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Child Protection

The Australian context, framework, principles, out-of-home care, engaging parents (including fathers), involving children, tips for practice, myView myWay

Three sections and two appendices follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Appendix 1: Crossover Children—child protection links to the criminal justice system.

Appendix 2: Responding to disclosures of abuse by young people.

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

The Child Protection System in Australia

(From AIHW, 2023 unless otherwise referenced)

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. When children cannot live safely at home, child protection systems prioritise children’s physical, mental and psychosocial needs to safeguard their lives and futures. Child protection functions to protect the fundamental rights of children which include safety, freedom from violence and a stable family environment.

In Australia state and territory governments are responsible for statutory child protection. There are a range of different ways that states and territories in Australia legally define ‘a child in need of protection’ or, in some jurisdictions, a child ‘at risk’. Truong (2023) presents legal definitions of who is designated as a ‘child’ or ‘young person’ followed by the definition of ‘a child in need of protection’ as set out by each Australian jurisdiction. The article has a detailed summary for each jurisdiction.

Mandatory reporting laws are an important aspect of the child protection system. They aim to identify cases of child abuse and neglect, and to assist the individual children in these cases. They were first developed in response to the largely hidden nature of child physical abuse and neglect, with the purpose of bringing cases to the attention of child welfare agencies. They require selected groups of people to, by law, report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to government authorities. As with the legal definition of children who need protection, mandatory reporting laws are not the same across all jurisdictions nor are the types of abuse that should be reported. A recent publication by Child Family Community Australia (CFCA, 2020) has detailed information around mandatory reporting in each Australian jurisdiction (CFCA, 2020).

Child protection departments provide and/or fund a range of services to support children in the child protection system to ensure they have stable, long-term care arrangements. These include:

  • intensive family support services, that aim to

o support parents to care for their children

o prevent separation of children from parents

o achieve reunification where separation has already occurred

  • care and protection orders when children have been seriously harmed, are at risk or significant risk of harm and where no other care options exist. Any one of parents, departments or nominated carers can become responsible for children.

  • out-of-home care, i.e. overnight and longer 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 child protection department for which there is ongoing case management and financial payment. OOHC can include voluntary placements, placements for the purpose of respite for parents/carers, or legal (court-ordered) placements. OOHC placements are considered as a last resort. Children can be placed in OOHC for many reasons, including:

o being the subjects of substantiations and needing a protective environment

o having parents who are incapable of providing adequate care

o needing alternative accommodation during times of conflict

o having parents or carers who need respite.

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.

There are four main types of carers for children in OOHC:

  • foster carers who are not related to the child

  • relative/kinship carers who are related to or know the child

  • long-term guardianship carers who may or may not be related to the child

  • respite carers who provide short-term accommodation where the intention is for the child to return to their prior residence (out-of- home care or family home).

To support children to find stable long-term care arrangements, child protection departments undertake permanency planning for children in out-of-home care. Permanency outcomes include:

  • reunifying children with their families

  • placing children in a third-party care arrangement

  • placing children on long-term guardianship or custody orders adoption.

Some recent data

(From AIHW, 2023 unless otherwise noted)

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

  • 13,600 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (40 per 1,000 Indigenous children)

  • 30,500 were non-Indigenous children (5.7 per 1,000 non-Indigenous children).

  • At 30 June 2022, 61 100 children were on care and protection orders and 45 400 children were in out-of-home care. Of the 8 in 1000 children in OOHC on 30 June 2022, 57 in 1000 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and 4.8 in 1000 were non-Indigenous children (19 400 and 25 900 respectively). In 2021-22 70% of children in OOHC were in long-term care, i.e., had been in OOHC for two years or more. This rate has been relatively stable over the years.

In 2021-22, of the 178 000 children who encountered the child protection system, the majority (70%) were repeat or continuing clients.

  • More than half (55% or 65,000) of the 119,000 children who were subjects of investigations for alleged child maltreatment notifications were repeat clients.

  • Most (96% or 69,300) of the 72,300 children on a care and protection order were repeat clients.

  • Most (95% or 53,200) of the 55,800 children placed in out-of-home care were repeat clients.

In 2021-22, 1 200 children were subjects of substantiations of abuse in care.

In 2021–22, 9,000 children exited out-of-home care to a permanency outcome.

In 2019 Baldwin and Sheehan undertook a detailed audit of the Children’s Court files in Victoria, Australia of 300 “crossover children” (i.e. children who have been in the child protection system and transition to the criminal justice system). During the study period, 22% of all children appearing before the Courts were crossover children with current or historical statutory child protection involvement. Further examination found 57% of crossover children were subject to a child protection order at the time of their index CD matters (n=172), while the remainder had experienced past statutory child protection involvement (n=128). The child’s latest matter was more often risk of psychological/emotional harm and/or risk of physical harm. Children were evenly distributed between OOHC and not. A summary of this article is provided in Appendix 1 after the Practice Approach and References Sections. It makes a strong case for the need to prevent, respond appropriately to and divert crossover children from involvement in the criminal justice system.

Child protection processes in Australia

(From AIHW, 2023)

Notifications, investigations, and substantiations are the entry point for children into the child protection system. These components are sequential:

  1. An initial notification of alleged child maltreatment is made to a child protection department.

  2. If the notification meets the threshold for further action, an investigation of the alleged maltreatment is conducted.

  3. The investigation ends with a substantiation decision about whether there is reasonable cause to believe that a child has been, is being, or is at risk or significant risk of being, maltreated.

Australian National Framework

In 2021 the Australian Government published a National Framework for protecting Australia’s children (2021-2031). Its goal is to make significant and sustained progress in reducing the rates of child abuse and neglect, and its intergenerational impacts. The priority groups targeted by the Framework include:

  • Children and families with multiple complex needs

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people experiencing disadvantage or who are vulnerable

  • Young people with disability and/or carers/parents with disability

  • Young people experiencing abuse and/or neglect, including those in out-of-home care.

