Reporting and investigation

17.36 Allegations of child abuse or neglect may be made directly to State and Territory family services departments or indirectly through other agencies such as the police or hospitals.[56] Notifications generally are investigated, although some are referred to other agencies, responded to with advice or not investigated due to inadequate information or an initial assessment that investigation was not warranted.[57] Investigations of child abuse and neglect are generally carried out by a family services department. Investigations may be conducted in conjunction with the police where the allegations also constitute allegations of a crime.[58] Most jurisdictions require that investigations of child abuse allegations include interviews with the child the subject of the allegation and other family members.[59] Chapter 14 discusses the evidence of children and makes recommendations about the manner in which investigatory interviews of children should be conducted. Those recommendations are relevant here.

17.37 As a result of the investigation, the departmental officer responsible for the case generally decides whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the child has been abused or neglected (that is, the case is ‘substantiated’) or that the child may be ‘at risk’ of abuse or neglect[60] and whether the child is in need of protection or the family is in need of assistance. In 1995–96, approximately 91 800 cases of child abuse or neglect were reported throughout Australia and around 29 800 of these cases were substantiated after investigation.[61]

17.38 The number of children subject to reports and substantiations varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, the number of children subject to reports of suspected abuse or neglect varied from 7 reports per 1 000 children in WA to 22 reports per 1 000 children in Victoria, and the number of children subject to substantiated reports varied from 2 per 1 000 children in WA and Tasmania to 8 per 1 000 children in NSW.[62] These wide differences in reporting and substantiation rates between the States and Territories could indicate systemic problems or mere differences in reporting requirements, investigations and/or the criteria for substantiation.[63]

17.39 In most of the States and Territories, certain people — for example doctors, police or teachers — are required by law to report to the relevant care and protection department incidents of suspected child abuse.[64] Critics of mandatory reporting argue that abusers may be less likely to seek help for themselves or the child if they know that the person to whom they would turn for help must report them. Abused children may be reluctant to seek help if they know a close family member could be charged as a result. Mandatory reporting also denies abused children the option of deciding not to have their abuse reported and to deal with the situation in other ways. This is particularly relevant for older children. Professionals working with and providing support for families can face conflicts of interest if they are also mandated reporters.[65] Barnardos Australia has asserted that mandatory reporting

    • Offers little positive assistance to identified ‘at risk’ children to ensure that the child is protected.

    • Is an inefficient way of identifying ‘at risk’ children, which draws people under surveillance unnecessarily.

    • Comes too late to assist some children as it depends on harm already being done.

    • Interferes with the ability to provide services to help children.

    • May further endanger the child by disempowering the family.[66]

17.40 On the other hand, mandatory reporting sends a strong message that child abuse will not be tolerated. It also resolves the conflict some people, particularly medical professionals, may have about disclosing information given in confidence. It should ensure an immediate and thorough response to assist a child at risk. It was generally supported in submissions to the Inquiry.[67]

17.41 The Inquiry’s major concern in relation to mandatory reporting is that it is often introduced without sufficient resources to ensure that it works effectively.[68] Further, mandatory reporting schemes may actually divert resources from prevention and treatment. A recent study of the care and protection system in Victoria indicated that its child protection services were less able to protect children from significant harm after mandatory reporting was introduced.[69]

Recommendation 168 Detailed cross-jurisdictional research should be conducted into the effect and effectiveness of mandatory reporting of child abuse to

  • document the impact of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse on the delivery of family services in Australia, in particular, to investigate whether the introduction of mandatory reporting transfers resources from prevention of child abuse and support for its victims to the investigatory and legal side of child abuse

  • identify the conditions required for optimum effectiveness of mandatory reporting schemes, particularly focusing on the appropriate allocation of resources to family services departments for investigation, litigation and support for children and families

  • establish why there are wide differences in substantiation rates in the different jurisdictions.

Implementation. OFC should co-ordinate this research on the basis of information provided by State and Territory family services departments.

[56] A Broadbent & R Bentley Child Abuse and Neglect Australia 1995–96 Child Welfare Series 17 AIHW Canberra 1997, 2.

[57] id 11.

[58] id 2.

[59] P Zabar & G Angus Child Abuse and Neglect: Reporting and Investigation Procedures in Australia 1994 AIHW Child Welfare Series 8 AGPS Canberra 1994, 6.

[60] Allocation of a case to the ‘child at risk’ category is only available in Qld, WA, Tas and the ACT. This category is used to cover those situations where abuse or neglect cannot be substantiated but the dept has grounds to suspect that abuse or neglect may have occurred or may be likely to occur in the future and that continued involvement is warranted. Other States and Territories may assign these cases to either the substantiated or unsubstantiated categories: id 15–16.

[61] See para 2.60.

[62] See table 2.15.

[63] There are indications that the introduction of mandatory reporting may direct resources to investigation procedures from prevention programs and support for families and children: P Mendes ‘The historical and political context of mandatory reporting and its impact on child protection practice in Victoria’ (1996) 49 Australian Social Work 4. See also A Broadbent & R Bentley Child Abuse and Neglect Australia 1995–96 Child Welfare Series 17 AIHW Canberra 1997, 28.

[64] Children (Care and Protection) Act 1987 (NSW) s 22; Children and Young Persons Act 1989 (Vic) s 64; Health Act 1937 (Qld) s 76K; Children’s Protection Act 1993 (SA) s 11; Child Protection Act 1974 (Tas) s 8; Community Welfare Act 1983 (NT) s 14; Children’s Service Act 1986 (ACT) s 103(2).

[65] Disability Services Office IP Submission 205.

[66] L Voight & S Tregeagle Effective Child Protection Monograph 19 Barnardos Australia 1996, 2.

[67] eg Action for Children SA IP Submission 189; Disability Services Office IP Submission 205.

[68] See P Mendes ‘The historical and political context of mandatory reporting and its impact on child protection practice in Victoria’ (1996) 49(4) Australian Social Work 25.

[69] ibid.