Alarming Report Increases Call for Child Protection Law Changes

It is with unfortunate regularity that our news is filled with accounts of child abuse. Although we already have the initial findings of the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) (Interim Report) to learn from, there is still much more about this insidious problem that we are only beginning to come to grips with.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), a government agency, has released ‘Child Protection Australia 2012-13‘, a comprehensive report into national child protection reporting (Report). The Report covers all types of child abuse that is subject to mandatory reporting legislation across the States and Territories. The data for the Report was collected from each of the eight State and Territory departments responsible for child protection, and collated and analysed by the AIHW.  It’s important to keep in mind that if an incident of abuse wasn’t reported to a child protection department, it won’t be reflected in the Report.

Key findings of the Report include:

  • In 2012-13 there were 135,000 children, a rate of 26.1 per 1,000 children, receiving child protection services. There are 3 components of child protection services being (i) investigation, (ii)  care and protection orders and (iii)  out-of-home care). More than half (56%) of these children were subject only to an investigation however 8% were involved in all 3 components of the system;
  • Tasmania has the lowest proportion of investigations of child abuse to reports. Only 16% of cases were investigated, compared to the national average of 45%. In Queensland 100% are investigated;
  • There are still too many cases of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system. These children are 8 times as likely as non-indigenous people to be receiving child protection services;
  • Nationally, school personnel are the second-most common source for notifications that are investigated. At 17%, this was behind police at 25%; and
  • The largest percentage of substantiated reports (27%) relate to emotional abuse and neglect.

Although this Report provides useful statistics and benchmarks, the high number of reported cases cited, in addition to the high prevalence of cases being reported in the news, should continue to be a source of concern for many. Very recently, there are reports that an Adelaide childcare worker, who has been charged with child sex offences, was previously investigated by Families SA, and also passed all police, child protection and psychological tests.

The disparate variances in statistics reported across different jurisdictions is also alarming. These statistics tell us that the different child protection reporting laws that apply in each jurisdication can cause gaps in reporting which can cause cases to ‘slip through the cracks’, leading to tragic outcomes.

The Interim Report conveniently outlines areas of difference between the laws, which include differences in:

  • who is a mandatory reporter;
  • whether reportable behaviour was in the past, is currently happening, or is reasonably suspected to happen;
  • whether a mandatory reporter needs to have a suspicion of belief of harm;
  • what threshold the harm suspected needs to meet;
  • the definition of a ‘child’ for the purposes of reporting; and
  • the penalties in each State/Territory.

These differences suggest that the Report may be based on an incomplete set of data and that the number of unreported incidents may in fact, be much greater.  The need for more consistent reporting laws, which will in turn result in a more comprehensive set of data on which to report, was recently highlighted by a recent tragic case in Queensland.  In that case, childcare workers had taken photos of bruises on a toddler’s body before he was murdered but they did not report the suspected abuse as an apparent ‘loophole‘ in child protection laws meant that they were not required to do so. One of the most frustrating aspects of the inconsistencies between mandatory reporting regimes in Australia this is that there is no coherent or compelling reason why these laws should be different.

Given the disparate regimes of child protection obligations, and the Royal Commission’s terms of reference, a uniform system of child protection checks and mandatory reporting should not be far away.  Mandatory reporting obligations will also become more stringent, and this will no doubt be implemented through regulations on schools and teacher training. So although the data presented in the Report provides a useful record of the child protection system’s mechanics over a twelve month period, until a uniform set of mandatory reporting laws exist in Australia the data reported on will necessarily be incomplete.

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