The Framework lists four focus areas and six principles outlining how the goal will be achieved (Commonwealth of Australia, 2021).

The first action plan for the Framework has been published recently (Commonwealth of Australia, 2023a). It sets out eight actions for all parties involved in supporting children. These focus collective actions on:

  1. Addressing social determinants of child safety

  2. Establishing a national coordinated data and research approach

  3. Establishing a sustainable and skilled workforce for children and family services

  4. Listening to children and their lived experience

  5. Improving outcomes for children in out-of-home care

  6. Improving support for carers

  7. Ensuring effective and timely responses for those living with a disability—parents, carers, and young people

  8. Implementing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Child Placement Principle.

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Action Plan complements the above action plan (Commonwealth of Australia, 2023b).

Out-of-Home Care (OOHC)

There is a separate post on this topic on this site:

What is OOHC?

Out-of-home care (OOHC) is alternate care for children aged 0–18 who are unable to live with their families or guardians. These arrangements can be formal or informal. There are four main types of OOHC: home-based care, family group homes, residential care, and independent living. Most children currently living in OOHC are in home-based care.

  1. Home-based care (foster or kin care) Placement is in the home of a carer who is reimbursed by the state or territory. This includes placement with a foster carer or with a family/kin carer where there is an existing relationship with the child.

  2. Family group homes Placement is in a residential building provided by a government department or community organisation and staffed by resident carers who are reimbursed and/or subsidised to provide care.

  3. Residential care Placement is in a residential building provided by the government department and staffed by paid carers. Children in residential care tend to be older (median = 14 years); however, the most recent data shows an increase in the number of children aged under 10 in residential care.

  4. Independent living The child or young person lives in private accommodation or a boarding arrangement, or in lead-tenant situations (Campo & Commerford, 2016).

The variation in policy and legislation between states and territories means that care leavers in Australia receive different levels of support usually up to 21 years or 25 years of age. Most young people are expected to leave care at 18 (although this has been increased to 21 in NSW in 2023). Types of support commonly offered by each state and territory include help to access records and information on services, financial management, accommodation, education and training, employment, legal advice, access to health and community services, and counselling and support services. However, all states offer only discretionary rather than mandatory post-care support, and most of the funding provided is allocated to preparation or transition (15–18 years) rather than post-care (18–21/25 years) (Campo & Commerford, 2016).

The current challenges for First Nations youth leaving OOHC

(from Walsh et al.)

The following outcomes are common when Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children leave OOHC:

  • leaving care ill-prepared and unsupported for independent living due to a lack of transition-to-independence planning

  • leaving OOHC with poorly developed social and emotional skills as a result of pre-care and in-care experiences

  • experiencing short- and long-term homelessness because of severe shortages of affordable housing

  • leaving OOHC with diagnosed and undiagnosed health issues

  • having difficulty achieving success in education and employment

  • following a volatile pathway, potentially including drug and alcohol abuse, family violence and involvement in the justice system.

Additionally, female care leavers are more like to become pregnant at an earlier age and be at risk of their own children being removed.

First Nations care leavers face the following challenges:

Service challenges

  • Leaving OOHC with a reluctance to engage with mainstream leaving care services (because of hesitancy to engage with social welfare services due to historical and contemporary removal of children).

  • Leaving care feeling unsupported and unheard from a cultural standpoint, i.e. many services are culturally insensitive, whereas culturally informed care is required.

Cultural and reunification challenges

  • Leaving OOHC without a cultural plan (despite the known benefits of cultural planning): Leaving care without a cultural plan led by First Nations people inhibits First Nations care leavers’ sense of identity, self-worth and belonging.

  • Being unsupported in navigating relationships and reunification with family: Family and community reunification is not supported—many travel long distances to return to family and then may find family ill-equipped to welcome them leading to homelessness and isolation.

  • Experiences of transgenerational trauma: The families and communities care leavers return to continue to live with unhealed trauma and socio-economic disadvantage.

  • Systems unable to support the mobility of First Nations care leavers: Families are often dispersed, even living interstate.

Housing challenges

  • Australia has a severe shortage of affordable housing: Finding affordable and culturally appropriate accommodation is a widespread challenge for First Nations care leavers leading a transition to homelessness.

  • Government and private rental accommodation does not generally support First Nations ways of living: Mainstream government or public housing does not generally support mobility and the sharing of accommodation for long and short periods with close and extended family and community. When a care leaver finds accommodation, but breaches tenancy regulations specified by government and private housing providers, they are often evicted and so too are the family and community members sharing the dwelling with them.

Outcomes for young people leaving care

A considerable body of research from small-scale qualitative studies and international research indicate that young people who exit care experience significant social and economic marginalisation and including a range of poor educational and health outcomes:

  • homelessness and/or housing instability;

  • significantly higher rates of mental illness compared to the general population;

  • unemployment/underemployment;

  • substance abuse issues;

  • involvement in the youth criminal justice system (see Appendix 1—'Crossover Children’);

  • early parenthood; and

  • low educational attainment (Campo & Commerford, 2016).

Poor educational and health outcomes on leaving care are a result of a complex interaction of factors. These could include their experiences prior to placement, the type of OOHC they are placed in, their experience within OOHC, stability of placement, their connections with family/kin, the age when they transition from care, and their access or use of support services.

  • Indigenous care leavers, care leavers with disabilities or mental health issues, and those living in rural and remote areas face additional or multiple difficulties when leaving care.

  • Young women who have spent time in OOHC tend to become mothers at a younger age than their peers. Some of the challenges experienced by young mothers who have been in OOHC include lack of appropriate parenting models; poor understandings of pregnancy and parenthood; difficulty engaging with services; and housing instability/homelessness. General research on young mothers indicates that they experience social isolation, and poverty and economic disadvantage.

