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Child maltreatment is a broad term covering any abuse and neglect of children aged under 18 years by parents, caregivers, or other adults considered to be in a position of responsibility, trust or power. It includes intentional and non-intentional behaviours that result in a child being harmed, or placed at risk of harm, physically or emotionally (AIFS 2018; WHO 2022).

When a child is exposed to violence within their family this is considered family violence. A child can experience violence directly (where behaviours are directed against or towards the child) and/or indirectly, by living in a family where there is violence directed at, or between, parents, caregivers or other family members and the child sees, hears or is otherwise affected by the violence (AIFS 2018; Richards 2011).

The Australian Government, in partnership with all state and territory governments, have developed national strategies for preventing and responding to child abuse and neglect, including child sexual abuse (DPMC 2021; DSS 2021). See Policy and international context for more information about Safe and Supported: The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021–2031 and the National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021–2030.

Child protection services aim to protect children from maltreatment in family settings. In Australia, states and territories are responsible for statutory child protection – the provision of services to anyone aged under 18 who has been, or is at risk of being, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed, or whose parents are unable to provide adequate care and protection. In some jurisdictions, support for young people in out-of-home care is extended up to the age of 21 years (AIHW 2023a).

Child protection system in Australia

Australia’s child protection system includes: the provision of support services to help families create a safe home environment for their children, avoid the need for out-of-home care, and to help reunite families after a child has been removed; investigation and case management for reports of maltreatment; legal interventions such as care and protection orders; and, when children are unable to live safely at home, they may be placed in out-of-home care. The services provided depend on the individual circumstances and level of intervention required to ensure the safety of the child (AIHW 2023a, 2022b).

Neglect of children has been included in the data reported for child protection services because children are often neglected when family, domestic or sexual violence occurs in the home. For example, perpetrators may prevent their partner from caring for or seeking medical treatment for children (QCDFVR 2020).

What do we know about child maltreatment?

Many cases of child maltreatment are not disclosed to authorities (AIFS 2020). The CP NMDS only includes cases reported to state and territory departments responsible for child protection and reflects the incidence of substantiations of harm, or risk of harm. It does not provide the prevalence of child maltreatment in Australia (AIHW 2023a, 2022b).

The experience and impacts of child maltreatment and exposure to family violence were explored in 2021 as part of the first national child maltreatment study in Australia (Haslam et al. 2023). Findings from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study are presented in the Children and young people and Child sexual abuse topics.

Family and domestic violence, parental alcohol and other drug use, and parental mental health issues have been identified as key behavioural risk factors in reports of child maltreatment and placement in out-of-home care (Conley Wright et al. 2021). Family and domestic violence, including child maltreatment, can have a wide range of significant adverse impacts on a child’s development and later outcomes. This includes, but is not limited to, adverse effects on the person’s mental and physical health, housing situation and general wellbeing. Research also indicates there is a link between adverse childhood experiences, including child maltreatment, and the future use of violence by victim-survivors (Ogilvie et al. 2022).

See also Factors associated with FDSV and Children and young people.

Several Australian linkage projects have brought together data from different data collections to better understand some of the outcomes for children in contact with the child protection system. These projects found that children who had contact with the child protection system were more likely:

  • than other children to be under youth justice supervision and to seek assistance from specialist homelessness services (AIHW 2016, 2022c)
  • to have lower levels of literacy and numeracy than all students (AIHW 2015, see also Box 2)
  • to receive income support payments at ages 16–30 when compared with the Australian population of the same age (AIHW 2022a, see also Economic and financial impacts).

What do the data tell us about the child protection system?

Child protection data are recorded in the Child Protection National Minimum Data Set (see Box 1 and Data sources and technical notes).

  • 1 in 32 children

    in Australia came into contact with the child protection system in 2021–22

    Source: AIHW Child Protection National Minimum Data Set

During 2021–22, 1 in 32 (or almost 178,000) children in Australia came into contact with the child protection system:

  • 119,000 (21 per 1,000) were the subject of an investigation
  • 72,300 (13 per 1,000) were on a care and protection order
  • 55,800 (9.8 per 1,000) were in out-of-home care.

About two-thirds (70%) of the children were repeat clients, that is, they had been in contact with the system before (AIHW 2023a).

Emotional abuse is the main type of substantiated maltreatment

57% of children who were the subject of a substantiation of maltreatment in 2021–22 had emotional abuse recorded as the primary type of abuse.

In 2021–22, nearly 45,500 children (8 per 1,000 children) were the subjects of substantiated maltreatment following an investigation (that is, an investigation concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that a child had been, was being, or was likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed). For more than half (57%, or 25,900) of these children, emotional abuse was the primary type of substantiated maltreatment. This category includes children who experienced violence directly and those affected by exposure to family and domestic violence. However, it is not possible to separately report the number of children affected by exposure to family and domestic violence from those who experienced other forms of emotional abuse (AIHW 2023a).

