Longitudinal study shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are overrepresented in the South Australian child protection system

Date Published: 

Delfabbro, P., Hirte, C., Rogers, N., & Wilson, R. (2010). The over-representation of young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people in the South Australian child system: A longitudinal analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 32, 1418-1425.

Reviewed by: 
Mireille De La Sablonnière-Griffin

Overrepresentation of minority and Indigenous children in child protection systems has been repeatedly reported in countries like the USA, Canada and New Zealand. However, most of these studies used a cross-sectional research design offering a snapshot view of the situation. This recent Australian study took a longitudinal and comparative approach to assess the circumstances for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) children in the South Australian child protection system. Data on report and substantiation of abuse were gathered retrospectively through the child protection system for three distinct birth cohorts (1991; 1998; 2002). Number of live births and cultural background were taken from the Department of Health, with the exception of the cultural background for year 1991 which is based on estimates.

The results show that ATSI children are overrepresented in the South Australian child protection system. While the ATSI children were estimated to account for 3 to 4% of the 1991 birth cohort, they represented 10% of the notifications made to the child protection system for that specific cohort by 2007 (at age 17). Depending on the percentage estimate used (3%; 3.5%; 4%), these numbers mean that between 57 and 76% of all ATSI children born in 1991 have been notified to the child protection system at any point in their lives. For the overall 1991-birth cohort (including ATSI children and non-ATSI children), 22.5% of all children born that year have been notified at any one point to the child protection system.

Other important results are that ATSI children, compared to non-ATSI children, are: more often notified, more likely to be reported for emotional abuse and neglect, more likely to have their report investigated and substantiated, and their notifications are judged to be more severe. In addition, even after controlling for possible influencing factors such as number of reports, age at first report and severity of report, Indigenous status was significantly related to the overall substantiation and the neglect substantiation rates. Finally, compared to the 1991 birth cohort, ATSI children born in 1998 and 2002 were more likely to be notified to child protection.

The results of this study add support to the findings drawn from cross-sectional studies, which have demonstrated that Indigenous children are overrepresented in child protection systems, particularly around issues of neglect and emotional abuse. The comparisons across cohorts highlight the importance of understanding the evolution of the child welfare system over time to better address the needs of children, families, and communities.

Methodological notes: 

This study is methodologically strong in providing a longitudinal frame. The authors selected the 1991 birth cohort to capture the youngest birth cohort for which 17 years of data were available at the time of the study (2007). They selected 1998 and 2002 for comparison because they marked important changes in the child protection system in South Australia. However, two main limitations must be acknowledged. First of all, the cultural background was not noted in 1991 and reliance on estimates was necessary. Secondly, the study assumes that the birth cohorts remained constant over time, which is most likely not the case. Children born into the South Australian jurisdiction may have moved out of the area and other children born in the birth cohort years may have moved into the jurisdiction after their birth.