New insights from child protection research in South Australia

Written by Stephanie Crisp

On the 10th October, the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection hosted a lunchtime seminar at the University of Stirling, where we had the pleasure of welcoming visiting researcher, Jenna Meiksans from the Australian Centre for Child Protection.

Jenna’s presentation helpfully summarised the key findings of two case file reviews, whose aims were a) to improve understanding of the extent and nature of child abuse and neglect in South Australia, and b) to examine the extent to which child protection services there are aligned to existing needs. The first study investigated child protection reports during pregnancy and the first 1000 days of life, whilst the second looked at children and families with repeat involvement in the child protection system.

Case file reviews are a staple of child protection reform efforts. However what was particularly interesting about these case file reviews was that they had not only challenged but completely disproved assumptions previous such reviews in South Australia had been based upon.  Jenna explained that high levels of reporting to child protection services (1 in 4 children reported by the age of 10) were assumed to be the result of overzealous practitioners, and that child abuse and neglect were rare.  The researchers  sampled and analysed administrative data that spanned a period of 8 years, thus allowing Jenna and her team to track individual children’s involvement with the child protection system over the courses of their lives. In addition, they created det

ailed family genograms for each child to enable them to analyse family-wide contact with services.  The first study found that the majority of those who had a report made to child protection services during pregnancy were already known to services. The second study found that almost a quarter of families in the sample had been in contact with child protection services more than twenty times. Crucially, the families coming into most contact with services experienced  high levels of familial and intimate partner violence, of drug and alcohol use, poor mental health and more frequent contact with the criminal justice system.

We reflected as a group on these findings and what they might mean for referral and screening processes, many of which are currently designed to respond to and focus on individual incidents and people in isolation from their relationships to others. How can we ensure that instead, our processes reflect and address the impacts of cumulative and intergenerational harm? How can services be developed that capture and respond to children’s broader familial and social contexts? What implications do these findings have for the idea of early intervention?

The insights from this project raise some troubling issues, some of which are depressingly familiar. Yet they also shine a light on the possibilities for new approaches and for positive, concerted change.  It was a lot to digest for a short, lunchtime seminar, but I left feeling energised and thinking about how I might explore some of these issues in my own research. We would like to thank Jenna and her colleagues for sharing their important work with us and giving us so much to contemplate, discuss and act upon.


For more information on

Policy brief Review of Unborn Child Concerns:

Preliminary findings and slides:

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