In Australia, statutory child protection is the responsibility of state and territory governments. Each responsible department assists vulnerable children who have been, or are at risk of being, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed, or whose parents are unable to provide adequate care and protection.

This page provides an overview of children who received child protection services in 2018–19. It also covers historical trends in child protection services and the types of services provided to children in need of care and protection.

Children who received child protection services

In 2018–19, about 170,000 children aged 0–17 received child protection services. These include investigations (which may or may not lead to substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect), care and protection orders and/or out-of-home care placements (Figure 1). This equates to a rate of 30 per 1,000 children. More than half (58%) of these children were the subject of an investigation only and were not subsequently placed on a care and protection order or in out-of-home care. A small proportion (7.4%) were involved in all 3 components of the system. See glossary for definitions of the child protection service types.

Some groups of children are consistently overrepresented in the child protection system. In 2018–19:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost 8 times as likely as non‑Indigenous children to have received child protection services (156 per 1,000 children compared with 21 respectively)
  • infants (aged under 1) were more likely to have received child protection services than those aged 15–17 (38 per 1,000 compared with 23 respectively)
  • children from geographically remote areas had the highest rates of substantiations—children from Very remote areas were 3 times as likely as those from Major cities to be the subject of substantiations (20 per 1,000 compared with 7, respectively)
  • children who were the subjects of substantiations were more likely to be from lower socioeconomic areas (36% were from the lowest socioeconomic area compared with 5.4% from the highest).

For further information about child protection services for Indigenous children see Indigenous community safety.

Trends

The number of children receiving child protection services continues to rise. Over the 5-year period from 2014–15 to 2018–19, the overall number of children who received child protection services in Australia rose by 12%—from around 152,000 children (29 per 1,000) to around 170,000 children (30 per 1,000) (Figure 2). The fall in the number of children receiving services between 2016–17 and 2017–18 resulted from a change in the definition of child protection investigation for New South Wales and substantiations data for New South Wales being unavailable in 2017–18.

Substantiated investigations

An investigation can lead to a substantiation if there is sufficient reason to believe a child has been, or is at risk of being, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed by a carer. The rate of children who were the subjects of substantiations was 9 per 1,000 children in 2018–19, which was slightly higher than in 2014–15 (8 per 1,000 children).

The primary type of abuse or neglect reported for a substantiation is the one considered most likely to place the child at risk or be more severe in the short term. Emotional abuse was the most common primary type of abuse or neglect substantiated for all children (54%).

Girls were more likely to be subjects of substantiations of sexual abuse than boys (13% and 6.5% respectively). Boys were slightly more likely than girls to be subjects of substantiations for neglect (22% and 19% respectively) and physical abuse (16% and 14%) (Figure 3).

Care and protection orders

Care and protection orders are legal orders or arrangements that give child protection departments partial responsibility for a child’s welfare. Between 30 June 2015 and 30 June 2019, the rate of children on care and protection orders increased from 9 to 11 per 1,000 children.

Out-of-home care

Out-of-home care is overnight care for children aged under 18 who are unable to live with their families due to child safety concerns. This includes placements approved by the department responsible for child protection for which there is ongoing case management and financial payment (including where a financial payment has been offered but has been declined by the carer).

Nationally, there was a small increase in the rate for children in out-of-home care at 30 June, from 8 per 1,000 children in 2015 to 9 per 1,000 children in 2017, followed by a fall back to 8 per 1,000 children in 2019.

This fall corresponds with jurisdictions’ aligning with the national definition of out-of-home care at different times by not counting children on third-party parental responsibility orders as being in out-of-home care.

As at 30 June 2019, the vast majority (92%) of children in out‑of‑home care were in home‑based care, mostly with relative or kinship carers (52%), or in foster care (39%). Another 6.4% were living in residential care, mainly used for children with complex needs.

Approximately 30,300 (67%) of the 44,900 children in out-of-home care at 30 June 2019 had been in long-term care (2 years or more). This included:

  • 29% who had been in out-of-home care for between 2 years and less than 5 years
  • 38% who had been in out of home care for 5 years or more.

Most (81%) children who had been in out-of-home care for 2 years or more were on long-term guardianship or custody orders. Another 4.7% were on short-term guardianship or custody orders (Figure 4).

Permanency planning is used in all states and territories with a view to achieving a stable long-term care arrangement for all children in out-of-home care (AIHW 2016, 2019, 2020).

Approximately 4,400 children (13%)  in out-of-home care exited to a permanency outcome in 2018–19. Over 3,700 children were reunified with family during 2018–19, with a further 680 children leaving out-of-home care to third-party parental responsibility orders.

Where do I go for more information?

See child protection for more on this topic.

Also see Child protection Australia 2018–19 (report and supplementary data tables).

References

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2016. Permanency planning in child protection. Child welfare series no. 64. Cat. no. CWS 58. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. Adoptions Australia 2018–19. Child welfare series no. 71. Cat. no. CWS 71. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2020. Child protection Australia 2018–19. Child welfare series no. 74. Cat. no. CWS 74. Canberra: AIHW.

Alternative text for figures

Figure 1: Children who received child protection services, by component of service, 2018–19

The Venn diagram shows the percentage of children receiving child protection services by service component. There are three circles which represent components of child protection services where children may receive one or more services including investigations, care and protection orders, and out‑of‑home care. In 2018–19, 58% of children received an investigation only, 23% received a care and protection order and out‑of‑home care and 7% received all three services—an investigation, a care and protection order and out‑of‑home care.

Figure 2: Children in the child protection system, by service type, 2014–15 to 2018–19

The line chart shows there was an overall increase in children receiving child protection services from 2014–15 to 2018–19. Over the past five years, the rate of children receiving child protection services increased slightly from 29 per 1,000 in 2014–15 to 30 per 1,000 in 2018–19.

Between 2014–15 and 2018–19, the rate of children who were the subject of substantiated investigations rose slightly from 8 to 9 per 1,000 children.

From 30 June 2015 to 30 June 2019, increases were also seen in the rate of children on care and protection orders (9 to 11 per 1,000).

The rate of children in out‑of‑home care has had minor fluctuations over a five year period. The rate increased from 8 to 9 per 1,000 children between 2014–15 and 2015–16 and then decreased again to 8 per 1,000 children in 2017–18 and 2018–19.  In 2018–19 a nationally consistent definition of out-of-home care was applied. Differences in definitions between jurisdictions in previous years mean that trend data must be interpreted with caution.

Figure 3: Children who were the subjects of substantiations, by sex and primary type of abuse or neglect, 2018–9

The bar chart shows the proportion of children who were the subjects of substantiations of notifications received during 2018–19, by sex and type of abuse or neglect. Emotional abuse was the most common abuse type for boys and girls (55% and 53%, respectively), followed by neglect (22% and 19%), physical abuse (16% and 14%) and sexual abuse (6% and 13%).

Figure 4: Children in long-term out-of-home care, by legal arrangements at 30 June 2018

The bar chart shows the proportion of children in long-term (2 years or more) out‑of‑home care by legal arrangement. 82% of children were on a long-term guardianship arrangement and 4.7% were in short-term guardianship arrangements. 11.1% of children were on some other care and protection order.