
In 2013–14, AIHW reported that emotional abuse (39.5 per cent) and
neglect (27.5 per cent) were the two most significant reasons for
substantiations across jurisdictions. A smaller proportion of substantiations
were due to physical abuse (19.4 per cent) and sexual abuse (13.7 per cent).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait
The committee heard in some jurisdictions, particularly the Northern
Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, the overall increase in the
numbers of children in out-of-home care is largely due to an increase in
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people entering and
remaining in care.
In Western Australia, for example, Ms Emma White, Director-General,
Department for Child Protection and Family Support told the committee that:
despite the total number of children in care in this state
continuing to rise, the rate at which they have come into care has halved since
2006. In 2006, there was about 13 per cent growth each year. We are now around
six per cent. The critical thing is that if you look at Aboriginal children
versus non-Aboriginal children, non-Aboriginal children are really coming in at
a rate around population growth, which is what you would probably expect. But,
in fact, the exponential growth is with Aboriginal children and families.
AIHW reports that neglect is the most common type of substantiated abuse
for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Nationally, neglect
accounted for 41 per cent of child protection substantiations, compared
with 22 per cent for non‑Indigenous children.
The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children subject to
neglect substantiations differs across jurisdictions, and is as high as around
50 per cent in South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Figure 3.1 shows the proportion of children who were subject to a
substantiation of neglect across jurisdictions. The reasons for the high
proportion of neglect substantiations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
children are examined in detail below.
Figure 3.1 – Percentage of children who were subject to a substantiation of
neglect by jurisdiction and Indigenous status
Source: AIHW, Child
Protection Australia 2013–14, Table
Children remaining longer in care
A number of submitters and witnesses suggested that the number of
children in out-of-home care is increasing due to increased reporting of child
protection notifications and substantiations of claims.
However, the available data shows the number of substantiated child
protection concerns has remained steady over the past five years, with the
number of children in substantiations continuing to increase. AIHW reports that
the number of child protection notifications and investigations has been
increasing since 2011-12, following a decline since 2008–09, whereas
substantiations have remained relatively stable (54 621 for 32 641 children in
2008–09 compared with 53 666 for 40 571 children in 2013–14). Figure 3.2 shows
the number of substantiations compared with the number of child protection
notifications, investigations and substantiations between 2008–09 and 2012–13.
Figure 3.2 – Number of child protection notifications, investigations and
substantiations, 2008-09 to 2012-13
Source: AIHW Child Protection
Australia 2012–13, Table A36.
Rather than the number of substantiations increasing, AIHW suggested the
key driver for the increased number of children in care may be due to the
cumulative impact of children being admitted to, and remaining longer in,
While the overall number of children in care has continued to increase,
AIHW submitted that the numbers of children admitted to out-of-home care has
actually decreased between 2011–12 and 2012–13, with the number of admissions
consistently outnumbering discharges (by almost 2 000 in 2012–13).
AIHW further demonstrated that children are remaining longer in care.
Figure 3.2 compares the length of time children spend in continuous placements,
and shows since 2009 the percentage of children spending over five years in
care has increased (from 32.5 per cent in 2009 to 39.1 per cent in 2013), while
placements of less than five years have decreased.
Figure 3.3 – Percentage of children by length of time in continuous
Source: AIHW, Submission 22,
AIHW also noted that an increasing proportion of children are entering
care at a younger age and being discharged at an older age. Between 2008–09 and
2012–13, the proportion of children aged less than one year entering care
increased (from 16.1 per cent to 17.4 per cent) and the proportion of children
aged 15-17 years discharged from out-of-home care also increased (from 27.8 per
to 33.8 per cent).
Dr Daryl Higgins from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS)
told the committee that the while the number of child protection notifications
was beginning to plateau, this was not reflected in the numbers of children
remaining in out-of-home care:
What we know is that one of the biggest drivers of the number
of children in out-of-home care is, broadly, the number of children coming to
the concern of statutory child protection authorities. Obviously, one of the
most important issues in addressing any concerns about the out-of-home care
system, the quality of care, the wellbeing for young people in care and whether
or not different forms of care are good has to be premised on whether we can
reduce the number who are coming into care in the first place. The problem is
that while we might have had some turnaround in terms of slowing the rise of
notifications, that is not yet translating into a slowdown of children entering
into or, more importantly, staying in the out-of-home care system.
