Have removal rates of Indigenous children increased 400 per cent since 2008? – Fact Check
RMIT ABC Fact Check
Former Greens member for the Victorian state seat of Northcote, Lidia Thorpe, says that the rate of removal of Indigenous children has increased 400 per cent over the last decade. (AAP: James Ross)
The removal of Indigenous children from their homes is an ongoing issue of concern, and was raised by the Greens during the 2018 Victorian election campaign.
The now former Greens member for the seat of Northcote Lidia Thorpe tweeted: “It has been nearly a decade since Kevin Rudd’s apology, yet child removal rates have increased by 400 per cent”.
Have removal rates of Indigenous children risen by 400 per cent since Mr Rudd’s apology in 2008?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Ms Thorpe’s claim doesn’t check out.
Data is not collected on the rate of all child removals.
Given the lack of data, experts told Fact Check that the rate of admissions to out-of-home care collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare was a proxy for child removal rates.
However, that data is only available by Indigenous status for the six years from 2011-12 to 2016-17, so it doesn’t cover the decade mentioned by Ms Thorpe.
For those six years, there was a 5.4 per cent increase in the rate of Indigenous children admitted to out-of-home care placement across the country.
In Victoria, where data is only available for five years, there was a 46.5 per cent increase in the rate.
Experts told Fact Check they knew of no basis for Ms Thorpe’s 400 per cent figure.
What data is available on child removal rates?
Fact Check contacted Ms Thorpe’s office to ask for the source of her claim.
A spokeswoman said she was unable to “find the direct line” for the source.
Experts told Fact Check there is no data available on the rate of all removals of Indigenous children.
However data is collected on the rate of children being removed from their domestic circumstances because of a legal order or arrangement.
The experts referred Fact Check to statistics published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Productivity Commission.
Has the rate of child removal among Indigenous children increased by 400 per cent? (ABC News: Bridget Brennan)
The AIHW publishes the number of children residing in “out-of-home care”, the number admitted to out-of-home care and the number discharged.
It also publishes the rates of these children per 1,000 children, and breaks down the data by Indigenous status.
The Productivity Commission’s annual report on child protection services contains figures on out-of-home care, but doesn’t provide data on admissions and discharges by Indigenous status. Its reports are based on AIHW data, including unpublished material.
David Braddock, head of the Child Welfare Unit at the AIHW told Fact Check: “The AIHW does not record removals data … But you would logically assume that the rate of removal is reflected in the rate of admissions to out-of-home care, which AIHW does collect.”
“There should be a close correlation in those two numbers.”
Dr Sarah Wise, Good Childhood Fellow at Melbourne University, equated the rate of removals to “children admitted to out-of-home care”.
Monash University Professor of social work Aron Shlonsky said: “In order to know the number of removals, you would need to know the number of admissions by Aboriginal status.”
Fact Check considers the best available measure of child removal rates, the expression used by Ms Thorpe, to be the rate of children admitted to out-of-home care.
What is out-of-home care?
The AIHW defines out-of-home care as the “overnight care for children aged zero to 17, where the state makes a financial payment or where a financial payment has been offered” but declined by a carer other than the parents.
It refers to legal orders made by the relevant court, for instance the Children’s Court, to place a child in either residential care, a family group home, foster care, relative or kinship care or independent living.
Out-of-home care is considered a last resort for the care and safety of children, the institute says.
Fact Check has previously examined the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care.
Reasons for the removal of children
The most common circumstances leading to the removal of children from their domestic environment include economic disadvantage, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse or mental health issues within the family.
According to the AIHW: “There are no national data available on the reasons children are placed in out-of-home care”.
However, reasons for interventions are recorded for children subject to substantiations, that is, legal orders that determine whether there is sufficient reason to believe a child has been or is being abused, neglected or harmed.
Not all substantiations lead to an out-of-home care placement.
The AIHW reports there were 49,315 children in the year to June 2017 who were subject to substantiations.
Emotional abuse and neglect were the two most common forms of abuse for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children recorded on substantiation orders.
According to the AIHW, 48 per cent of reasons recorded were emotional abuse, 24 per cent neglect, 16 per cent physical abuse and 12 per cent sexual abuse.
Living arrangements for children in out-of-home care
The AIHW says 68 per cent of Indigenous children in out-of-home care on June 30, 2017 were placed with relatives or next of kin, other Indigenous caregivers or placed in Indigenous residential care.
Of all children living in out-of-home care, 47.2 per cent were recorded to be in relative or kinship care, 38 per cent in foster care and 7 per cent in third-party parental care.
Data for 10 years
The AIHW only has admissions data by Indigenous status from 2011-12 to 2016-17.
This allows changes to be measured over a six-year period and not the 10 years mentioned by Ms Thorpe.
The Productivity Commission’s 2018 report on child protection services collates data for 10 years, but only for the rate of children residing in out-of-home care, not for admissions.