However, not all care leavers experience poor life outcomes. Children and young people in OOHC can experience supportive and stable placements, and ongoing positive relationships with carers and workers, enabling them to overcome adversities and experience positive outcomes despite previous deprivations (Campo & Commerford, 2016).

The poor outcomes for those leaving OOHC can be viewed from a social development framework where explanations for these generally poor outcomes coalesce around two interrelated factors, namely, the long-term impact of early childhood abuse, neglect, and maltreatment, and the lack of supports available to young people as they exit the OOHC system. There is now more focus on the developmental needs of young people leaving care (Campo & Commerford, 2016). For example, the New South Wales Government is now offering additional support for young people transitioning from care until age 21 years (previously support ended at age 18 years). In addition programs in the following areas have commenced:

  • Housing via Supported Independent Living placements, Foyer Central and the Premier’s Youth Initiative

  • Education and employment via Smart and Skilled fee-free courses, targeted traineeships and scholarship

  • Independence and identity through leaving care planning, Transition to Independent Living Allowance, driving courses and life story support.

A ‘staying on’ carer allowance has recently been put in place to provide additional financial support for young people aged 18 to 21 who continue to live with their carer. Those leaving OOHC from age 18 now receive a fortnightly after care allowance until 21. The Specialist Aftercare Program, designed to provide support for young people with complex needs has been expanded (NSW Government, Communities and Justice, 2023).

‘Supporting young people leaving OOHC’ in the following section provides suggestions for social worker practice.

Practice Approach

myView myWay: Combining digital technology with strengths-based practice

Sources: Garsed, 2023; NYSCP, 2021; Viewpoint Organisation, 2023

An underpinning principle of the Australian National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children (Commonwealth of Australia, 2021) is to ensure that child protection interventions are child-centered and informed by the child’s voices and the voices of those who care for them.  Workers on the ground in child protection organisations, however, can face significant challenges in engaging and empowering young clients whose trauma histories create mistrust of adults and systems and result in barriers to participation.  However, a combination of digital technology and strengths-based practice developed by The Viewpoint Organisation in the myView myWay program has been effective in helping young people to overcome barriers to participation and to identify and express views, feelings, and aspirations to form the seminal focus of the care planning process and help them to achieve their full potential.

myView myWay uses digital assessment to make it easier for young people to engage and complete self-assessments that explore and provide information in a safe, easy and confidential environment.  The myView myWay approach moves away from a deficit-based orientation that asks, “What is going wrong?” and “What do we need to fix about you?” to listening to what young people need to flourish.

The assessment tool consists of a number of questions that are strengths-based and can be completed on the person’s phone or other digital medium.  The questions enable the young person to reflect on what they can do, rather than the problems and issues they face—what they cannot do.  Questions include, “Do you have any hobbies or special interests?” and “Do you feel you have something you are good at?”  The tool enables the young person to say what is going well and not so well in their lives, providing a foundation for planning in a way that is relevant and meaningful for them. 

Self-assessment is the first step in the SaPPS Cycle summarised on the right and presented in the diagram below. 

Prioritising is a key part of the process where the worker engages the young person in a conversation about their responses, highlighting their strengths and identifying with them their priorities for change – their goals. It establishes a personal connection allowing the young person to see their worker hears them, values and understands their needs. It builds participation. Active listening encourages young people to:

  • explore their responses in more detail

  • develop their understanding of their experiences, circumstances and positives

  • consider desired changes and outcomes

  • and, together with practitioners, consider ways to achieve these.

Other critical relationships are identified through the self-assessment and can be enabled in the care plan, e.g. parents, carers, a teacher or another professional.

The resulting Care Plan is guided by the question, “What do we need to do to support the young person’s development, learning, stability, and growth, as well as their healing?”  It will reflect the goals, solutions, and requests that the young person has identified, thereby assisting them to achieve the desired outcomes by commitment to the plan.  The experience of genuine participation promotes in them a sense of control over their lives, feelings of self-confidence and self-worth, an emphasis on strengths and talents, and the reduction of negative notions about self.  The process provides young people with the opportunity to be co-producers of services and support rather than simply consumers of services.

The key social worker/case manager has a key role in supporting the young person in the delivery of the plan. Working in a collaborative way promotes the opportunity for young people to be co-producers of services and support rather than solely consumers of those services. The quality of the relationship that develops between those providing and being supported is important as they work together to achieve the young person's goals.  The worker’s responsibilities encompass overall case management and coordination of care team activities.  Critical tasks also include:

  • building a connection and effective helping relationship with the young person, listening to and valuing their views;

  • facilitating and supporting the natural connections in the young person’s network;

  • supporting the young person in their care arrangement;

  • instigating continuous and collaborative reassessment with the young person so they can reflect on their circumstances, changes, and developments over time;

  • highlighting achievement to promote the young person’s sense of empowerment, self-confidence, and self-worth; and

  • helping the young person contribute to future reviews which consider, record, and build upon achievements.

Re-assessment enables the young person to reflect on their circumstances, changes and developments over time.  As goals are achieved an individual’s self-confidence and feeling of self-worth is raised, so reinforcing their sense of well-being and of being empowered. By strengthening the positives, the young person also improves their weak sides so that negative notions about their self, begin to fade away.

The North Yorkshire Safeguarding Children Partnership (NYSCP, 2021) appears to adopt a similar approach to the myView myWay program, without the use of digital technology.  It has a list of strengths-based questions that may be a useful resource if implementing the myView myWay approach.

Respond to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse

Goldsworthy et al. (2015) provide a detailed outline for family, friends, other adults and professionals to follow when responding to a child's disclosure of abuse.The infographic below summarises the approach.A detailed summary is included inAppendix 2.

