Notifications to child protection services fell under COVID-19 lockdowns

Notifications to authorities of suspected child abuse fell in Australia during COVID-19 ‘lockdowns’ in 2020 and increased again as restrictions were eased, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Child protection in the time of COVID-19, presents child protection data from March to September 2020, covering the ‘first wave’ of COVID-19 restrictions for Australia, and part of the ‘second wave’ of restrictions for Victoria.

The report includes preliminary data supplied by jurisdictions through an accelerated data sharing process.

‘While the data across jurisdictions are not directly comparable, a common pattern observed in most states and territories was a drop in notifications to authorities of suspected abuse and neglect in April 2020 during the initial COVID-19 restrictions,’ said AIHW spokesperson Ms. Louise York.

‘As restrictions eased in May and June, the number of notifications began increasing again. NSW, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory experienced higher numbers of notifications than pre-COVID levels (prior to March 2020).’

The total number of notifications for the 6-month period March to August 2020 varied across jurisdictions— compared to the same period in 2019, notifications were higher in NSW (9% higher), Queensland (21%), South Australia (19%) and the Northern Territory (9%), lower in Western Australia (14% lower) and ACT (6%), and similar (less than 5% difference) in Victoria.

‘The COVID-19 pandemic prompted education authorities and schools to implement combinations of pupil-free days, extended school holidays, remote learning and optional on-site attendance, followed by partial and staged returns,’ Ms. York said.

‘Because of this, children were less visible to school personnel for a longer period, potentially limiting opportunities for child abuse and neglect to be detected and reported. School personnel are typically the second most common source of notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect, after police.’

The total number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect (substantiations) for the 6-month period March to August 2020 varied across jurisdictions. Compared to the same period in 2019, the number of substantiations was higher in South Australia (16% higher), lower in Victoria (25% lower), Western Australia (14%) and ACT (31%), and similar (less than 5% difference) in NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The number of children in out-of-home care each month remained relatively stable across March to September 2020 for all jurisdictions, with minimal fluctuation in numbers month-to-month (2% or less).

Previous research suggests that children are at increased risk of violence during emergencies and natural disasters. The report also presents available data about factors that may increase the risk of child abuse and neglect.

‘There are a range of risk factors associated with child abuse and neglect, such as financial hardship, housing stress and poor mental health, many of which are likely to have increased for some people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ongoing monitoring will be required to determine the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on child protection services.’ Ms. York said.

This report complements the AIHW’s annual national reporting on child protection, including Child protection Australia 2019–20, scheduled for release later in 2021.

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