Fact check: Are Indigenous children ten times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be living out of home?

Fact check: Are Indigenous children ten times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be living out of home?

Fact check: Are Indigenous children ten times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be living out of home?

Updated 13 April 2016, 8:05 AEST

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says Indigenous children are severely disadvantaged, compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The claim

"Indigenous children at the moment are ten times more likely to be living out of home right now," Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said on the ABC's Q&A.

Are Indigenous children ten times more likely to be living out of home than their non-Indigenous counterparts? ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Senator Hanson-Young's claim is a fair call.

Experts contacted by Fact Check said children "living out of home" could be in informal or formal care.

They said there are no statistics available for children in informal care, where the carer is not paid by government.

They referred Fact Check to the Productivity Commission's most recent report on government services for figures on children in formal care, who have been placed in paid out-of-home care by a government agency.

The figures indicated Indigenous children were 9.55 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care on the night of June 30, 2015.

Indigenous children were 9.16 times more likely to have been placed in out-of-home care at least once during the year to June 30, 2015.

The report and the experts consulted by Fact Check said the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care may have been undercounted.

Two experts said the margin would probably be small and one said it is unknown.

What does 'living out of home' mean?

Cathy Humphreys, a professor of social work at the University of Melbourne, told Fact Check that children "living out of home" could be in formal or informal care.

She said those in formal care have been through a children's court and placed in out-of-home care, where carers are paid by government.

Statistics on these children are collected annually by state and territory agencies.

However, the number of children living out of home in informal care — where there is no payment by government — is unknown.

"In everyday families people go: 'Oh my god, mum's ill, you go and stay with grandma.' That happens all the time. It happens also in families that are in quite deep distress for longer periods of time, but where they don't get the notice or don't reach the threshold for a statutory intervention," Professor Humphreys said.

She said "we don't know" how many children are in this situation but "there's a huge amount".

She added that Indigenous children may have multiple places they call home, so living under the informal care of a relative may still be considered home.

Fiona Arney, director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia, said informal care "includes things such as children living with their grandparents or other extended family members where there is no payment by a state or territory".

"However, for Aboriginal children, I would be cautious as describing these arrangements as 'living out of home' as there may be cultural/kinship reasons for children living with aunts/uncles/grandparents rather than with biological parents, and where they are living may very well be home rather than 'out of home'."

Fact Check asked Senator Hanson-Young's office for the basis of her claim.

A spokesman for the Senator said via email "the figure came from" an "out-of-home care report" tabled by a Senate committee on August 19, 2015.

"In this report, the committee examines why so many children and young people, particularly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, are entering and remaining in out-of-home care," the report said.

The committee assessed the size and scope of problems in out-of-home care, and possible options to improve the outcomes for children and young people, their families and carers.

Fact Check thus considers that Senator Hanson-Young was referring to children placed in formal care, not informal care.

Philip Mendes, an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, said: "We don't have any official figures for those living informally with other family members, and also keeping in mind that Indigenous culture values the role of extended family members in caring for children, so I think best to just stick with the numbers formally identified as living in out-of-home care."

Fact Check accepts this approach and has examined Senator Hanson-Young's claim in the light of figures for children in formal out-of-home care.

What is out-of-home care?

Experts contacted by Fact Check referred to a 2016 Productivity Commission report on government services, which includes a chapter on child protection services.

The report said: "Child protection services are provided to protect children and young people aged 0–17 years who are at risk of abuse and neglect within their families, or whose families do not have the capacity to protect them."

The report defined out-of-home care as overnight care, including care provided by a family member other than the child's parents, where the government makes a financial payment or where reimbursement for expenses for care of the child has been offered but declined.

A child in out-of-home care may be placed in:

  • A residential building.
  • A home provided by a department or community sector agency with live-in carers.
  • The home of a carer, who may be a relative or kin (other than their parents) or foster carer.
  • An independent living situation, including private board and lead tenant households.
  • Other care, including boarding schools, hospitals, hotels/motels and the defence forces.

The report outlined the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, which prescribes a preference for Indigenous children to be placed within their extended family or the Indigenous community if they are removed from their parents.

More than 50 per cent of the Indigenous children in out-of-home care on June 30, 2015, were in home-based care with a relative or kin.

Measuring the claim

Experts contacted by Fact Check said two statistics are used to calculate the ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous children in out-of-home care.

The first statistic refers to the rate of children in the population who were in out-of-home care on the night of June 30 each year.

The second refers to the rate of children in the population who were placed in out-of-home care at least once during the year to June 30 each year.

Associate Professor Mendes said using one statistic over the other would be "splitting hairs".

"Whichever way you look at it, the numbers are there and they're consistent."

Professor Arney said statistics for the night of June 30 each year "are used as national indicators for the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 and are the statistics used for driving the national policy response in this area" but "both statistics are relevant".

Professor Humphreys had a similar view.

Updated data

A spokesman for Senator Hanson-Young referred Fact Check to section 1.2 of the introduction of the out-of-home care report tabled by the Senate Committee in 2015, which said: "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people are almost ten times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than their peers."

The report said the rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care has "dramatically increased at a disproportionate rate to non-Indigenous children".

It defined out-of-home care as "services that provide care for children and young people aged 0–17 years who are placed away from their parents or family home for reasons of safety or family crisis" and referred to a 2015 Productivity Commission report on government services, which is an outdated version of the report referred to by experts consulted by Fact Check.

Figures published in the 2016 Productivity Commission report indicated 5.25 per cent of Indigenous children were in out-of-home care on the night of June 30, 2015, compared with 0.55 per cent of non-Indigenous children.

Indigenous children were thus 9.55 times more likely to be in out-of-home care.

Fact Check has created the following graph showing how the gap differs in each state and territory.

The figures indicated 6.41 per cent of Indigenous children were placed in out-of-home care at least once in the year to June 30, 2015, as were 0.7 per cent of non-Indigenous children.

Indigenous children were thus 9.16 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care at least once during the year.

The following graph created by Fact Check shows how the gap differs in each state and territory.

Nationally, the gap has widened over time, as is shown in the graphs Fact Check has created below.

Are Indigenous children undercounted?

In its discussion of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, the 2016 Productivity Commission report said identification of Indigenous status may lead to data quality issues, in particular undercounting or under-identification of Indigenous status, "for example, when clients are not asked about their Indigenous status or where Indigenous status is not recorded accurately".

Professor Humphreys said the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care is "definitely an undercount" but "we don't know" how large it may be.

Professor Arney said: "While undercounting/under-identification may be an issue, it is likely to apply to both the numerator — child protection administrative data — and denominator — Census data — in the calculation of rates of children in out-of-home care."

Associate Professor Mendes said: "There could be undercounting but it probably wouldn't be major."

Sources