Neglect was the next most common substantiated type of maltreatment (21%), followed by physical abuse (13%) and sexual abuse (9%) (AIHW 2023a). The pattern of substantiated abuse types was similar for girls and boys, however, girls (12%) were more likely to be the subjects of substantiations for sexual abuse than boys (5%) (Figure 1, AIHW 2023a).

Figure 1: Children who were the subjects of substantiations, by primary type of maltreatment and sex, 2021–22

Figure 1 shows the number and proportion of children who were the subject of substantiations of abuse and/or neglect by primary type of abuse.

Intensive family support services

Almost 36,200 children commenced intensive family support services in 2021–22.

National data for reporting on family support services in the child protection context is currently limited to intensive family support services. These are services that explicitly work to prevent imminent separation of children from their primary caregivers because of child protection concerns, and to reunify families where separation has already occurred (AIHW 2023a).

In 2021–22, almost 36,200 children commenced intensive family support services and of these 23% (or about 8,200) were aged under 5 (AIHW 2023a).

Has the rate of children who had contact with the child protection system changed over time?

The rate of children who had contact with the child protection system was relatively stable between 2018–19 and 2021–22, at around 31 per 1,000 children (AIHW 2023a).

Figure 2 shows that the rate of children who were the subjects of substantiations was relatively stable between 2018–19 and 2020–21 (at around 9 per 1,000 children), with a slight decrease to 8 per 1,000 children in 2021–22. This pattern was similar for boys and girls, however, the rate of substantiations was slightly higher for girls over the period (ranging from 8.4 to 9.1 per 1,000 for girls, compared with a range of 7.4 to 8.2 per 1,000 for boys).

Data for 2017–18 have not been included in this analysis as data on substantiations were unavailable for New South Wales for that period.

Figure 2: Children who were the subjects of substantiations, by sex, 2018–19 to 2021–22

Figure 2 shows the number and rate (number per 1,000) of children who were the subject of substantiations of abuse and/or neglect from 2018–19 to 2021–22 by sex. 

Emotional abuse was the most common substantiated primary type of maltreatment between 2018-19 and 2021-22. It was recorded as the primary type of maltreatment for more than half of the children who were the subjects of substantiated maltreatment, ranging from 54% in 2018–19 and 2019–20 to 57% in 2021–22 (AIHW 2023a).

Are the rates of substantiations of child maltreatment the same for all children?

Figure 3 shows the number and rate (number per 1,000 children) of children who were the subjects of substantiations in 2021–22 for select population groups. The rates of substantiations of child maltreatment are higher for:

  • infants (children aged under one) – 15 per 1,000 children compared with 5 per 1,000 for children aged 15–17
  • First Nations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) children, a rate of 40 per 1,000
  • children from Very remote areas (25 per 1,000 children), compared with Major cities (6.6 per 1,000)
  • children from the lowest socioeconomic areas (33% of substantiations were for children in the lowest socioeconomic areas, compared with 7.2% in the highest) (Figure 3; AIHW 2023a).

Figure 3: Children who were the subjects of substantiations, for select population groups, 2021–22

Figure 3 allows users to view the number and rate (number per 1,000 children) of children who were the subject of substantiations of abuse and/or neglect by select population groups.

Visualisation not available for printing

What else do we know?

There is substantial overlap between the child protection system and youth justice supervision

Over 1 in 2 (53%) young people under youth justice supervision in 2020–21 had contact with the child protection system between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2021.

Of the nearly 9,300 young people aged 10 and over under youth justice supervision (community-based supervision and/or detention) in 2020–21:

  • over 1 in 2 (53%, or nearly 5,000) had contact with the child protection system between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2021.
  • over 1 in 4 (28%, or nearly 2,600) had contact with the child protection system in 2020–21 (AIHW 2022c).

The proportion of children and young people who had contact with the child protection system between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2021 was higher for those in youth detention in 2020–21 (60%) than those under community-based supervision (54%) (AIHW 2022c).

Some children in out-of-home care may be the subject of further abuse

In 2021–22, about 1,200 children were the subject of a substantiation of abuse in care. The most common primary type of abuse in care was physical abuse (32%). This was followed by emotional abuse (29%), neglect (18%) and sexual abuse (15%) (AIHW 2023b).

Physical abuse (36%) was the most common type of abuse in care for boys, followed by emotional abuse (28%). For girls, emotional abuse (31%) was the most common, followed by physical abuse (27%). Girls (19%) were more likely to be the subjects of substantiations for sexual abuse in care than boys (12%) (AIHW 2023b).

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