Implement the National principles for child-safe organisations

From COAG (2018)

Support parents in contact with the ‘system’

(Hall et al., 2020; Salveron et al., 2020)

Families in contact with child protection often have multiple and complex needs, which can include mental health conditions, physical health problems, disability, substance use, family violence, social exclusion, poverty, and unemployment. Child protection services generally do not provide therapeutic services for parents. Instead, they may refer families to other support services to ensure that families are supported to provide safe and caring environments for children. Such services include parenting groups, counselling services, intensive family support services, family violence services, mental health services, housing services, and alcohol and other drugs (AOD) services, among others.

Parents fears of child protection intervention can affect how they engage with social workers. When child protection services are involved, many parents will be fearful that children will be removed, and this makes it difficult for them to share sensitive information they believe could be used against them (especially if the family is of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent). This can be the case even if, from the practitioner’s perspective, such information would simply help better meet the needs of the family. It is important to remember that, for some clients, withholding information may be a survival technique that has been honed over many years (or even generations) of interacting with the welfare system.

Building trust with some parents may be further complicated by their complex histories of trauma, which can lead to poor emotional regulation, impaired reasoning, and reduced decision-making capacity. Parent behaviours that appear challenging, such as defensiveness or aggressiveness, can be the result of parents’ feelings of shame, injustice, guilt, or low self-esteem; their feeling misunderstood; and much more. The most effective practitioners tend to be adept at identifying and addressing risk factors and deficits, while also acknowledging and building on families’ strengths and capabilities. Seemingly small acts of practical support can often go a long way, including the writing of letters of support, helping parents to access income support, and connecting them to other parents of parenting groups

Contact with child protection can also negatively affect parents’ physical and mental health. Alcohol and other substance use may come into play. Low self-esteem may result leading to depression and suicidality. For parents with an intergenerational history of child protection involvement, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, contact can bring up memories of their own traumatic experiences of being abused, neglected, or placed in out-of-home care during their childhoods. As a result they may not access services or supports that could help them cope. Some parents will become isolated from social supports, including family.

This can have practical implications for parents and contact with child protection services difficult, e.g. it may require changes in daily routines to attend appointments, future commitments may become uncertain, ability to work may be affected. Family violence complicates the situation even more for parents.

Having one’s parenting and family life scrutinised by child protection services can be shame-inducing. It tends to be hidden; parents can tend to withdraw into themselves or last out in rage. Workers should put boundaries around inappropriate, harmful, or abusive behaviour, but not respond with judgement, drawing a sense of confidence from understanding that the most effective antidote to shame is often simply feeling understood and accepted by another person.

Parents may have a limited understanding of how the child protection system works. Myths and false beliefs about the child protection system abound.

  • It is common for parents to believe that a notification to child protection means that they will immediately have their child taken from their care.

  • Parents may think that child protection are motivated to remove their child or children, rather than to support them to provide healthier and safer environments for their family.

  • Parents may expect child protection services will support them but find they only focus on the needs of the children, i.e. the needs of the family are not being addressed.

Parents may not know how to effectively engage with the child protection system, e.g. how to demonstrate new strategies have been adopted, of the outcomes expected and the time frame allowed to demonstrate change, how to ask for support and they type of support available, how to access legal services. Social workers should advocate for families to get the help they need, especially in rural and regional areas, where timely services are often not available.

Clear and effective communication is central to working with families. Parents are involved with multiple services and may be cautious to trust.

  • Be clear about roles and responsibilities in relation to the family, as well as requirement to mandatorily report any concerning information to child protection.

  • Work with families to make progress towards goals.

  • Help parents show how to demonstrate change to child protection services.

  • Use a strengths-based approach that works in partnership with parents. Emphasise capabilities and resources rather than focusing on deficits.

  • Clarify information received from child protection services.

Involve children in decisions that affect their lives

(Paterson, 2020)

Children want to, have the capacity to and have the right to participate in decisions being made about their lives (Article 12 of UNCRC). However, children need support to participate, especially vulnerable children who have been in contact with welfare systems such as child protection and OOHC. Children can struggle to have their voices heard, and the adult-designed child protection and OOHC systems can be confusing and difficult to navigate. Proactively creating opportunities for child participation can result in:

  • Increased empowerment and belief in their own agency.

  • Increased self-esteem and confidence.

  • Increased social skills.

  • Increased awareness of their rights and positive life options.

  • Development of self-advocacy and advocacy for peers.

Issues for social workers to consider include:

  1. Vulnerable children have unique knowledge and skills, as well as the capacity to participate. It is particularly important that young children (e.g., under 12 years old) are supported to express themselves and have their strengths identified, ensuring they have equal access to inclusion opportunities. This is particularly important in case conferences, where adversarial approaches can emerge.

  2. Children in the child welfare system are diverse and practice should ensure they are genuinely represented. For example, the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are under-represented, even though they receive child protection services at a ratio of 8:1 compared to non-Aboriginal children. Participation in decision-making has been more likely to involve adolescents than younger children, even though research shows that young children can accept considerable levels of responsibility when given trust and support.

  3. Vulnerable children can face barriers such as staff turnover, high caseloads, paperwork burden on workers and workers feeling insecure about communicating with children.

  4. Vulnerable children are often shielded from painful or difficult discussions. Child participation tends to be viewed from either a ‘rights’ perspective or a ‘rescue’ perspective leading to increased participation or decreased participation respectively. However cases are often complicated, and a flexible response is necessary. It is important for children to know they can opt out at any time.

  5. Vulnerable children need positive, trusting relationships with adults to successfully engage in decision-making. Workers need to be open and honest with children and explain things clearly even when children’s wishes are not able to be met (e.g. decisions that are made during case planning). This shows children that their views are being taken seriously.

Support young people leaving out-of-home care

Recent government changes around young people leaving OOHC are a response to research showing there are continuing shortfalls in policy in this area. Young people continue to face difficulties in the transition period in all three phases: preparation (should begin at 15), the transition itself (between 18 and 21 years) and achieving after-care independence (i.e. finding a home and gaining financial independence). Three factors may assist people leaving care:

  1. Improving the quality and stability of OOHC—research has consistently suggested that stability of care and emotional security are significant predictors of young people’s outcomes after leaving care.

