In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for statutory child protection. 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 2020–21. It also covers historical trends in child protection services and the types of services provided to children in need of care and protection.

Most statistics on this page are drawn from Child protection Australia 2020–21 (AIHW 2021a).

Children who received child protection services

In 2020–21, about 178,800 children aged less than 18 years 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 32 per 1,000 children. More than half (58%) of these children were the subject of an investigation only, 23% received a care and protection order and were in out-of-home care. A small proportion (6.8%) were involved in all components of the system (investigations of notified child abuse/neglect, care and protections orders, and out-of-home care). See glossary for definitions of the child protection service types.

 

The Venn diagram shows three overlapping 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 2020–21, 58% of children received an investigation only, 24% received a care and protection order and out‑of‑home care and 6.8% received all three services – an investigation, a care and protection order and out‑of‑home care.

Children and their families may receive support services to keep children with their families, or be subject to investigations of reports of child abuse/neglect, protection orders, and/or placement in out‑of‑home care. Some children are unable to live safely at home as they may be at risk of being abused or neglected, or their parents may be unable to provide adequate care.

  • State and territory child protection services supported more than 178,800 children in 2020–21. This has increased from about 168,300 in 2016–17.
  • Between 2016–17 and 2020–21, notifications increased by 40% (around 379,500 in 2016­–17 to nearly 531,900 in 2020–21) while substantiations increased by only 7.2% (around 68,000 to nearly 72,900).
  • Nearly 49,700 children were subject to substantiated abuse or neglect. Emotional abuse (55%) was the most common primary type of abuse or neglect substantiated through investigations in 2020–21. This was followed by neglect (21%), physical abuse (14%), and sexual abuse (10%).
  • At 30 June 2021, more than 46,200 children were in out-of-home care, a 7.3% increase from 30 June 2017 when the number of children was approximately 43,100. At 30 June 2021, 91% were in a home‑based care placement and 68% had been continuously in out-of-home care for 2 years or more.
 

Trends

State and territory child protection services supported more than 178,800 children in 2020–21, a 6.2% increase from 2016–17 when the number was approximately 168,300 (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.

Increases over time in the number or rate of children receiving child protection services or support might relate to changes in the underlying rate of child abuse and neglect, increases in notifications and access to services, or a combination of factors.

 

The line chart shows that the number of children receiving child protection services has increased slightly from 2016–17 to 2020–21. Over the past five years, the rate of children receiving child protection services increased slightly from 31 to 32 per 1,000 with the exception of a slight drop in 2017–18, which 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.

Between 2016–17 and 2020–21, the rate of children who were the subject of substantiated investigations remained stable at 9 per 1,000 children.

From 30 June 2017 to 30 June 2021, there was a slight increase in the rate of children on care and protection orders (10 to 11 per 1,000).

The rate of children in out‑of‑home care remained stable over a five year period at 8 per 1,000 children from 30 June 2017 to 30 June 2021. In 2018–19 a nationally consistent definition of out-of-home care was implemented and the out-of-home care data have been back cast to 2016–17 with the national definition.

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 has remained stable over this period at 9 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. Nearly 49,700 children were subject to substantiated abuse or neglect. Emotional abuse was the most common primary type of abuse or neglect substantiated for all children (55%).

Girls were more likely to be subjects of substantiations of sexual abuse than boys (14% and 5.8% respectively). Boys were slightly more likely than girls to be subjects of substantiations for emotional abuse (57% and 53%) and neglect (22% and 20%). Similar proportions of boys and girls were subjects of substantiations for physical abuse (15% boys, 13% girls) (Figure 3).

 
 

The bar chart shows the proportion of children who were the subjects of substantiations of notifications received during 2020–21, by sex and type of abuse or neglect. Emotional abuse was the most common abuse type for boys and girls (57% and 53%, respectively), followed by neglect (23% and 20%), physical abuse (15% and 14%) and sexual abuse (5.8% and 14%).