The committee notes Professor Clare Tilbury's evidence to the Queensland
Child Protection Commission of Inquiry in 2013:
[I]t's not that the entry rate to care is increasing, it's
that the length of time children spend in care is increasing. So in other
words, children are going in and then there's a big ballooning effect going on
because children are exiting at this lower rate and staying longer.
Families Australia, citing a Victorian government report, noted that the
proportion of children remaining in non-permanent out-of-home for over five
years has doubled in the past decade.
Similarly, PeakCare Queensland argued that the issue is not the increasing
numbers of children entering care:
[T]he ‘problem’ is that once in the system, children
predominantly age out of care having not been reunified with the family from
whose care they were removed.
The committee heard the most significant drivers for children and young
people entering and remaining longer in out-of-home care are socio-economic
factors linked to disadvantage, particularly family violence, drug and alcohol
abuse and mental health issues. These issues are compounded by the increasing
complexity of intergenerational disadvantage.
The committee heard families involved with child protection authorities
are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Dr Patricia Hansen and Dr
Frank Ainsworth provided the committee with their 2013 study, which found that
families involved with the child protection system commonly share the following
...they live on welfare benefits, often in stressed public
housing environments, and are socially isolated. In addition, many have poor
education achievements, are frequently unemployed and have low job skills. They
themselves are often the product of poor parenting and may be in less than
ideal personal relationships. For some, there is the added issue of a low-level
criminal record, poor mental health (including drug and alcohol usage) and/or intellectual
disability factors. In other words, these parents represent the most vulnerable
and most needy section of Australian society.
Family violence, drug and alcohol
abuse, mental health
The National Children's Commissioner, Ms Mitchell, told the committee
...the three main drivers for kids coming into care—and often
they appear together—are: domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health
issues. What causes what is debatable, but they are the three main ones. That
is the troika. Those factors account for 80 to 90 per cent of all cases.
These three factors were also identified as the key drivers by child
protection authorities across jurisdictions. In Queensland, Mr Matthew Lupi,
Executive Director from the Queensland Department of Communities, Child Safety
and Disability Services told the committee:
...our evidence and our analysis of parental risk factors and
presenting factors of families coming to child protection, domestic and family
violence, drug and alcohol use and misuse and mental health issues are
certainly very high in the constellation of families. That is not to say they
are the only causal factors in parental abuse and neglect, but they are
certainly present in many cases.
In Western Australia, Ms Emma White told the committee:
[T]he biggest drivers for children coming into care in this
state are family and domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, and mental
health. Family and domestic violence features in 80 per cent of all our open
cases in this state. We often talk about neglect as a separate identity and, in
some instances, it is long-term absence of medical care, nutrition, educational
opportunities et cetera. In fact, neglect is often a feature in families where
there is critical family domestic violence or other structural issues of
A number of non-government service providers also noted the prevalence
of family violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues in
out-of-home care cases.
Wanslea Family Services, which provides a grandparent support scheme for 1 000
'grandcarers' in Western Australia noted the most common factors grandparents
cited for children being placed in care were:
...substance abuse, mental health issues, imprisonment,
domestic violence, unstable accommodation or homelessness and family breakdown...it
appears that not only are illicit drugs becoming more prevalent in a number of
regional towns but the types of drugs used tend to be ‘harder’, for example
In particular, a number of submissions noted the causal effect of family
violence on homelessness and other issues that contribute to the removal of
children and placement in out-of-home care.
Ms Susan Heylar from the ACT Council of Social Service told the committee that there
are few housing options available for women fleeing family violence:
[W]omen leaving violence having nowhere to go, living in
their car with their children, and Care and Protection Services then taking
their children into care because it is not a suitable environment for their
children—but not offering them a place to live!
Submitters also identified the 'increased prevalence of parental drug
and alcohol abuse and exposure to accepted drug culture'.
The Mirabel Foundation, an organisation that supports children and kinship
carers affected by parental drug use in Victoria, told the committee that the
number of children referred to its programs has grown by at least 20 per cent
each year over the past five years.
In its submission, the Mirabel Foundation noted that drug use affects families
from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds:
It does not discriminate. When drug use is present, there is
commonly the coexistence of mental health issues that further complicate the
situation and the parent’s ability to parent their children.
A 2013 study by researchers from Monash University found parental
substance misuse was present in 51 per cent of Victorian child protection cases
sampled and concluded children living with parents using illicit drugs are at
greater risk of removal compared with drug-free households.
