Reports to authorities about suspected child abuse and neglect fell in the ACT during lockdowns, dropping almost six per cent to 8288 between March and September 2020.
The numbers increased again once restrictions were eased, prompting concern that cases went unreported due to the lack of visibility throughout lockdowns and increased restrictions on social interactions.
Almost 250,000 reports across Australia – excluding Tasmania – were made during the six-month period.
“The COVID-19 pandemic prompted education authorities and schools to implement combinations of pupil-free days, extended school holidays, remote learning and optional onsite attendance, followed by partial and staged returns,” said Louise York from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
“Because of this, children were less visible to school personnel for a longer period, potentially limiting opportunities for child abuse and neglect to be detected and reported. School personnel are typically the second most common source of notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect – after police.”
The ACT was one of only three jurisdictions, including Victoria and Western Australia, where reports fell from the previous year. The number of children in out-of-home care each month remained similar to pre-COVID-19 levels.
The number of reports has risen substantially in the ACT over the last decade, from 11,700 in 2010-11 to a peak of over 17,000 in 2018-19.
There were 16,741 child concern reports in the ACT in 2019-20.
Children can experience an increased risk of violence during emergencies and natural disasters as financial hardship, housing stress and poor mental health impact family relationships, said Ms York.
“There are a range of risk factors associated with child abuse and neglect, many of which are likely to have increased for some people during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
“Ongoing monitoring will be required to determine the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on child protection services.”
The ‘Child Protection in the Time of COVID-19’ report looked at data between March and September 2020 and found that a common pattern in most Australian states and territories was a drop in notifications to authorities of suspected abuse and neglect in April during the initial COVID-19 restrictions.
A Community Services Directorate spokesperson said although reporting decreased throughout the lockdown, information still proved integral to keeping children safe.
“While there was less reporting during the lockdown, reporting still provided information regarding children in the ACT, with the trend for substantiations and entries into out of home care remained similar to previous years,” they said.
“During the time of the COVID lockdown visits were still undertaken to vulnerable families, and a range of services and supports were being provided to families using alternative services to face-to-face.”
The number of notifications began increasing again as restrictions eased in the subsequent months, rising the most in Queensland (21 per cent), then South Australia (19 per cent) and NSW (nine per cent).
The greatest fall was recorded in Western Australia where there was a 14 per cent drop in reports.
AIHW will release a further child protection report for 2019-2020 later in the year, which will provide a more comprehensive understanding of what effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Australian children.