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 2017 and 30 June 2021, the rate of children on care and protection orders increased slightly from 10 to 11 per 1,000 children. Over the same period, the rate of Indigenous children on care and protection orders increased from about 60 to about 71 per 1,000 children.

Out-of-home care

Out-of-home care is overnight care for children less than 18 years 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, the number of children in out-of-home care at 30 June increased by 7.3%, from 43,100 to 46,200 between 2017 to 2021, although the rate remained relatively stable at 8 per 1,000 children. As at 30 June 2021, the vast majority (91%) of children in out‑of‑home care were in home‑based care, mostly with relative or kinship carers (54%), or in foster care (36%). Another 7.3% were living in residential care, mainly used for children with complex needs. Approximately 31,400 (68%) of the 46,200 children in out-of-home care at 30 June 2021 had been in long-term care (2 years or more). This included:

  • 27% who had been in out-of-home care for between 2 years and less than 5 years.
  • 41% who had been in out-of-home care for 5 years or more.

Most (82%) children who had been in out-of-home care for 2 years or more were on long-term guardianship or custody orders. Another 5.1% 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). More than 9,900 children (17% of the 56,900 children in out-of-home care during 2020–21) exited to a permanency outcome in 2020–21. Almost 5,400 children were reunified with family during 2020–21, with a further 1,300 children leaving out-of-home care to third-party parental care arrangements.

 

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 5.1% were in short-term guardianship arrangements. 9.5% of children were on some other care and protection order.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ATSICPP)

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ATSICPP) is designed to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child protection system.

ATSICPP practices relating to Indigenous children in out-of-home care include:

  • preferred placement with Indigenous or non-Indigenous relatives or kin, or other Indigenous carers
  • support to maintain or re-establish connections to their family, community, culture and country.

Key findings from The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principle indicators report (AIHW 2021c) include:

  • About 18,900 Indigenous children were living in out-of-home care at 30 June 2020 (a rate of 56 per 1,000).
  • Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Indigenous children in out-of-home care were living with Indigenous or non-Indigenous relatives or kin or other Indigenous caregivers.
  • 69% of Indigenous children in out-of-home care had current, documented and approved cultural support plans at 30 June 2020, which include details such as the child’s cultural background and actions taken to maintain their connection to culture.
  • 15% of Indigenous children in out-of-home care during 2019–20 were reunified with family.

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

Child protection in the time of COVID-19

In light of the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Commonwealth, state and territory governments recognised the necessity of reprioritising national efforts and resources towards responding to the major emergency unfolding across Australia.

Measures put in place as part of government responses to COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021, including travel restrictions, lockdowns limiting non-urgent face-to-face work and remote learning for students and quarantine requirements may have affected child protection processes during 2019–20 and 2020–21. While the long-term impact of COVID-19 on child protection processes is still unknown, there have been no specific impacts on the annual data.

Some additional monthly data for the period March to September 2020 were supplied by states/territories for the Child protection in the time of COVID-19 report (AIHW 2021b).

Key findings from the Child protection in the time of COVID-19 report (AIHW 2021b) include:

  • Notifications to child protection services fell during the ‘first wave’ of COVID-19 in April 2020, and increased once most restrictions eased in May/June 2020.
  • The number of children in out-of-home care remained relatively stable between March and September 2020.
  • Several risk factors for child abuse and neglect increased during COVID-19, including financial hardship, housing stress, and poor mental health.

Where do I go for more information?

See child protection for more on this topic.

Also see Child protection Australia 2020–21 (report and supplementary data tables).

References 

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) (2016) Permanency planning in child protection, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 18 March 2022.

AIHW (2021a) Child protection Australia 2020–21, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 18 March 2022.

AIHW (2021b) Child protection in the time of COVID-19, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 18 March 2022.

AIHW (2021c) The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principle indicators, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 21 March 2022.