The study recommended prompt recognition of substance misuse and associated
compliance/engagement issues in order to refer appropriate cases for further
assessment and treatment in specialist drug treatment services.
Evidence to the committee highlighted that these social factors were compounded
by the increasing complexity of the needs of both children and families as a
result of intergenerational disadvantage, particularly for kinship carers.
This supports one finding from the committee's previous inquiry into
grandparent carers, which was that the lack of support for increasingly complex
families contributes to the number of children entering care.
The committee heard that intergenerational disadvantage is not
adequately addressed in current models of care. Mr Tony Kemp, Deputy Secretary
of the Department of Health and Human Services in Tasmania told the committee:
I think one of the things that has changed is the complexity
and the enduring nature of the types of needs these families have, and the
types of support that they now need, I think, are simply not there.
Witnesses suggested the experience of care itself was a significant
factor in perpetuating the cycle of social disadvantage. A number of parents with
children in care noted they, and sometimes even their parents, had experienced
out-of-home care. Ms Teegan Bain, whose child was the third generation of
children placed in care, told the committee of the cyclical impact the
experience of care:
I have been in foster care myself, and I had a mother who was
a drug addict as well. I guess there is also that generational history
repeating itself: people who do not know another way will not go another way.
The committee notes there is no data currently collected on the
intergenerational impact of care, including whether the parents of children in
care had experienced out-of-home care.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait
It was put to the committee that the reasons for the disproportionate
number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care are complex
and interrelated. The National Children's Commissioner, Ms Mitchell, told the
The issue for Indigenous communities and families is a very
complex one...it includes the combination of factors, such as: socioeconomic
disadvantage; experiences of substance abuse and domestic violence; and a
history of removal and the trauma that has come with that, impacting
generations of people and their capacity to parent safely.
As discussed above, a large proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander children are placed into out-of-home care due to substantiations of
neglect. However, the committee heard the definition of 'neglect' can be highly
subjective and linked closely the prevalence of social disadvantage in
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Ms Natalie Lewis, CEO of the
Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak
(QATSICPP) told the committee that parental 'neglect' in Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander communities may be due to broader social factors:
[W]hen unpacking the concept of neglect in Aboriginal
families, it is apparent that the key drivers include poverty, poor housing and
lack of equitable access to appropriate services. Both poverty and poor housing
are arguably outside of the domain of parental influence, so it is unlikely
that a family, while being in the child protection system, could effectively
redress these risks in the absence of other social investments and strategies
to alleviate poverty and improve access to appropriate housing.
In particular, neglect may result from complex social factors such as
family violence. Ms Mary Cowley, CEO of Aboriginal Family Law Services in
Western Australia explained:
Sometimes it is hard to actually say what 'neglect' means,
because it is so broad ... we would anticipate that there is a large percentage
of children in out-of-home care who come out of a family violence situation.
And out of the family violence situation arises a whole raft of different
things—and neglect is one of them. There are other things that occur with
neglect. It could be physical and emotional abuse. That is all part of neglect.
When we start to break it down, it can be broken down into a whole raft of
different things that we are talking about.
Witnesses also suggested that the definition of 'neglect' by child
protection authorities may not recognise issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander communities, such as crowding of large family groups into
limited housing options. Mr Neil Anderson from the Aboriginal Legal Service of
Western Australia (ALSWA) told the committee:
I think what some people might see as harm or neglect others
might not necessarily see as neglect. Overcrowding might be a good example of
that. The question of harm to the child becomes quite complex. Is there an
ongoing issue of harm if the child remains in the home environment? But what is
the extent of harm that is being done if we take that child away from family of
origin? They are getting very limited contact with parents, siblings and
extended family and they start to experience that loss of identity crisis.
There is question as to what sort of harm is being done over the next 10 or 20
years to that person that results in a lifelong disturbance. You may have the
situation where, okay, it is not great at home but, if the child remains at
home with their family and there is some added support—more room, more stuff
for school and that sort of thing—you might be avoiding a huge amount of harm
in the future. So it becomes quite complicated.
These issues are particularly acute for families in remote communities.
Ms Melissa Kean from the NPY Women's Council in central Australia told the
committee that people in remote communities:
...are dealing with systemic issues such as overcrowding,
poverty, lack of employment options, low educational attainment, poor health.
