Child protection system in Australia

Child protection refers to preventing and responding to violence, exploitation, abuse, neglect, and harmful practices against children (UNICEF 2021). When children cannot live safely at home, child protection systems prioritise children’s physical, mental and psychosocial needs to safeguard their lives and futures (UNICEF 2021). Child protection functions to protect the fundamental rights of children which include safety, freedom from violence and a stable family environment (UN General Assembly 1989).

The child protection system aims to protect children from maltreatment in family settings.

Child maltreatment is the abuse and neglect that occurs to children under 18 years of age. It includes all types of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, negligence and commercial or other exploitation, which results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power (WHO 2020).

In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for statutory child protection. Relevant departments support vulnerable children:

  • who have been, or are at risk of being, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed
  • whose parents are unable to provide adequate care or protection.

This report looks at children aged under 18 years who came into contact with the child protection system in 2021–22. This includes being:

  • subjects of investigations for alleged child maltreatment notifications
  • on a care and protection order, which gives child protection departments partial or full legal responsibility for their welfare
  • in out-of-home care as they were unable to live at home due to child safety concerns.

Children in the child protection system

In 2021–22, around 1 in 32 (178,000) Australian children aged under 18 came into contact with the child protection system (see: Data table 2.2). About 1 in 124 (45,500) Australian children aged under 18 became subjects of substantiated maltreatment (see: Supplementary data table S3.3). That is, an investigation concluded that they were being, or were at risk of being, maltreated.

A summary of children by components of the child protection system is outlined in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1 Summary of children in the child protection system, 2021–22
Component of the child protection systemDescriptionNumber of eventsNumber of children
Notifications of alleged maltreatment

A report made to a child protection department alleging child maltreatment or harm to a child

(Notifications do not count as a contact with the system until an investigation is undertaken)



Notifications resolved by means other than an investigation

For children who were assessed as having low risk of harm, notifications made about them were resolved without an investigation, such as by providing advice or referring to services

(These notifications do not count as a contact with the system)



Investigations of alleged maltreatment notifications

Child protection departments obtain more detailed information about a child who is the subject of a notification and make an assessment about the harm or degree of harm to the child and their protective needs



Substantiated maltreatment

An investigation concluded that a child had been, was being, or was at risk or significant risk of being, maltreated



Not substantiated allegation of maltreatment

An investigation concluded that there was no reasonable cause to suspect prior, current or future maltreatment of a child



Investigation in process

An investigation that began for a notification received in the financial year, but was not completed by 31 August the following year



Care and protection orders

Legal orders or arrangements that give child protection departments some responsibility for a child’s welfare



Out-of-home care placements

Overnight care for children for which there is ongoing case management and financial payment



Child protection system

Includes children who were subjects of investigation, on a care and protection order and/or in out-of-home care




  1. Number of events includes the total occurrences of the specific component of the child protection system.
  2. For the Number of children count, a child is counted only once, even if they had multiple occurrences of the event during the year.
  3. For care and protection orders, the number of events are orders that were issued in 2021–22, while the number of children are those who had an ongoing care and protection order during 2021–22.
  4. For readability, numbers have been rounded.

Sources: Data tables 2.2, supplementary data tables S3.1, S3.3, S4.1, T1, unpublished data, AIHW Child Protection Collection 2021–22.

Nationally, focus is increasingly on early intervention and family support services to:

  • help prevent children entering or returning to the child protection system
  • minimise the need for more intrusive interventions (AIHW 2021; Bromfield & Holzer 2008; DSS 2021).

Most jurisdictions have enacted strategies that help families in a more holistic way, by:

  • coordinating family support service delivery
  • providing better access to different types of child and family services (DSS 2021).

More information on the performance of governments in providing child protection services across Australia can be found in the Report on Government Services 2023.

Impact of COVID-19

Measures put in place as part of government responses to COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021 (including travel bans/restrictions, lockdowns limiting non-urgent face-to-face work, remote learning for students and quarantine requirements) may have affected child protection processes during 2019–20 to 2021–22. The long-term impact of COVID-19 on child protection processes is still unknown. No specific impacts on the annual data are highlighted in this report, however effects may become apparent in future years.

Some potential impacts of COVID-19 on Australian children in child protection are explored in Child protection in the time of COVID-19. The report presents monthly child protection data from March 2020 to September 2020 compared with 2019. It contains selected information on risk factors for child abuse, including income and housing stress, parental mental health, substance use, and domestic violence.

For information on the impact of COVID-19 on population data, see Box 1.1 in the Technical notes.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on this topic, see Child protection, state and territory departments responsible for child protection and Department of Social Services.