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The madness of child protection policy in Australia

By Jeremy Sammut - posted Wednesday, 23 April 2014

In December 2013, the Abbott government announced plans to take adoption out of the 'too-hard basket' and make it easier for Australian parents to adopt children both locally and from overseas.

The chief barrier to more local adoptions is the anti-adoption culture in state and territory child protection authorities. Legal action is almost never taken to free children for adoption, even for children who languish in Australia's ever-expanding out-of-home care (OOHC) system with little prospect of safely returning home.

Instead, the orthodox policy advice routinely given to state and territory governments is that too many children are 'in care' because child protection services need to be re-structured away from 'statutory' child removal towards providing 'less-expensive' prevention and early intervention social services to reduce entries into care.


It is a myth that the child protection system focuses too heavily on statutory intervention, and that children are too quickly removed into care without supporting families.

New financial data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) show that in 2012–13:

· Family support/preservation services accounted for at least 17.1% of the $3.8 billion national expenditure on all child protection services, compared to statutory (29.6%) and OOHC (53.3%) services.

· Real (adjusted for inflation) national expenditure on 'intensive family preservation services' (designed to prevent imminent child removals) grew by 316% between 2000–01 and 2012–13 (from $73 million to more than $300 million).

· This was almost one-third higher in relative terms than the still substantial increase in spending on out-of-home care (228.3%), and nearly twice as fast as the still substantial growth in statutory service expenditure (166.3%).

Child protection data for 2012–13 show that Australia's OOHC system remains under siege due to rapidly increasing spending on OOHC and increasing numbers of children in OOHC. Since 2000–01, the total real national expenditure on OOHC has more than tripled and the total OOHC population has more than doubled due to endlessly prolonged efforts to reunite children with their dysfunctional families.


High levels of 're-reporting' and 're-substantiation' of cases of child abuse and neglect, plus high levels of 'instability' (unstable placements) for children while in care, mean that increasing numbers of children are being damaged by the very child protection system that is meant to protect them

The bottom line is that increasing numbers of children are still ending up in OOHC despite the additional funding Australian governments are pouring into family support/preservation.

The 2012 Report of Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Cummins report) found no evidence that the larger sums spent by Victoria on 'prevention' had protected children and stopped child maltreatment. Despite 'increased investment' (spending on intensive family preservation services increased by almost 900% since 2000–01), this strategy failed because 'high levels of re-reporting and re-substantiations over the lifetime of Victorian children' showed no 'marked change in Victoria in the incidence and impact of child abuse or neglect or overall outcomes for vulnerable children taken into out-of-home care.'

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About the Author

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. Jeremy has a PhD in history. His current research for the CIS focuses on ageing, new technology, and the sustainability of Medicare. Future research for the health programme will examine the role of preventative care in the health system and the management of public hospitals. His paper, A Streak of Hypocrisy: Reactions to the Global Financial Crisis and Generational Debt (PDF 494KB), was released by the CIS in December 2008. He is author of the report Fatally Flawed: the child protection crisis in Australia (PDF 341KB) published by the CIS in June 2009.

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