New research says child abuse figures could be inaccurate

NEW research has shown child maltreatment incidents could be inaccurate across Australia because of the inconsistency in data collection from child protection agencies.

Dr Stephen Guthridge, from the Northern Territory Health Department, and his fellow researchers found that in the six years from 2004-05 to 2009-10, notifications of possible maltreatment increased fourfold in Western Australia but halved in Queensland.

For the same period, the number of substantiated cases halved in the ACT but increased threefold in the Northern Territory.

The researchers - in an article published today in the Medial Journal of Australia - found the variations related to different reporting thresholds in legislation from state to state.

"Hospital admissions may provide a more consistent basis for comparison of rates of maltreatment between Australian states and territories than the current reliance on child protection reports," the researchers wrote.

Professor Graham Vimpani, University of Newcastle community child and family health professor, writes in a separate article in the same journal that the ideal system for true child maltreatment surveillance would "need to link data from different sources - medical, legal and social service - and be maintained over time".

"… reporting or notification and substantiation data from statutory child protection agencies … are not good measures of the true prevalence of child abuse and neglect because they are subject to changes in legislation and reporting policies and practices," he wrote.

"This is nowhere more evident than in the impact of the recent change to the reporting threshold in NSW, changed by legislation after the Wood Inquiry in 2008, from 'harm' to 'significant harm'.

"The number of children who were the subject of a report increased steadily from the early 2000s, reaching 114,765 in the financial year 2008-09 before the NSW Government's Keep Them Safe reforms were introduced, but then falling to 61,132 in 2010-11."

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