All of those things are precursors for issues such as domestic violence,
neglect and child protection issues. It is very hard to overcome cases of child
protection concern without addressing those bigger systemic factors.
Addressing neglect therefore means addressing a broad range of complex
social factors such as poverty and housing that are beyond child protection
services alone. Ms Andrea Smith from the Aboriginal Family Law Services WA
...if we are talking about poverty as a factor in relation to
Aboriginal communities, we are talking about a structural issue that is bigger
than a family. It is also bigger than the community services sector. That is an
issue that goes back to whole of government. So we have some issues here that
need to be addressed not just by, for example, the Department for Child
Protection or by services that are funded to provide early intervention—that
goes back to the Commonwealth government or the state government—but also
through other ways to make sure that people have enough money to support their
families. Here we are talking about housing and the quality of that housing, their
ability to pay rent, their ability to buy enough food for their families and
their ability to maintain employment. Those things are attached to poverty and
the link then to their physical conditions. Attached then to the poverty are
all those other things—for example, education and health. It is not easy. It is
clearly very complex when you are talking about neglect. I guess that is the
nature of the definition and the broadness of the definition. That is why it is
difficult to pin down and difficult to address.
Witnesses highlighted that addressing these social determinants is
beyond the capacity of child protection authorities alone. In Queensland, Mr
Matthew Lupi noted that:
...the tertiary child protection system should not have and
cannot have a different threshold of what is safe and appropriate care,
regardless of your culture or your gender. So it is a difficult thing for us
alone, outside of all of the other levers of human services, housing, poverty
and the complex factors that affect Indigenous families, over decades and
generations, to address over-representation alone from the tertiary child
Impact of trauma
The committee heard the intergenerational trauma linked to past
practices of child removal and entrenched social disadvantage significantly
affects the numbers of children placed in out-of-home care.
The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service noted that:
[T]he over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander children in child protection and out-of-home care cannot be separated
from past policies of forced removals and intergenerational trauma. This
history is not in the past. As removals continue, albeit under contemporary
laws, so too does trauma continue, and so too does Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander children’s dislocation from family, community and culture continue.
The ongoing impact of this trauma was highlighted by Mr Frank Hytten,
CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC):
The impact on those communities—not just for the kids moving
now, but for the kids that have been removed over the last 100 years—has a
compounding effect that continues to have fairly grave consequences for
communities as well as for individuals.
Witnesses suggested 'what child protection systems call risk factors',
such as family violence, mental health issues, substance misuse and
intergenerational child protection issues are products of trauma caused by the
past practices of forced child removal of the Stolen Generations. Mr Frank
Spry, CEO of the Northern Territory Stolen Generation Aboriginal Corporation
told the committee:
There is evidence around now that is pointing to trauma as
underlying this whole business of what is happening in our communities. Yes,
people drink. Is that a symptom of something deeper underneath? People gamble
and there is violence. What is it that is driving all of that? People are
suiciding. What is driving that? It really is the trauma that people have
faced. We know from evidence that, whether it is colonisation, whether it is
people having been removed—whatever it is—it is driving people's symptoms,
which are destructive to the community and to themselves.
These witnesses suggested that existing child protection frameworks do
not address this underlying trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities. Ms Lisa Hillan from the Healing Foundation told the committee:
Few child protection systems across this country have a focus
on trauma, let alone the level of trauma faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander communities. As a result, the systems that are utilised to respond are
experienced by Aboriginal people as punishing, not supportive.
A number of submissions and witnesses noted family violence was the key
driver for the increase in the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
children entering out-of-home care.
AFLSWA highlighted that Aboriginal women are 45 times more likely to experience
family violence than non-Aboriginal women.
In its submission, the Family Violence Prevention Legal Service (FVPLS) Victoria
noted in 2013–14 it experienced a 66 per cent increase in its child protection
casework for survivors of family violence compared to the previous year.
Ms Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of the FVPLS Victoria told the committee:
The causes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
children's overrepresentation in out-of-home care are undoubtedly complex.
However, it must be recognised that family violence is one of the biggest
drivers. We simply cannot produce out-of-home care rates for Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander children without addressing family violence.