  2. Flexible, well-planned, and supportive transition from care—based on the young person’s needs and with ongoing support available rather than abrupt cessation required.

  3. Housing assistance and support—homelessness can be a major risk as young people leaving OOHC don’t have access to a family-parental safety net. Safe, affordable, secure and stable housing options for young care leavers are vital to improving outcomes in employment, education, training and positive social relationships (Campo & Commerford, 2016).

Walsh et al. (2023) provide a more detailed analysis of this issue. Research suggests changes can be made in three areas: service practices, cultural practices and housing.

Service practices

  • Listen to local First Nations community organisations, Elders and community members. There is no one size fits all approach. Utilise their strengths and ideas. Engage in meaningful and equal collaboration with local First Nations people.

  • Effective transition planning for First Nations youth should start early and can begin when they are as young as 12 years old. They should include First Nations-specific and mainstream education and employment pathway planning and housing and emphasise a strong connection to culture.

Cultural practices

  • Have proper cultural plans in place to build a stronger sense of identity and belonging in care leavers, and this can benefit all other areas of their lives.

  • Have a focus on family reunification. A holistic assessment of a First Nations care leaver’s family situation should start when they are in care and include all important First Nations and non-indigenous people in that young person’s life, and possibly family they have not yet met.

  • Build service systems and practices that support mobility. Supporting mobility may involve establishing and maintaining support mechanisms outside the current geographical jurisdiction.


  • Young First Nations people require access to culturally appropriate affordable housing close to family and community support networks. Finding affordable accommodation that can support shared housing with close and extended family members when required is desirable.

To support the provision of flexible and culturally safe service practices, Walsh et al. (2023) suggest the following:

  • At all stages of service provision, make an effort to include the significant people in a First Nations client’s life. Look for the strengths within First Nations family and community networks. Utilise these strengths to support the First Nations care leaver’s transition planning, cultural planning, leaving care support systems and family reunification.

  • Design service practice knowing that a ‘whole of family’ cultural and trauma-informed response is often necessary.

  • Be flexible in how, when and where meetings with First Nations young people and their families occur.

  • Focus on relationality, be patient and take the time to build trusting relationships with First Nations clients and their families.

  • Ensure First Nations young people and their families feel safe and comfortable when interacting with them.

  • When talking with First Nations young people, explore what level of understanding the young person really has. Consider asking the First Nations youth if they would like to be accompanied by a significant person.

  • A less formal approach is encouraged. Avoid jargon and be very careful to explain the purpose and use of formal documentation clearly.

Engage fathers where possible

Research shows children with highly involved fathers experience positive outcomes in socio-emotional, behavioural, and cognitive/educational domains. However there are some issues to consider when introducing programs for fathers.

  • Fathers can be stereotyped, e.g. “don’t like to talk about feelings”. Get to know the father and learn from interaction and observation what language works best. Some men will readily respond to conversations about feelings, others may not.

  • Some women clients find the inclusion of men unsettling. Explain why the presence of the father will help existing women clients understand and provide them with an opportunity to comment.

  • When providing services for fathers, do not marginalise women clients.

Many of the methods for engaging fathers are the same as engaging other potentially "hard to reach" groups in the community.

  • Approach fathers at venues where they congregate: schools, childcare, sporting events, a local library and playgroups.

  • Partner support: By approaching the partners of the fathers, many of them (especially those who attend parent training sessions themselves) became keen for their children's fathers to have access to the same quality information and support.

  • Familiar environment: A local football club was purposefully chosen as a male friendly environment to encourage fathers to attend the sessions.

  • Program design and structure: Timing of the sessions takes into consideration the target parents - if the group targets fathers, it will be held in the evening.

Practice considerations with Fathers
  • Research suggests that many men have a positive response to activities that provide "hands-on" learning opportunities through activities such as cooking and physical activity (rather than seminars and presentations).

  • Because child and family services are often staffed and attended mainly by women, having a male staff member or male volunteers (especially "front of house") may make men feel more comfortable.

  • A program specifically for men (e.g., a "Dads" group) may make men more likely to attend a service.

  • Some men (as well as women) may feel uncomfortable discussing personal issues freely and openly in a service environment. Some ways of reducing this discomfort are:

o for workers to speak about their own experience, rather than positioning themselves as an "expert";

o interacting side by side rather than face to face; and

o discussing issues whilst they are engaged in an activity (e.g., cooking, "tinkering").

  • Focus upon fathers' capacities (strengths) and the value of fathering. In practice this can be:

o sharing information with fathers about how they already contribute and how they can further contribute to the wellbeing of children; and

o resisting an "expert" approach.

  • A strengths-based approach to fathers and fathering is especially important because:

o fathers' competence in dealing with the emotional aspects of parenting small children can be underestimated within their own families and in the general community; and

o due to stereotypical views of men's abilities (as compared to women's) men may not realise their capacity to contribute positively to their children's health and development.

Supplementary Material / References

AIHW: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2023). Child protection Australia 2021-22.

Baldwin, S., & Sheehan, R. (2019). Crossover kids: Offending by child protection-involved youth. Australian Institute of Criminology. Trends & Issues in crime and criminal justice, 582.

Campo, M., & Commerford, J. (2016). Supporting young people leaving out-of-home care. Child Family Community Australia, CFCA Paper No. 41.

CFCA: Child Family, Community Australia, (2020). Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect. CFCA Resource Sheet.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2021). Safe and supported: The national framework for protecting Australia’s Children 2021-2031.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2023a). Fact sheet – Safe and Supported: First action plan 2023-2026.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2023b). Fact sheet – Safe and Supported: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander first action plan 2023-2026.

