Numerous inquiries into child protection services in Australia and internationally have concluded that failures in child protection service responses are in large part attributable to: rising demand on child protection services; a workforce suffering low morale who are ill-equipped for the role; families receiving too little too late in the form of intervention; and a rising population of children in care paired with a lack of suitable placements.
Data on children coming to the attention of state/territory child protection authorities show that, since collation of the data commenced, the workload of these departments has escalated in terms of the number of concerns raised about child welfare. Looking at patterns of notifications (reports of concerns relating to the abuse/neglect of children) over the past two decades, the scale of the increase can be readily observed, whether considering the absolute number of notifications (which reflects the initial workload, as departmental staff need to screen and potentially respond to these), or the rate of notifications per thousand children in the population.
A fairly consistent trend across Australia over the past decades is that around one in every five or six of the concerns notified to statutory child protection departments are substantiated (i.e., meet the threshold for a department to intervene due to the child/young person having been harmed, or being at risk of harm from abuse/neglect). This leaves around four in every five cases where there is no legislative grounds for intervention, and yet some level of vulnerability, need or risk has been notified.
In this chapter of Families, policy and the law, we briefly consider the historical origins that underpin the current approach to child protection in Australia, discuss the theory and intent underpinning current reforms, and discuss the promise of a public health approach and why it appears not to be delivering the desired outcomes.