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Better public awareness behind "worrying" spike in SA child abuse complaints: department


Child abuse notifications in South Australia have spiked by 77 per cent in the past six years, but the Child Protection Department claims the “worrying” trend is the result of better public awareness – not increased neglect or violence in family homes.

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Latest data from the Department for Child Protection shows 78,199 notifications were made to the Child Abuse Report Line in 2018-19, compared to just 44,203 call-outs in 2013-14.

In June this year alone, 7355 notifications were made, but only 3714 of those were classed as meeting the threshold for action.

The increase has been described as one of the most “worrying” trends by the South Australian Child Development Council, which was formed by the State Government in 2018 to report on how the state’s children and young people are faring.

The council’s inaugural report, released earlier this month, is the first of its kind in Australia and has been distributed to all government departments to help inform policies.

The report states that most South Australian children and young people were safe from preventable injury, abuse and neglect, but there was a “concerning” number who were subject to abuse notifications and subsequently admitted to out-of-home care.

Child Development Council presiding member Dr Anne Glover told InDaily there were children in South Australia who “are not being offered the sorts of early lives that are really important to their living now but also their futures”.

“I don’t think there is a South Australian who isn’t worried about it,” she said.

“When you actually see the data it’s so worrying.

“Our population is reasonably small in South Australia – there’s only approximately 20,000 babies born every year.

“I think we should be able to monitor and support them and their families better than we’re doing and this is obviously an indication of that.”

The Department for Child Protection (DCP) has previously reported that by the age of ten, one in three children in South Australia will have been the subject of a child abuse notification.

Latest data shows at the end of June, there were 4266 children in care – the highest monthly number recorded.

But the Department attributed the spike in the number of calls to the Child Abuse Report Line to a “greater public focus” on child protection issues over the past decade stemming from a range of highly-publicised inquiries and royal commission investigations.

Children report a lot of fear because if your family is not safe where can you be safe?

“The increase in notifications reflects growing community awareness about child protection and the need to report suspected child abuse or neglect,” acting chief executive Fiona Ward said.

“In South Australia, there are a broad range of professionals and community members, such as doctors, teachers and some volunteers, who are required by law to notify DCP if they suspect on reasonable grounds that a child or young person, is, or may be, at risk of harm.

“The fact that these notifications are being raised means abuse and neglect of children and young people is being identified and not ignored.”

More than half of SA young people feel concerned about family violence

The Department for Child Protection cites the domestic violence as a “significant issue” that impacts on the safety of children and young people, with family violence often referenced in calls made to the Child Abuse Report Line.

According to the Child Development Council report, more than half – 55 per cent – of South Australian 15 to 19-year-olds felt concerned about family violence last year, compared to 63 per cent in 2014.

“Despite this reduction, that almost one fifth (17 per cent) of young South Australians reported feeling ‘extremely or very concerned’ about family conflict is of significant concern,” the report states.

Glover said South Australia did not provide enough support to children who are caught up in domestic or family violence.

“I don’t think we understand the real impact on children yet,” she said.

“Children report a lot of fear because if your family is not safe where can you be safe?

“There is research around the impact of family violence on young children generally but I don’t think in South Australia we have paid enough attention to it.”

The state’s peak domestic violence support organisation, Women’s Safety Services SA, told InDaily it would be beneficial for domestic violence services to connect with youth services to ensure young people’s needs were met.

“Every child who comes through Women’s Safety Services SA is a victim of domestic and family violence,” WSSSA integrated programs executive manager Megan Hughes said.

“Some are witnesses to violence, some, particularly older children, are more likely to be directly affected by the violence.

“If a young person is feeling unsafe, or concerned about the safety of a loved one, they are encouraged to call 000 in an emergency or, if not in immediate danger, the Domestic Violence Crisis Line on 1800 800 098.”

It comes as Backpacks 4 SA Kids – a South Australian charity that supports children entering the child protection system or escaping domestic violence – reported that demand for its services doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic due to an “unprecedented” rise in the number of young people fleeing dangerous living situations.

Women’s Safety Services SA also recorded a 15 per cent increase in demand for emergency accommodation over the coronavirus lockdown period.

More work needed to stem flow of kids into care

The Child Development Council is working closely with the Department for Child Protection to try to curb the escalating number of children in South Australia who are forced into out-of-home care.

Glover said the council was doing what it could to provide the Department with the evidence, but it was ultimately up to the Government to make the necessary policy changes.

“We’re putting the data out, we’re saying this is really important, but we don’t have rationales or reasons,” she said.

“The Council is certainly working with the Department to say look this is what we’ve found, this is what we think where the problem lies, but not in terms of what they should do about it,” she said.

“I know the Minister and the Department and a whole lot of different groups are working on this, but it’s a very big problem for us.”

The Department said a range of government agencies were working to prevent and reduce child abuse and neglect.

It said the Government was trialling new intensive support programs where families with multiple complex issues such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol concerns, mental health problems and intellectual disability receive in-home support.

“Ensuring families under stress are well supported and children and young people can live safely with their family is a whole of community and government responsibility,” Ward said.

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