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 2019–20. 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 2019–20 (AIHW2021a).

Children who received child protection services

In 2019–20, about 174,700 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 31 per 1,000 children. More than half (57%) 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 (7.2%) were involved in all 3 components of the system. 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 2019–20, 57% of children received an investigation only, 24% received a care and protection order and out‑of‑home care and 7.2% received all three services—an investigation, a care and protection order and out‑of‑home care.

Some groups of children are consistently overrepresented in the child protection system. In 2019–20:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were almost 8 times as likely as non‑Indigenous children to have received child protection services (166 per 1,000 children compared with 21 respectively)
  • infants (aged under one) were more likely to have received child protection services than those aged 15–17 (38 per 1,000 compared with 24 respectively)
  • children from geographically remote areas had the highest rates of substantiations—children from Very remote areas were more than 3 times as likely as those from Major cities to be the subject of substantiations (24 per 1,000 compared with 7, respectively)
  • children who were the subjects of substantiations were more likely to be from lower socioeconomic areas (35% were from the lowest socioeconomic area compared with 5.9% 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 4-year period from 2016–17 to 2019–20, the overall number of children who received child protection services in Australia rose by 3.8%—from around 168,300 children (31 per 1,000) to around 174,700 children (31 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.

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 remained relatively stable from 2016–17 to 2019–20. Over the past four years, the rate of children receiving child protection services remained at 31 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 2015–16 and 2019–20, the rate of children who were the subject of substantiated investigations remained stable at 9 per 1,000 children.

From 30 June 2016 to 30 June 2020, 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 four year period at 8 per 1,000 children between 2016–17 and 2019–20. 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 was 9 per 1,000 children in 2019–20, which was slightly higher than the rate in 2015–16 (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 5.9% respectively). Boys were slightly more likely than girls to be subjects of substantiations for neglect (23% and 21% respectively) and physical abuse (15% and 13%) (Figure 3).

The bar chart shows the proportion of children who were the subjects of substantiations of notifications received during 2019–20, by sex and type of abuse or neglect. Emotional abuse was the most common abuse type for boys and girls (56% and 53%, respectively), followed by neglect (24% and 21%), physical abuse (15% and 14%) and sexual abuse (5.9% and 13%).

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 2016 and 30 June 2020, the rate of children on care and protection orders increased from 10 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, the number of children in out-of-home care at 30 June increased from 43,100 to 46,000 between 2017 to 2020, although the rate remained relatively stable at 8 per 1,000 children. As at 30 June 2020, the vast majority (92%) of children in out‑of‑home care were in home‑based care, mostly with relative or kinship carers (54%), or in foster care (37%). Another 6.6% were living in residential care, mainly used for children with complex needs. Approximately 30,600 (67%) of the 46,000 children in out-of-home care at 30 June 2020 had been in long-term care (2 years or more). This included:

  • 28% who had been in out-of-home care for between 2 years and less than 5 years
  • 39% 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 4.8% 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, 2020). Approximately 9,900 children (18%) in out-of-home care exited to a permanency outcome in 2019–20. Almost 5,000 children were reunified with family during 2019–20, with a further 700 children leaving out-of-home care to third-party parental responsibility orders.

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 4.8% were in short-term guardianship arrangements. 10% 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 a framework designed to promote policy and practice that will 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 2018-19: measuring progress report (AIHW 2020) include:

  • about 18,000 Indigenous children were living in out-of-home care at 30 June 2019 (a rate of 54 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
  • about 8,100 Indigenous children in out-of-home care were required to have cultural support plans at 30 June 2019, and 77% of them had current, documented and approved cultural support plans, which include details such as the child’s cultural background and actions taken to maintain their connection to culture.

Child protection in the time of COVID-19

In light of the unprecedented impact of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (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.

There have been government responses to COVID-19 such as travel restrictions, limitations on non-urgent face-to-face work and resource reallocations that have affected child protection processes during 2019–20. While the impact of COVID-19 may become apparent in the annual child protection data in future years, 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 2019–20 (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 2020. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle Indicators 2018-19: measuring progress. Cat. no. CWS 77. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021a. Child protection Australia 2019–20. Child welfare series no. 74. Cat. no. CWS 78. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2021b. Child protection in the time of COVID-19. Cat. no. CWS 76. Canberra: AIHW.