COAG: Council of Australian Governments. (2018). National principles for child safe organisations.

Goldsworthy, K., Hunter, C, & Irenyl, M. (2015). Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse. CFAC Practitioner Resource. Retrieved from

Hall, T., Price-Robertson, R., Awram, R. (2020). Engaging with parents when there are child protection concerns: Key considerations. Emerging Minds.

Salveron, M., Paterson, N., & Price-Robertson, R. (2020). Engaging with parents who have children in out-of-home care: Key considerations. Emerging Minds.

Tehan, B., & McDonald, M. (2010). Engaging fathers in child and family services. Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Truong, M. (2023). Australian legal definitions: When is a child in need of protection? Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Walsh, J., Turnbull, L., Mendes, P., & Standfield, R. (2023). First Nations care leavers: Supporting better transitions (Practice Guide). Melbourne: Child Family Community Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Appendix 1

Crossover Children

Baldwin, S., & Sheehan, R. (2019). Crossover kids: Offending by child protection-involved youth. Australian Institute of Criminlogy. Trends & Issues in crime and criminal justice, 582.

Many young people involved with child protection services, particularly those removed from parental care, experience poor life outcomes. Young people leaving the care of statutory child protection systems experience higher rates of physical and mental health problems, homelessness and early parenthood, alongside poorer education and employment experiences compared to their peers.

Among the most troubling outcomes of child protection-involved youth is their over-representation in the criminal justice system: children who come to the attention of statutory child protection services due to abuse, neglect or parental incapacity are at least nine times more likely than other young people to offend and come under the supervision of youth justice services. Often described as a ‘care-to-custody pipeline’, this over-representation peaks in youth detention centres, where more than half of the children detained are known to child protection services.

Youth justice involvement—particularly due to serious and violent crime—is associated with early death and high likelihood of criminal justice system contact during adulthood. This is not just occurring in Australia. Persistent calls for action are also evident internationally, in research and policy emerging from the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

Prior Research

The available research suggests crossover children experience high levels of disadvantage and have more complex needs than the overall youth justice population. Children from child protection backgrounds meet the youth justice system at an earlier age than other children, and this younger onset is associated with an increased risk of progression to the adult criminal justice system. The limited Australian data also show crossover youth experience higher rates of violent physical and sexual victimisation, neglect, cognitive and mental health difficulties, educational and social exclusion compared to the broader youth justice population. Of those involved with youth justice services, Indigenous children and young women are the subgroups most likely to have experienced child protection involvement or OOHC.


A detailed audit was undertaken of Children’s Court files of 300 crossover children before three Victorian Children’s Courts, including both Criminal Division (CD) and Family Division (FD) files. The study sample comprised all children (aged 10–17 years at the time of criminal charges) before the CD of any of the three Children’s Courts who had current or historical FD matters in the Children’s Court, where statutory child protection matters in Victoria are heard.


During the study period, 22% of all children appearing before the Courts were crossover children with current or historical statutory child protection involvement.

Crossover children were exposed to a range of adverse experiences. Almost three-quarters had been exposed to family violence (73%, n=220) typically moderate to severe, and at least 50% had a household member with mental health concerns, including five to 10% whose parent experienced psychosis, psychiatric hospitalisation, or suicide attempts (n=15 to n=26). At least 20% of children had a deceased parent (n=61), and 12% (n=36) had experienced the death of a sibling or other family member (including a foster family member), friend or partner. Deaths were often traumatic in nature, including homicides, suicides and overdoses, and several children were present when the deaths occurred or later discovered the deceased body. Relative to non-Indigenous children (n=158), higher proportions of Indigenous children (n=55) had been exposed to family violence (95% vs 71%, p<0.001). Neglect (67%, n=202) and physical abuse (60%, n=81) were widespread among crossover children. Females (36%, n=34) were more than twice as likely as males (13%, n=27) to have experienced sexual abuse (p<0.001).

A cumulative score was developed which totalled the number of adverse childhood experiences faced by each child, including the following:

• parental separation/divorce;

• parental death;

• exposure to family violence;

• household mental health issue;

• household substance abuse;

• household criminal justice system involvement;

• childhood physical abuse;

• childhood emotional abuse;

• childhood sexual abuse; and

• childhood neglect.

The mean number of these adverse events experienced was 5.4, and 68% of children had experienced five or more of these adverse childhood events.

57% of children were subject to a child protection order at the time of their index CD matters (n=172), while the remainder had experienced past statutory child protection involvement (n=128). The child’s latest matter was more often risk of psychological/emotional harm and/or risk of physical harm. Children were evenly distributed between OOHC and not. 91% of children had previous child protection notifications.

25% of children had physical health concerns (n=71), and secondary complications owing to neglect of physical health were seen. Around half of children (n=134) had diagnosed neurodevelopmental or neurological conditions (learning/communication, intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, developmental delay, ADD/ADHD), and these conditions were twice as common among males (59%, n=112) as females (25%, n=22) (p<0.001). 61% of children (n=172) had been diagnosed with a mental illness or condition, and at least 14% (n=41) had been treated in an inpatient psychiatric unit or had been subject to a mental health treatment order. Females were more likely to have a history of self-harm, suicidal ideation or suicide attempt (49%, n=43) compared to males (29%, n=55) (p<0.01).

Three-quarters of children (73%, n=209) had misused substances (drugs and/or alcohol), and there was evidence that 40% (n=114) had used ‘hard drugs’ (crystal methamphetamine, other amphetamines, heroin or inhalants). Females were significantly more likely to have run away from home or care placements, and to have either been at risk of or experienced sexual exploitation, while males were significantly more likely to display challenging behaviours and sexualised behaviours (all p<0.05).