As discussed above, the experience of family violence contributes
significantly to other problems such as drug and alcohol abuse. FVPLS Victoria
highlighted in its submission the strong link between family violence and drug,
particularly methamphetamine, abuse:
...our clients’ experiences indicate that family violence is
often an underlying factor for ICE use ... many women use drugs and alcohol as a
way to cope with their experience of family violence. Anecdotal reports also
suggest that ICE or other drugs may increase the regularity and severity of
family violence. Our lawyers see and hear daily of existing family violence
being exacerbated by alcohol and/or drug abuse and of clients self-medicating
with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to cope with family violence-related
A recent review of 222 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander out-of-home
care cases by the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young
People (Commission), Mr Andrew Jackomos, found that male perpetrated family
violence is the 'primary driver' of about 95 per cent of cases and 'is often
coupled by alcohol and other drug misuse by parents'.
Ms Janette Kennedy from the Commission told the committee that the Commissioner
is currently reviewing each child in out-of-home care in Victoria as part of
the Taskforce 1000 project, taking its name from figure of approximately 1 000
Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in Victoria in 2014.
Ms Kennedy highlighted the prevalence of family violence in Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander communities had a significant impact on the attempts to
return children to their families.
Based on the Victorian data, Ms Smith from AFLSWA estimated similar
outcomes for Western Australia:
I guess that for WA we can perhaps surmise something
similar—that up to 90 per cent of our kids are in care because of family
violence, which is an alarming statistic.
The committee notes its significant concern that Aboriginal women are
viewed by some child protection authorities as 'enablers' of family violence,
contributing to decisions to remove children and place in out-of-home care. Ms Sandra
Nelson, Executive Officer at the Katherine Women's Information and Legal
Service (KWILS) told the committee:
[I]n a case where the Department of Children and Families is
considering the removal of children from a parent or parents, the history of
domestic violence is a deciding factor, and that is as it should be. But more
often we are seeing children being removed from the home of a single parent who
has been a victim of domestic violence and more often we are hearing that these
victims of domestic violence are considered as enablers of domestic violence
because they failed to protect their children from being exposed to acts of
Ms Kate Lightfoot, a solicitor at KWILS, told the committee of an
extreme example where a client was accused of 'enabling' family violence and
the subsequent neglect of her child:
I remember sitting in the courtroom watching her in the
witness box, and she was absolutely pummelled. Not only was she pummelled in
the information provided, in affidavits provided by the department in the
decisions of neglect, that she was enabling a violent household. She was
pummelled in the courtroom, and the perpetrator was sitting in the courtroom
probably even closer than you are sitting to where I am now. It is a situation
where she is victimised for her position. In this case I think it was accepted
by all parties that there was an ongoing environment that was not healthy for
the children, but it was not healthy for her either. So for the department to
have been so intense in their victimisation of her as an enabler was quite
Ms Lightfoot emphasised that being labelled an enabler re-traumatises
victims of family violence and affects family relationships:
...when the woman is then further victimised and told that she
is doing something wrong, it only creates negatives within the family and for
the children...it should not be that a woman is a victim in one courtroom and
then an enabler in the next...
Homelessness and housing
The committee heard that the prevalence of family violence in some
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities contributes to a number of
other social factors, particularly homelessness. According to the National
Family Violence Prevention Legal Service, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
women are 15 times more likely to seek assistance from crisis homelessness
services. In 2012-13, one in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women
used a specialist homelessness service.
Evidence to the committee suggested that the lack of housing options for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women escaping family violence
contributes significantly to homelessness and subsequently the removal of
children. The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service submitted that
[L]ack of safe and adequate housing is a significant barrier
for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, particularly mothers fleeing
family violence, to continue or resume caring for their children after child
The lack of housing support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is
particularly acute for those women in regional and remote communities. Ms
Melissa Kean from the NPY Women's Council, which provides services for remote
communities in central Australia, told the committee:
...a lot of families who when they come to town are homeless or
they move between town camps, hostels, visitors' parks, various family members
or nowhere, as in parks or sleeping in the back of their car or out the front
of NPY Women's Council.
The issue of homelessness is particularly significant in Western
Australia where, due to current housing policy, 'people are being evicted
because of domestic violence situations'.
The Aboriginal Legal Service (WA) submitted that the Department of Housing's
'three strikes policy' for disruptive behaviour in public tenancies means that
women may be evicted due to domestic violence. The committee heard this,
coupled with the waiting times for public housing (almost 21 per cent of people
wait over five years for placement), results in 'homelessness and/or
overcrowding for many Aboriginal families. This, in turn, may become the basis
for determining that parents are unable to properly care for their children'.
