Saturday, October 04, 2008

Child abuse in Australia - a case of misused numbers?

In Personal Reflections - modern management and Shanghai's Yu Gardens I concluded:

Modern public administration, and I think that this is true of modern management in general, has become as formalised as Shanghai's Yu gardens, but without the same beauty. To use modern jargon, we are no longer either efficient or effective.

This theme, problems in modern management including the application to public policy, has been a recurring theme in recent writing. I keep wanting to put the matter aside, but then something happens that makes me want to scratch at it again.

Soon after I finished the post, there was extensive radio reporting (for example, here and here)of a report by the Australian Law Reform Commission on child protection.

According to reporting, the report said that there had been a three-fold rise in the number of children needing protection from violent and sexual abuse over the last decade, reaching 300,000. Report author James McDougall also said that few sexual predators were convicted and the lack of early intervention policies had failed many children.

To overcome this, the report apparently calls for the appointment of a Federal children's commissioner to complement positions already in existence at a state level. Federal Minister for Community Services Jenny Macklin says the figures show the need for action.

"There's no question that these are just shocking figures," she said

It all sounds quite dreadful and certainly the associated interest groups have leapt to the cause. But let's just stand back for a moment.

While the commentary has generally focused on sexual abuse, the numbers cover reporting on all forms of child protection notifications. Further, they cover both substantiated and unsubstantiated abuse.

If we look at the number of substantiated notifications of all types, this has increased from 29,833 to 58,563. So total reports - the headline number - have gone up by c200,000, while the number of substantiated reports has risen by 28,730. A significant increase, but not a headline number.

The story does not end here.

There is already a commission of inquiry into the operations of the NSW child welfare system. One of the issues that it is addressing is the way in which NSW's rigid system of manadatory reporting has imposed processing and assessment loads beyond the capacity of the system to handle, to the detriment of real needs.

Now if we look at the reported numbers, the biggest increase in the number of national notifications (substantiated and unsubstantiated) was in New South Wales, where the figure in 1995-96 was 28,930 and the corresponding figure in 2006-07 was 189,928. So around 161,000 of the c200,000 increase in the reported numbers comes from NSW with its increasingly tight and now arguably overloaded reporting requirements.

Child abuse notification requirements were introduced because of a perception that child abuse was being under-reported. I do not know what proportion of the 28,730 increase in the annual number of substantiated cases across the nation is due to tighter reporting, what proportion (if any) is due to an actual increase in child abuse.

I do know that there are problems in the child welfare system such as overload on front-line case workers, along with a decline in the availability of foster carers. The creation of yet another official overlay will do little if anything to address the real problems, if indeed they can be addressed within our increasingly creaky and cumbersome official system.

I have suggested before that the Rudd Government was in danger of being New South Walesed. I wonder if this is not another case?


Tikno said...

Nice post! thank you for sharing.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Tikno, and greetings to Indonesia. Thank you for coming.