Northern Territory authorities received more than 20,000 reports of child abuse in 2015-16, overwhelmingly relating to Indigenous children, and including 403 cases of repeated abuse.

In shocking figures that reveal reports of potential harm to children have more than doubled in the past five years, the NT Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) has warned the jurisdiction “has some work to do”.

In the 2015-16 financial year, the department received 20,465 child protection notifications involving 10,851 children. More than 7,800 of the notifications proceeded to investigation and 1,797 were found to be substantiated.

The figures also revealed 70 children were abused or neglected in out-of-home care, including by foster carers. One in seven were abused more than once, which the report noted was of “significant concern”.

Neglect accounted for 43% of the notifications received, and almost 20% involved physical abuse.

The OCC’s annual report found a 20% rise in notifications of potential child abuse or neglect, but a 12% decrease in the number of substantiations.

More than 60% of the notifications were “screened out” by the department after an initial assessment, which could mean it was determined not to represent “significant detriment” to a child’s wellbeing, or that it had been alternatively dealt with. However it could also signify the case was awaiting determination.

The children’s commissioner, Colleen Gwynne, said the increase in notifications were alarming.

“We are struggling with the enormity of the situation,” she told local radio, adding that government could respond with putting more child protection workers in but that wouldn’t stop the increase in cases.

“We can prevent neglect. It’s about those early intervention strategies,” she said.

“You can’t just rely on statutory systems to rely on kids in the future. You’re not going to be able to build an out-of-home-care centre to take care of the increase in kids needing protection.”

Government understood what was needed but it wasn’t an “easy fix”.

She said working in child protection was one of the most challenging jobs someone could do, and staff needed more resources, support and training.

The minister for territory families, Dale Wakefield, said some of the increase was likely due to increased awareness and mandatory reporting measures, “but I think we need to be very clear though that no one wants to take that mandatory reporting system away”, she said.

Wakefield said when she worked in the NGO sector they had no say in how policies were designed or implemented.

“Experts on the ground need to be listened to, and that hasn’t happened in the past and that’s what we’ll be doing differently.”

She said the previous government had been “talking but not implementing”, and the new government had committed $3m to “dual pathways” for early intervention support services in cases where departmental intervention wasn’t required. They were also in discussion with the federal government about assistance.

The royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory began outside the period covered by the report but has already heard evidence about long-running problems within the Department of Children and Families.

It heard evidence from a 2011 report that during the term of the previous Labor government, child abuse notifications were “written off” as unsubstantiated without investigation in order for the department to appear to be dealing with a backlog.

The former children’s commissioner, Howard Bath, told the inquiry the subsequent CLP government showed a greatly reduced interest in addressing the child protection system, and the department was substantially reduced.


Helen Davidson in Darwin

The GuardianTramp

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