Mr Anderson from Aboriginal Legal Service (WA) told the committee,
evictions due to domestic violence or other reasons lead to overcrowding and
possible intervention by child protection authorities:
...families start to congregate in properties that are average
to small size, so you end up with maybe 10 or 12 children and a number of
adults living in a home that is really designed for a family of five or maybe
six people. This becomes a problem from the child protection perspective
because the department will start to investigate usually in our experience and
will say overcrowding is an example of neglect. There are basically not enough
places for people to sleep. There might be a perception of unruliness and
people coming and going because you have a household full of up to maybe 20-odd
people all doing different things and having different needs. There is a
general impression of chaos, I suppose, and that is really good at being picked
up under the relevant legislation as a form of neglect and therefore a child
protection concern leading to possible apprehension of children. It is
something we see quite often.
Evidence suggested there are also a number of systemic factors
contributing to the increased number of children in out-of-home care.
Mandatory reporting and awareness
As discussed in Chapter 2, all jurisdictions have legislative
requirements for mandatory reporting of suspected cases of child abuse and
neglect. As Figure 3.2 shows, the number of child protection notifications
received by state and territory authorities has been increasing since 2010-11.
Submitters suggested the increased level of identification and reporting
of child abuse and neglect may contribute to the increasing number of children
entering care. The Australian Childhood Trauma Group submitted that:
...the increase [of children in out-of-home care] is due to
greater pressures on families and a heightened awareness of abuse. In essence,
the community is more alert to vulnerable children and there is a growing
acceptance that it is better to report and discuss such things.
Narrow approach and aversion to
A number of submitters and witnesses expressed concern that Australia's
child protection systems are too narrowly focussed on legislative requirements
to stop child abuse rather than the overall outcomes for children and young
people. The National Children's Commissioner, Ms Mitchell, explained that:
The issue for the child protection system is that we have a
piece of legislation that we have to abide by. That means removing children
from unsafe situations. But that is not all about a child's wellbeing. In fact
that act in itself can cause trauma and distress, depending on the child's
circumstances and age. So there is a larger piece of work here to think about:
what is the best long-term outcome from this for this child. We should be
thinking about that right from the beginning, not delay and delay and delay
that holistic thinking about a child's needs.
Research by Dr Patricia Hansen and Dr Frank Ainsworth suggests
Australia's current child protection framework is characterised by a narrow
focus on stopping child abuse, including:
...an over-reliance on mandatory reporting legislation, a
forensic investigative prosecutorial model of practice, a risk-averse
organisational culture and zero-tolerance of any imperfections in parenting
practices which are defined as child abuse and neglect regardless of their
Dr Hansen and Dr Ainsworth submitted that these factors are compounded
by political imperatives to respond to high-profile cases of abuse, where 'the
imperative becomes stopping child abuse and neglect and a zero tolerance
Evidence suggests the impact of this 'zero tolerance' approach is an
increasingly risk averse approach to child protection decisions that favour removal
from potentially unsafe situations. The committee notes similar conclusions
have been drawn by recent state based inquiries into child protection. In
Queensland, the 2013 Child Protection Commission of Inquiry found evidence of:
...a widespread risk-averse culture that focuses too heavily on
coercive instead of supportive strategies and overreacts to (or overcompensates
for) hostile media and community scrutiny.
A 2008 study by AIFS indicated the prevalence of risk management in
child protection systems across Australia and internationally:
[A]s a consequence of intense scrutiny and the fear of the
public fall-out if a 'wrong' decision is made, risk management has become a
core component of child protection practice in nations that possess a child
The Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry concluded the risk
averse 'better safe than sorry' culture was the 'root cause' of
...an overcrowded out-of-home care system struggling to provide
safe and stable placements for children with multiple and complex needs who
could, with proper support, be cared for safely at home by a still-loved
Witnesses suggested complete risk aversion was not possible and child
protection authorities and service providers need to 'learn to manage risk more
Anglicare suggested that in out-of-home care, 'people are working with
[T]here are no absolutes in the out of home care system and
as such the absolute avoidance of risk is counter-intuitive to good practice.