Professor Shlonsky says looking at the data for children currently residing in out-of-home care wouldn’t equate to removal rates.
“[It] does not tell us anything about the removal rate. It just tells us how many children are [in out-of-home care] at mid-year, for each year reported.
“Since children can, and often do, stay longer in care for years, the removal rate can stay the same — go up and even go down — while the overall number of children in care goes up.
“If Indigenous children stay in care longer than non-Indigenous children, for instance, this will push up overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the out-of-home care system.”
What does the admissions data show?
The number of Indigenous children admitted to out-of-home care in 2016-17 was 4,058, according to the AIHW’s most recent report.
That was a rate of 13.6 per 1,000 Indigenous children.
Six years earlier 3,694 Indigenous children were admitted, a rate of 12.9 per 1,000.
That represents a 9.9 per cent increase in the number of admissions over the six years and a 5.4 per cent increase in the rate of admissions.
The rate of admissions for non-Indigenous children fell from 1.7 per 1,000 children to 1.4 over the same period.
Ms Thorpe’s tweet did not specify whether she was referring to the national rate or the Victorian rate.
Admissions broken down by Australian states and territories are only available since 2012-13.
In Victoria, over that five-year period the number of Indigenous children admitted rose by 55 per cent, from 492 in 2012-13 to 763 in 2016-17.
The rate of Indigenous admissions rose by 46.5 per cent, from 24.1 per 1,000 children to 35.3 per 1,000.
In addition, the number of admissions to out-of-home care has consistently outpaced the number of discharges, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.
In 2016-17, the AIHW found that 3,347 Indigenous children were discharged from out-of-home care, 711 fewer than the number admitted that year.
Has the rate or number of Indigenous children residing in out-of-home care risen by 400 per cent?
In her tweet, Ms Thorpe included a link to the Victorian Greens policy to provide reparations to survivors of the Stolen Generations.
The policy paper does not contain the increase in the removals rate claimed by Ms Thorpe.
However, it does refer to Indigenous children residing in out-of-home care, saying that since 1997, “one in every five children living in out-of-home care were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; today, 20 years on, it is one in three”.
Indigenous children are far more likely to be in out-of-home care than their non-Indigenous counterparts. (ABC News: Erin Parke)
According to the Productivity Commission report, 17,664 Indigenous children were living in out-of-home care on June 30, 2017, almost double the 9,070 recorded in 2008.
These numbers represented a rate of 58.7 per 1,000 in 2017, and 32.7 per 1,000 in 2008, so the rate has risen by 79.5 per cent over 10 years.
However, figures in the Productivity Commission report for children residing in out-of-home care over the ten year period in Victoria, are much starker.
The number of Indigenous children living in out-of-home care rose by 217 per cent from 660 in 2008 to 2,091 in 2017.
The rate rose by 178 per cent from 34.5 per 1,000 children in 2008 to 95.9 per 1,000 in 2017.
However, as previously mentioned, Fact Check does not consider children residing in care to represent “child removal rates”.
What the experts say
Referring to the AIHW’s most recent report containing five years of data, Dr Wise of Melbourne University said: “The rate of removal — children admitted to out-of-home care — hasn’t gone up drastically overall for most age groups over the past five years.”
“The overall number of children in out-of-home care is going up because there are more children and because children are staying in care longer, so entries are exceeding exits.”
Dr Wise said that “Indigenous children are over-represented in out-of-home care statistics”.
Professor Shlonsky said: “I don’t know where she is getting the 400 per cent.”
He also referred to an increase in the over-representation of Indigenous children residing in out-of-home care.
In 2008 they were seven times more likely to be in care than non-Indigenous children.
In 2017, that ratio had increased to ten times — “from 2008 a little bit less than a 50 per cent increase, which is huge,” he said.
“Although we don’t know the figures on removal rates, what we can say is that Aboriginal kids are 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care; and since 2008 there’s been about a 50 per cent increase in the difference between these two demographics who are in care.”
Mr Braddock of AIHW said the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child protection system is a complex problem.
“It’s a general trend we’ve been seeing for a number of years,” he said.
“The direction [Ms Thorpe] is highlighting is supported by our data, but we don’t have evidence of the magnitude of increase that she’s claiming.”
Principal researcher: Natasha Grivas
- Productivity Commission, Child protection services, 2018
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia, March 9, 2018
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Children admitted to out-of-home care 2014-15, November 3, 2017
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection collection, 2017
- Australian Institute of Family Studies, Child protection and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, August 2017
- Australian Institute of Family Studies, Children in care, September 2018
- Family Matters Report, 2017
- Family Matters Report, 2018
- Australian Greens Victoria, Redress for the Stolen Generations, 2018
- Australian Greens Victoria, Justice for the Stolen Generations, 2018