Protecting Australia's children research audit (1995–2010): Final report

NCH Report – June 2011

Executive summary

The purpose of this audit is to identify, describe and disseminate information about Australian research projects (including program evaluations) undertaken during the 1995-2010 period on topics relating to the protection of children. This audit covers a broad scope of topics, ranging from universal preventative initiatives through to statutory child protection and out-of-home care. The scope of the topics for the audit reflects the six supporting outcomes outlined in the report Protecting Children is Everyone's Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 ("National Framework"; Council of Australian Governments COAG, 2009b).

The specific aims of the audit, in keeping with the aims of two previous audits on similar topics (Cashmore & Ainsworth, 2004; Higgins, Adams, Bromfield, Richardson, & Aldana, 2005), were to identify:

  • research projects (published and unpublished) undertaken in Australia between the 1995-2010 period on topics of relevance to the National Framework (COAG, 2009b);
  • outcomes and progress since the Audit of Australian Out-of-Home Care Research (Cashmore & Ainsworth, 2004) and the National Audit of Australian Child Protection Research 1995-2004 (Higgins et al., 2005);
  • gaps, duplication and areas for development in relation to the outcomes and national priorities identified in the National Framework; and
  • priorities for future research and data collection on the basis of the audit results, outcomes of the Towards a National Agenda forum (October 2009) and priorities identified in the National Framework.

Building upon the methodology employed by Cashmore and Ainsworth (2004) and Higgins et al. (2005), this audit asked researchers working in relevant fields to submit information via an online audit form about projects they have been, or are currently, undertaking. However, in recognition of the limitations of this approach as a means of providing a comprehensive picture of the research field, and in order to ensure we captured as many projects as possible, we also conducted a literature search to identify research projects that met the audit criteria.

In keeping with the approach of the Higgins et al. (2005) audit, the following types of projects were excluded:

  • literature reviews, unless they were systematic literature reviews or research audits;
  • program descriptions where there were no evaluation components per se; and
  • process evaluations or quality assurance procedures where the impact or outcomes of the program were not assessed.

Furthermore, in order to effectively manage the scope of the audit, detailed inclusion criteria were developed, based upon the key issues highlighted in the National Framework.

In total, 1,359 research projects that met the audit criteria were identified. Analysis of available information about these projects showed that just over half addressed issues specifically relating to child abuse and neglect and just over a quarter related to out-of-home care.

Overall, a much larger proportion of projects focused upon child abuse and neglect after it had occurred and statutory services (i.e., supporting outcome 4 of the National Framework), compared to the proportion that addressed issues relating to prevention and early intervention (i.e., supporting outcomes 1, 2 and 3).

Projects focusing upon sexual abuse were more common than projects that focused upon family violence (as a form of maltreatment), and much more common than projects that focused upon physical abuse, neglect and psychological maltreatment.

As Cashmore and Ainsworth found in 2004, foster care continues to be an area that receives more attention in research than other types of out-of-home care, such as kinship and residential care. Outcomes for children in out-of-home care is a common topic for out-of-home care research, while topics relating to permanency planning (e.g., reunification, adoption from care) constitute only a small proportion overall of this area of research.

Although the proportion of projects focusing upon issues relating to Indigenous Australians has increased over the past 16 years, very few of those projects focus upon issues such as Indigenous community-led solutions to child welfare issues or partnerships between Indigenous communities and government/services. There is some indication that out-of-home care research is more likely than child abuse and neglect research to address issues relating to Indigenous Australians. Very few projects focus on issues relating to disabled children, adolescents and families from a culturally and linguistically diverse background.

While detailed information about methodological approaches for these projects was not always available, there is some indication that research in this area continued to rely upon small sample sizes (i.e., less than 100) and was largely qualitative. Few projects utilised longitudinal data and there were very few projects employing a randomised control trial design. The challenges of utilising these methodologies within the child welfare field is likely to influence the extent to which they are employed; however, leading researchers and advocates in the field have consistently identified the critical need for this type of research.

Organisations conducting child protection projects (such as government departments, universities and non-government organisations) appear to be more likely to have worked alone than with other organisations, although the information available suggests that almost one-third of projects were conducted by more than one type of organisation. From the limited data available from respondents to the audit, it would appear that there continues to be low level of funding for research in this field.

The projects identified through this audit are now available via an online database. It is hoped that this online database, and the results of this audit, will provide researchers with a valuable tool to build upon the strengths of this broad research field and fill critical "knowledge gaps". The continued development of research within this field, along with the availability and continuous updating of the database, will ensure that practitioners and policy-makers have access to an evidence base from which they can plan and deliver services that improve outcomes for Australia's children.

Key audit findings
      Number %
Total projects identified 1,359 100.0
Project type a    
Research 959 79.5
Program evaluation 163 13.5
Project topic a    
Child abuse and neglect 778 57.2
Out-of-home care 371 27.3
Issues relating to Indigenous Australians 222 16.3
Total funding $10,120,183  

Note: Project numbers do not include those for which type or topic of project could not be identified. Projects may also fall into more than one category.