These witnesses further suggested that, as part of this new approach to
risk, child protection authorities need to consider a broader range of
alternative care options focused on the needs of children and young people. The
National Children's Commissioner, Ms Mitchell, told the committee that, in her
...the headlines will happen regardless of what you do ... Yes,
you have to take immediate measures to keep a child safe. That does not mean
that that has to be a permanent removal. That is about working with the
families and saying: 'What is the best option here? What is the possibility for
you if you get support and help? We will keep this child safe over here for a
while, while we see what you can manage and what supports you might need to get
your act. But let us put you on notice: if you cannot after a period of time,
it is going to be in this child's interests to be in another arrangement.' I do
not see that the two are incompatible, but we know that harm happens to
children inside the system as well as outside the system.
Lack of family support programs
Many submissions noted that the increase in children in out-of-home care
was due to a lack of support services for vulnerable families.
Ms Glenys Wilkinson, CEO of the Australian Association of Social Workers told
...we need to be able to prevent children from coming into
care, we need to maintain children within their families and we need to have
family support type arrangements to allow the family to do their work, which is
to care for children. We need to get family support services and then some more
targeted services such as drug and alcohol or family violence services to
intervene and prevent. That way, if we are keeping the child safe within their
family then it is an economic factor as well. The family can do what they are
there to do, which is raise their children, but we can also try and break that
generational cycle of children and families struggling.
The need for increased early intervention programs across jurisdictions
is examined in Chapter 5.
Families and children with
As noted in Chapter 2, there are limited national data on the number of
children with disability placed in out-of-home care. However, evidence to the
committee suggested that children with disability are over-represented in the
out-of-home care system, particularly those children of parents with
Witnesses and submitters noted that families and children with
disability enter the out-of-home care system either through relinquishment or
removal by child protection authorities due to the incidence or risk of neglect
or abuse. Families with intellectual disability are particularly susceptible to
having their children removed and placed into out-of-home care. In NSW, Ms
Marissa Sandler from the Intellectual Disability Rights Service (IDRS) told the
committee that families with an intellectual disability make up just one to two
per cent of all families with children aged 0–17, but account for around nine
per cent of child protection cases before the NSW Family Court.
In both cases, the committee heard existing child protection systems do
not provide adequate support for families with disability or families of
children with disability to keep their children.
These supports are examined in detail in Chapter 9.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Evidence to the committee suggested that the over-representation of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care is due in part to the
lack of support services tailored to the specific needs of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander communities.
In Queensland, Mr Lupi suggested there was no significant policy change that
had contributed to the increase in numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander children in care, rather a failure of early intervention services to
...the attempts to address the over-representation have
possibly in the past not been effective because of the inability to address
that wide, complex range of issues such as housing, employment, standards of
education. So I do not believe there has been a policy shift. I think it is
just a fact that our commission found that the early intervention services, the
strategies to try to address those issues, had been ineffective and more
ineffective because they did not recognise the massive complexity of the
The available models and supports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander communities, including family support programs, are explored in detail
in Chapter 8.
The committee notes the reasons why children enter and remain in care
are complex and closely linked to social disadvantage, particularly for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The committee acknowledges that
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face significantly higher
levels of social disadvantage than non-Indigenous communities, contributing to
the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and
young people in out-of-home care. The committee acknowledges that to properly
address the increasing numbers of children entering care means addressing a
broad range of social issues, particularly family violence, alcohol and drug
abuse and mental health.
The committee notes there are also certain systemic factors that may
contribute to children entering and remaining in out-of-home care. In
particular, the risk averse approach by child protection authorities and the
lack of early intervention and prevention supports mean there are limited
options for families at risk of having their children placed into care. The
lack of available supports and understanding of the specific needs of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and families with disability
also contribute to an overrepresentation of these groups in out-of-home care.
The committee also recognises the role of mandatory reporting of child
abuse concerns and heightened community awareness of abuse in contributing to
the number of children entering care. The committee recognises that placement
in out-of-home may be the best option for many children to protect their safety
and wellbeing. The committee therefore acknowledges that reducing the number of
children in out-of-home care is not an end in itself, and that it is vitally important
to ensure existing systems provide the highest standard of care possible.
The committee shares the concerns expressed by the United Nations
Committee on the Rights of the Child about the lack of data on the reasons
children are placed in out-of-home care. While acknowledging the difficulty in
collecting this data on a national scale, the committee notes such data is
vitally important to identifying and addressing the key reasons children are
placed in care. The committee supports the recommendation of the UN Committee
to improve the collection of data about the reasons why children are placed in
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