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National Child Protection Week: Child abuse happening behind closed doors during COVID-19 pandemic, says AASW

Published: 3 September 2021

On the eve of National Child Protection Week (5-11 September), the AASW calls for urgent and collaborative action to improve child protection systems across Australia to better deal with the devastating impacts that the pandemic and lockdowns have had on at-risk children.

AASW CEO Cindy Smith said, "The pandemic has laid bare how much our child protection system fails children, exacerbating decades-long issues relating to resourcing, supports and workforce regulation.

"COVID has increased several risk factors for child abuse and neglect, including financial hardship, housing stress, and poor mental health. Families are struggling and relying on limited services, which were already overwhelmed even before the pandemic.

"While lockdowns certainly have a place and have even helped some families come together, for children who experience abuse, this has meant they are confined with perpetrators and isolated from their usual protective factors, including friends, extended family and school.

"With half of the country in lockdowns and some regions having had over 200 days of lockdowns, we are deeply concerned about the welfare of children.”

Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has shown that child safety notifications drop during COVID-19 lockdowns and increase once restrictions ease.

Ms Smith said,"Child abuse happens behind closed doors. The decrease in reporting is possibly, and worryingly, due to the fact that it is unsafe for children to make a notification with the perpetrator present. The longer-term impacts of COVID on child abuse are yet to be fully understood, but we will need an effective system to be able to respond to these consequences.

"The transition of so many support services to working remotely has highlighted the need for child protection and family services to have skilled and knowledgeable frontline workers who can work in very complex environments. The dynamics of abuse and neglect may not be immediately apparent because of all these factors.”

The AASW continues to call for the registration of all social workers across Australia as a critical measure of public safety.

Ms Smith said, "It is astonishing that in Australia, the profession that we put at the forefront of protecting children from abuse during a global pandemic is not legally registered. Anyone in Australia can call themselves a social worker, unlike other parts of the world or other comparable professions like psychologists."

The lack of social work registration is one of several key issues affecting the sector, including poor resourcing, a lack of early intervention services and the absence of collaborative approaches at every possible level.

Ms Smith said, "How many coroners' reports do there have to be before we see serious action? Child abuse is one of the most difficult issues that we deal with as a society, and it's time we come together and fulfil our collective responsibility to ensure that all children are free from harm.

In response to this clear need, the AASW will be convening a national symposium on child protection early next year, bringing together leading experts across the public, private and government sectors

to discuss how we can collectively work to improve children's safety during the pandemic and beyond.

Ms Smith said, "Children will feel the ramifications of the pandemic for generations to come. On National Child Protection Week, we renew our commitment to work together to ensure every child and their family receives the support they need when they need it and from highly trained and regulated professionals."


Cindy Smith is a qualified social worker with more than 20 years of experience, a Bachelors in Social Work, a Masters of Health Administration, a Fellow of the Australian College of Health Management and a graduate with the Australian Institute Company Directors.

She has led the AASW since 2016 to deliver the Strategic Plan with a clear focus on promoting and advocating for the profession and members; providing a strong voice for social justice; building the professional capacity of members; upholding responsibilities for the regulation of the profession; advancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social work; collaborating with international colleagues, and providing responsible governance and management.

To interview Cindy Smith, please contact Angela Yin on 03 9320 1005

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers