Defining Child Abuse
When a child has been, or is being, or is likely to be subjected to
physical, emotional, or sexual actions, or inaction, which result in
significant harm or injury to the child. In the main it refers to
situations where there are protective issues for the child because
the parent , family member or person responsible for the care of
the child is unable or unwilling to protect the child from abuse or
(Australian Institute of Health & Welfare 2001, cited by Fernandez 2005, p. 178).
• Most Australian states require certain professionals and in some states, members of the
public, to report if they have concerns about a child’s welfare.
‘The intent of mandatory reporting is to ensure that children and young people at risk of harm come
to the attention of the statutory authority so that they and their families xan receive services that will
prevent the children from being harmed further’ (Connolly & Cashmore 2013, pp.279-280).
• 75% of reports relate to poor families, small proportion of notifications are upheld, the rest
get no service (Fernandez 2005).
• Increasing number of low-level notifications places pressure on state welfare departments
and reports often outstrip resources available to adequately respond (Connolly & Cashmore
NSW Mandatory reporter tool- https://reporter.childstory.nsw.gov.au/s/
Problems of measurement
Incidence – number of occasions of child abuse reported, investigated,
substantiated, prosecuted – impact of policy of mandatory notification
Prevalence – rates of child abuse amongst population of children of legally
defined age (construction of childhood)
Jurisdictional differences – definitions of ‘child’, ‘abuse’, differences in
mandatory reporting, prevention strategies, statistical collections
• Parental rights
• Abusive family
• Deficits discourse
• Cultural difference
• State responsibility
• Under-protection (child abuse/death inquiries)
• Abusive state
• Structural causes
• Cultural imperialism – deprivation, discrimination
The Australian context
• Influences of UK and European approaches to child welfare
• Mid 19th century – establishment of universal schooling
• 1800s – state treatment of working class children –
transportation to colonies, institutional care, boarding-out, homes
for ‘delinquents’ (often destitute, neglected)
• 1860s – criticisms of ‘barracks’ system, emergence of ‘family
principle’ arguments – use of ‘respectable’ families to board
• Paternalistic use of power by state in relation to child, family and
• Idea was to rescue and reform
• ‘Inadequately supervised’ children often a target
• Focus on physical wellbeing rather than emotional needs and
connections to biological family
• Supervision and monitoring of carers, particularly women
‘the child in need of welfare assistance was
regarded as the victim of an immoral and
socially inadequate family situation, and the
implementation of welfare policy usually
resulted in the child being segregated’ from
(Picton & Boss 1981, cited by Fernandez 2005, pp.182-3)
The authority of the welfare system as a
Carer or Custodian
Moral or Judicial Guardians
• The State reserves the moral right to say who can best look
• The law is explicit about the best interests of the child being the
primary factor in attributing responsibility for care
• But the State is itself a deeply flawed provider of care, AND
• The law is wary to interdict parental interest.
High intervention rate with indigenous families – a trend that
Overrepresentation of indigenous children in child protection /
substitute care and juvenile justice.
Social / welfare workers’ roles….?
SW as ‘technical expert’ who can define risk, predict it,
differentiate high/low risk?
What are some of the underlying assumptions in this
approach to human services in child protection?
‘That child maltreatment occurs across the spectrum of levels of
family income and education, or that some forms of child
maltreatment are more explicitly linked to socio-economic stress, is
acknowledged. However, from the 1990s, commentators have
affirmed the need for a more comprehensive strategy that is child-
centred, family-focused, and neighbourhood based…which involves a
range of systems – physical and mental health, education, justice,
housing, and income support – to achieve a broader safety net for
(Fernandez 2005, p. 193).
• SW theory base - Multidimensional approach, ecological model, strengths based +
understanding of attachment theory and bonding vital theory base for social
• Need to identify ‘at risk’ / ‘vulnerable’ children / families and enhance wellbeing to
prevent maltreatment/ neglect/ abuse
• Need for both universal and targeted services
• Universal - e.g. early childhood education, child & maternal health services to
enhance the wellbeing of all children and families.
• Targeted – e.g. substance abuse and mental
health services as key aspects of the range
of early intervention / prevention approach.
Working with people who are parents
•Tendency to define Parents as Roles rather than people
•Parenting relationships with children are stressful and under-developed.
•People generally respond better to supportive than directive interventions
•Supportive interventions by definition require the forming and building of a
relationship – takes time!
•That problem dependence can overwhelm both
the helpee and the helper
• Finding answers is not simply about stopping,
it is about making alternatives and practicing them.
Population health models for children's welfare
• Emerging in response to the “public failure of child protection” (Scott, 2006)
• Emphasis on responding to community level disadvantage
• Avoids crisis driven interventions, responds to evidence based need, not moral
alarm or personal calamity
• Tolerates adversity – Is it wrong for children to grow up poor?
Schools – what is expected for parents of the future re
parenting roles? Life skills training, preparation for
parenthood, self-protection, available help, community
‘Foremost, families must be supported in the nurturing of their children.
Businesses must recognise and provide services to enhance the
parents’ ability to be both competent workers and effective parents. AS a
culture our propensity for assuming anyone can and must parent, our
fascination with violence and our tendency to socialise children in sex-
role stereotypes actively contribute to child maltreatment. This must end.
(Crosson-Tower 2002, pp.427-8)
Alston, M. & Moore, E. notes from SWK326.
Fernandez, E. 2005. ‘The challenge of child protection’. In Alston, M. & McKinnon (eds)
2005 Social work fields of practice. Melbourne, OUP, chapter 14.
Connolly, M. & Cashmore, J. 2013. ‘Child welfare practice’. In Connolly, M. & Harms, L.
(eds) 2013. Social work contexts and practice. Melbourne, OUP, chapter 20.
Crosson-Tower, C. 2002. Understanding child abuse and neglect. London, Pearson.
Scott, D. 2013. ‘Early intervention with families of vulnerable children’. In Connolly, M. &
Harms, L. (eds) 2013. Social work contexts and practice. Melbourne, OUP, chapter 19.