Child maltreatment and school outcomes

Chief Investigator:

Dr Rhiannon Pilkington

Funding Amount:



The University of Adelaide


In 2012-13 there were 19,120 child protection notifications in South Australia (AIHW, 2014). By the age of 16, 1 in every 4 children will have had a child protection notification, and 1 in 20 will have had that notification substantiated (Hirte, 2008). Child maltreatment is common, and likely to have detrimental short and long-term consequences.

This will be the first study in SA to investigate the developmental, academic, and behavioural outcomes in school according to the type and timing of exposure to child maltreatment.

Research Outcomes:


Rhiannon Pilkington, John Lynch, Steve Guthridge, Julie Petersen, Catherine Chittleborough, Murthy Mittinty

Research Completed:


Research Findings:

In South Australia, our research shows that even children who are only ever notified to child protection (i.e. not investigated or substantiated) experience worse developmental and academic outcomes. This risk of poor outcomes increases as seriousness of child protection involvement increases. We now know that poor academic achievement persists for children in contact with child protection services irrespective of the level of socioeconomic disadvantage. For example, children in the most advantaged socioeconomic groups who had experienced substantiated maltreatment, were more likely to have a poor NAPLAN outcome than the most disadvantaged groups of children who had no contact with the child protection system. As contact with child protection is concentrated in disadvantaged populations, this raises a question about the role child protection concerns have in inequalities in academic outcomes for all children. If we care about reducing inequalities in academic outcomes, we need to consider the role of child protection concerns. More broadly, this speaks to the need to consider how we can improve prevention responses to child maltreatment in addition to tertiary prevention for children who experience maltreatment.

Key Outcomes:

Exposure to adversity in early life may lead to poor development of linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional development. Understanding the consequences of child maltreatment is important for informing appropriate interventions to improve outcomes among children who have experienced maltreatment. We know from Australian research that children in out of home care are likely to have poor academic achievement, and that children with alleged maltreatment are at increased risk of a range of poor development outcomes. However, many studies have only considered substantiate maltreatment or children placed in out of home care. Defining child maltreatment using only substantiated reports has been criticised as substantiations are inherently linked to resourcing and likely to underestimate the true prevalence of maltreatment. Thus, this study uses whole of population linked data from the SA Early Childhood Data Project (the SA ECDP) to investigate the consequences of child maltreatment across all levels of contact from notification through to out of home care.

Child Development

In NSW and South Australia, two existing data linkage studies offered the opportunity to investigate the effect of child maltreatment on child development at age 5. Importantly, conducting this research across two jurisdictions allows us to understand whether these findings apply across Australian jurisdictions, irrespective of the differences in child protection systems. We examined the developmental outcomes of children using the Australian Early Development Census across the spectrum of child protection system contact during early childhood in SA and NSW.

Our results demonstrate that as the level of contact with the child protection system increased in seriousness, so did the prevalence of developmental vulnerability on one or more AEDC domains, ranging from 19% among children with no contact to around 53% among children who were substantiated or who had an OOHC episode. Following adjustment for a range of sociodemographic characteristics, all associations attenuated and the gradient was no longer evident. In other words, the risk of developmental vulnerability at age 5 was the same for all child protection experiences from notification through to out of home care. However, given that these indicators of disadvantage are highly related to child protection assessment processes and maltreatment, we would argue unadjusted estimates better reflect the real world.

Academic achievement

Using data from the SA ECDP, we examined the prevalence of poor educational outcomes in Year 3 and Year 5 NAPLAN’s, stratified by levels of child protection across levels of socioeconomic circumstances. Our results show that within any social group, the proportion of children with a poor NAPLAN outcome increased with increasing level of contact with the child protection system. For example, in Year 5, 18.6% of children who had no contact with the child protection system had 3 or more domains at or below the National Minimum Standard, but this proportion increased to 55.5% among children who had experienced out of home care. Children who had experienced substantiated maltreatment, even those in the most advantaged socioeconomic groups, were more likely to have a poor NAPLAN outcome than the most disadvantaged groups of children who had no contact with the child protection system.

Understanding if the effect of maltreatment on development and academic outcomes differs by type of maltreatment

Using data for the SA ECDP, we spent a considerable amount of time coding the multiple patterns of different combinations of types of maltreatment recorded in the administrative data. However, when we had finalised our coding of this we met with the Department and our policy collaborators had discovered a business rule had been instituted in the data unit which prioritised certain types of maltreatment over others in coding. This rule had not been documented or communicated widely to DCP policy and research staff, so we were forced to put this part of the project on hold until the business rule could be corrected and we received new data that truly represented social worker recordings of maltreatment type. This reflects an unfortunate reality of using administrative data, although this discovery has led the department to change its counting rules for the purposes of reporting maltreatment type. We have now received new data and have recommenced this part of the project.

Research Papers:

Publications currently in preparation:

  1. Pilkington R, Haag DG, Falster, K, Guthridge S, Hanly M, Gibson O, Chittleborough C, Petersen J & Lynch J. 2019. Developmental outcomes for children across levels of contact with child protection services: an Australian data linkage study. Planned for submission to Pediatrics, expected April 2019.
  2. Chittleborough C, Schuch H, Pilkington R, Gibson O, Grant J, Guthridge S, Petersen J & Lynch JChild protection services contact as an additional disadvantage for educational outcomes. Planned for submission to Pediatrics, expected April 2019.

Both of these publications are currently undergoing consultation with Aboriginal stakeholders in Wardliparingga, SAHMRI to ensure the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is communicated with appropriate cultural overlay. The first publication is also being considered by data custodians in NSW.


A poster is attached that was presented at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Protection conference late 2018: Pilkington R, Haag DG, Chittleborough C, Falster, K, Petersen J & Lynch J. 2018. Developmental outcomes for children across levels of contact with child protection services: an Australian data linkage study. ISPCAN, Prague.

Related Publications:

Future Outcomes:

2019 plans

The Chief Investigators expect both publications 1 and 2 to be submitted in the next 6-8 weeks and will forward full copies when approved by the relevant parties. We are also committed to continuing to produce additional outputs from the work made possible by this grant, including a publication examining type of maltreatment. We will forward all outputs as they are finalised.


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