When first charged by police approximately 80% of children were between ages 10 and 15 (with the rate evenly distributed across age groups, i.e. 20% for each of the groups 10-12, 13, 14 and 15). Prior to appearing before court, 27% of children had 20 or more charges consolidated in their index. For 35% of children the charges accrued over a period of more than 6 months. 43% had no prior charges. Most children had current or prior charges related to property offences (91%, n=272), and offences against the person (86%, n=258). Most children (89%) were sentenced by the court.

A younger age at first police charge was associated with a greater number of child protection notifications (r=-0.155, p<0.05), Indigeneity (mean age at first police charge = 13.6 years vs 14.5 years, p<0.001), and cumulative co-occurring challenges ( r= -0.247, p<0.001), particularly intellectual disability (mean age at first police charge = 13.7 vs 14.4 years, p<0.01).


Research indicates that children first entering OOHC at older ages face a higher risk of youth justice contact. Yet the current study indicates that child protection services received notifications about most crossover children before age 10, emphasising both the potential for and importance of improving efforts to prevent cumulative harm to this group.

A key finding of the current study was the high proportion of crossover children with one or more deceased parents (20%). By way of comparison, Australian data indicate that only five percent of young people aged 18 to 24 years have experienced the death of a parent, indicating that crossover children are parentally bereaved at a rate at least four times greater than the broader population. The study adds to the growing body of research demonstrating the link between parental death and youth offending and identifies an association between parental death in adolescence and crossover children’s greater volume of police charges.

The current study also found neglect to be an important predictor of crossover children’s younger age at first police charge.

The current study also found that crossover children are frequently charged with offences against the person (86%). These figures for violent and property offences among crossover children are disproportionately high: among all Victorian children sentenced in 2008–09, only 20 to 35 percent had committed property/deception offences, and only 26 percent had committed offences against the person.


The study’s findings amplify the necessity of better preventing, diverting and responding to crossover children’s criminal justice system involvement.

  • Prevention: the need for improved family support The study’s key implication is the importance of strengthening early support and, where warranted, statutory intervention with children and families. This is particularly the case for children who offend early in life, who tend to experience the greatest adversity, and poorest justice-related outcomes. Support and intervention are needed to prevent maltreatment and other harms, and to respond to educational needs, trauma and grief, mental and behavioural health challenges, and disability.

  • Diversion: reconsider responses to early offending Criminalising young children arguably diverts responsibility and resources from social welfare and other support responses. Additionally, the criminal justice system has limited capacity to intensively support children who offend early in life, by applying the principle of doli incapax (i.e. are too young to form the understanding necessary to be capable of committing a crime), and graduated responses to children’s offending. The implementation of a state-wide protocol for reducing criminal justice system contact for young people in out-of-home care, and targeted diversionary schemes to support crossover children entering the justice system as a result of adolescent family violence, are recommended by this and previous research.

  • Responses: develop specific youth justice responses for crossover children Possible approaches include establishing a crossover children’s court list, increasing the involvement of child protection officers in court proceedings, expanding diversion options, and having dedicated crossover children’s workers. The complexity of these children’s support needs, and the relationship between their needs and the seriousness of their offending, reinforces the necessity of collaborative, whole-of-government efforts to avert the care-to-custody pathway.

Appendix 2

Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse

Goldsworthy, K., Hunter, C, & Irenyl, M. (2015). Responding to children and young people’s disclosures of abuse. CFAC Practitioner Resource. Retrieved from

Most research into children and young people's disclosures has focused on disclosures of child sexual abuse; however, many of the issues canvassed are also likely to be relevant to disclosures of other types of abuse (i.e., physical, psychological and emotional abuse).

Who is this for?

This document contains information that will help family, friends, other adults and professionals to respond to a child's disclosure of abuse. However, the way that individuals respond to abuse will differ according to their role in the child's life.

If you are a parent, family member or friend

Children and young people are most likely to initially disclose abuse to either a parent or same-aged friend. Hearing that a child or young person has been abused is distressing, and this will be felt even more acutely if you are a friend or relative. It is possible that the perpetrator is known to you and may even be a family member. Services that are available for children can also help support family members and friends of victims and guide you through the next steps. Available services can be found in the CFCA Resource Sheet, Helplines and Telephone Counselling Services for Children, Young People and Parents. It is important to remember that while it is your role to be a supportive listener, it is not your role to counsel the child or investigate his or her claims.

If you work for an organisation

Organisations that have contact with children should ideally have in place a set of protocols to respond quickly and effectively to disclosures of abuse. You should follow these protocols as well as make a report to the relevant statutory child protection department in your state/territory. Keep information confidential. Only those people who must know should be informed of the disclosure. More information on protecting children across child and adult-focused sectors can be found in The Good Practice Guide to Child Aware Approaches: Keeping Children Safe and Well.

Locating the appropriate agency in your state or territory

Up-to-date contact details for the statutory child protection departments with responsibility for receiving and responding to reports of child abuse can be found in the Reporting Abuse and Neglect: State and Territory Departments Responsible for Protecting Children.

At the point of disclosure

When a child discloses that he or she has been abused, it is an opportunity for an adult to provide immediate support and comfort and to assist in protecting the child from the abuse. It is also a chance to help the child connect to professional services that can keep them safe, provide support and facilitate their recovery from trauma. Disclosure is about seeking support and your response can have a great impact on the child or young person's ability to seek further help and recover from the trauma.

When might a child or young person disclose?

Children and young people can disclose abuse at any time. Many children do not disclose abuse at all during childhood. Delays in disclosure may be linked to a range of factors including concerns regarding the consequences of disclosing. It is important to remember that an initial, informal disclosure is important and may help with trust and any future investigation.

The timing of the child or young person's disclosure will influence his or her immediate needs and this, in turn, will determine the most appropriate response. For a child or young person who discloses that he or she is currently being abused, the immediate priority is safety and protection from further abuse. In this situation some adults have a legal obligation to notify the appropriate authorities, although these obligations differ between states and territories.

How children and young people disclose abuse

A child or young person's disclosure is seldom straightforward, and they can disclose abuse in several ways. Many of the ways children and young people disclose abuse are indirect or accidental. Children sometimes attempt to alert adults they trust to the fact they are being, or have been abused, by changing their behaviour or by making ambiguous verbal statements. For example, a child or young person might suddenly refuse to attend the house of a previously loved relative, or could begin saying and doing sexual things that are inappropriate for their age. Older children may indirectly attempt to disclose or cope with their abuse through risk-taking behaviours such as self-harming, suicidal behaviour and disordered eating.

Some children and young people may disclose when asked or after participating in an intervention or education program (Shackel, 2009). Others may initially deny that they have been abused if asked directly, or say that they forget, only to disclose later. There are a number of reasons for children and young people to retract or delay their disclosure, including:

  • pressure or threats from the perpetrator;

  • relationship to the perpetrator;

  • expected consequences of telling (e.g., physical injury/death, family separation, parental distress);

  • pressure from the child's family;

  • fear of negative reactions from parents or family;

  • fear of not being believed;

  • feelings of embarrassment, shame and self-blame; and/or

  • for males specifically: fears of stigmatisation, being labelled a victim or being labelled homosexual.

Children may disclose spontaneously (disclosure as an event) or indirectly and slowly (disclosure as a process). Understanding disclosure of abuse as a process may help adults to be patient and allow the child or young person to speak in their own way and their own time.

What to do during the disclosure

If a child has decided to speak to you, then there is a good chance they trust you. Simply by calmly and empathically listening and offering support, you are helping the child or young person.

There are some general tips for responding to disclosure:

  • Give the child or young person your full attention.

  • Maintain a calm appearance.

  • Don't be afraid of saying the "wrong" thing.

  • Reassure the child or young person it is right to tell.

  • Accept the child or young person will disclose only what is comfortable and recognise the bravery/strength of the child for talking about something that is difficult.

  • Let the child or young person take his or her time.

  • Let the child or young person use his or her own words.

  • Don't make promises you can't keep.

  • Tell the child or young person what you plan to do next.

  • Do not confront the perpetrator.

  1. Give the child or young person your full attention A child or young person might not always choose the best location to begin talking about what happened to them. If you are in a busy and/or noisy place, ask the child or young person if you can move to a place where you can hear him or her properly. Respect his or her wishes about where the best place is: some localities may trigger memories or be reminders of abuse (e.g., being alone in a quiet, isolated place with an adult).

  2. Maintain a calm appearance Although potentially difficult, it is helpful if you can be calm and patient. Allow time for the child or young person to trust that he or she will be listened to and helped. If the child or young person becomes aware of your distress, reassure the child that he or she is not the cause of the distress. You can explain that you are upset because adults are meant to care for children and you are sad because some adults hurt children.

  3. Don't be afraid of saying the "wrong" thing If a child or young person has revealed to you that they have been or are being abused, it is a sign that they trust you. Try not to be distracted by needing to know exactly the "right" thing to say.

  4. Reassure the child or young person that it is right to tell It is vital that the child or young person knows that the abuse, and anything that happens afterwards, are the responsibility of the perpetrator for committing the abuse, not the child or young person for disclosing.

  5. Accept that the child or young person will disclose only what is comfortable and recognise the bravery/strength of the child for talking about something that is difficult It is important that children and young people disclosing abuse feel in control of their situation. Understanding that a child or young person may reveal only minimal details of abuse will help you to accept the disclosure under the child's or young person's terms. It is best not to press the child or young person for details.

  6. Let the child or young person take his or her time Allow the child or young person to take his or her time to speak. It is important that you have plenty of time to soothe and reassure him or her. For children who disclose indirectly, be mindful that this process may take several days or weeks. If the child or young person has not disclosed but you have reasonable grounds to suspect abuse, you may need to go to the police or child protection authorities in your state/territory. You do not necessarily have to have a full disclosure to go to the authorities and can discuss concerns without making a formal report. Helpful information for what you can do if you suspect child abuse but the child or young person has not disclosed to you, can be found in the CFCA Resource Sheet Risk Assessment in Child Protection.

  7. Let the child or young person use his or her words Children and young people have their own way of describing their experiences. It can be useful to clarify what they mean by asking: "Are you saying ... ?" It is important not to assume you and the child or young person mean exactly the same thing. However, quizzing the child or young person for details or asking him or her to repeat their story a number of times can create the impression you doubt what the child or young person has said.

  8. Don't make promises you can't keep A child or young person might ask an adult to promise secrecy before disclosing. Such a promise should not be made. By telling the child: "I can't make that promise, but I can tell you I will do my best to keep you safe", you can reassure the child, manage expectations, and encourage him/her to speak out about abuse.

  9. Let the child or young person know what you will do next When explaining to a child or young person what you will do next, it is important to ensure he or she understands. Advise the child or young person that in order for them to be safe they will need to talk to another person (police or child protection, a school principal or counsellor) about their experience and that you will support him or her through that experience. Let the child or young person know he or she can ask about what will happen next as often as he or she needs to.

  10. Do not confront the perpetrator Your role is to support the child or young person. It is imperative you do not confront the perpetrator of any type of abuse or discuss the child or young person's disclosure with him or her.


An adult's response to a child or young person's disclosure of abuse can be central to a child or young person's ongoing safety and their recovery from the trauma of abuse. If an adult does not take action when there are suspicions that a child is being abused, it may place the child at serious risk of ongoing abuse and prevent the child's family from receiving the help they need. In summary, it is important to:

  • listen to and support the child or young person;

  • reassure the child or young person he or she did the right thing;

  • not make promises you can't keep; and

  • contact the appropriate authorities.

Further information and support to help children, young people and the families in which young people have been abused can be found in the CFCA Resource Sheet on Risk Assessment in Child Protection.


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