Improving the measurement and surveillance of child abuse in Queensland emergency departments

Scott, Deborah Anne (2012) Improving the measurement and surveillance of child abuse in Queensland emergency departments. Professional Doctorate by Publication, Queensland University of Technology.


There are no population studies of prevalence or incidence of child maltreatment in Australia. Child protection data gives some understanding but is restricted by system capacity and definitional issues across jurisdictions. Child protection data currently suggests that numbers of reports are increasing yearly, and the child protection system then becomes focussed on investigating all reports and diluting available resources for those children who are most in need of intervention. A public health response across multiple agencies enables responses to child safety across the entire population. All families are targeted at the primary level; examples include ensuring all parents know the dangers of shaking a baby or teaching children to say no if a situation makes them uncomfortable. The secondary level of prevention targets families with a number of risk factors, for example subsidised child care so children aren't left unsupervised after school when both parents have to be at work or home visiting for drug-addicted parents to ensure children are cared for. The tertiary response then becomes the responsibility of the child protection system and is reserved for those children where abuse and neglect are identified. This model requires that child safety is seen in a broader context than just the child protection system, and increasingly health professionals are being identified as an important component in the public health framework.

If all injury is viewed as preventable and considered along a continuum of 'accidental' through to 'inflicted', it becomes possible to conceptualise child maltreatment in an injury context. Parental intent may not be to cause harm to the child, but by lack of insight or concern about risk, the potential for injury is high. The mechanisms for unintentional and intentional injury overlap and some suggest that by segregating child abuse (with the possible exception of sexual abuse) from unintentional injury, child abuse is excluded from the broader injury prevention initiative that is gaining momentum in the community. This research uses a public health perspective, specifically that of injury prevention, to consider the problem of child abuse.

This study employed a mixed method design that incorporates secondary data analysis, data linkage and structured interviews of different professional groups. Datasets from the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit (QISU) and The Department of Child Safety (DCS) were evaluated. Coded injury data was grouped according to intent of injury according to those with a code that indicated the ED presentation was due to child abuse, a code indicating that the injury was possibly due to abuse or, in the third group, the intent code indicated that the injury was unintentional and not due to abuse. Primary data collection from ED records was undertaken and information recoded to assess reliability and completeness. Emergency department data (QISU) was linked to Department of Child Safety Data to examine concordance and data quality. Factors influencing the collection and collation of these data were identified through structured interview methodology and analysed using qualitative methods.

Secondary analysis of QISU data indicated that codes lacking specific information on the injury event were more likely to also have an intent code indicating abuse than those records where there was specific information on the injury event. Codes for abuse appeared in only 1.2% of the 84,765 records analysed. Unintentional injury was the most commonly coded intent (95.3%).

In the group with a definite abuse code assigned at triage, 83% linked to a record with DCS and cases where documentation indicated police involvement were significantly more likely to be associated with a DCS record than those without such documentation. In those coded with an unintentional injury code, 22% linked to a DCS record with cases assigned an urgent triage category more likely to link than those with a triage category for resuscitation and children who presented to regional or remote hospitals more likely to link to a DCS record than those presenting to urban hospitals. Twenty-nine per cent of cases with a code indicating possible abuse linked to a DCS record. In documentation that indicated police involvement in the case, a code for unspecified activity when compared to cases with a code indicating involvement in a sporting activity and children less than 12 months of age compared to those in the 13-17 year old age group were all variables significantly associated with linkage to a DCS record.

Only 13% of records contained documentation indicating that child abuse and neglect were considered in the diagnosis of the injury despite almost half of the sample having a code of abuse or possible abuse.

Doctors and nurses were confident in their knowledge of the process of reporting child maltreatment but less confident about identifying child abuse and neglect and what should be reported. Many were concerned about implications of reporting, for the child and family and for themselves. A number were concerned about the implications of not reporting, mostly for the wellbeing of the child and a few in terms of their legal obligations as mandatory reporters.

The outcomes of this research will help improve the knowledge of barriers to effective surveillance of child abuse in emergency departments. This will, in turn, ensure better identification and reporting practises; more reliable official statistical collections and the potential of flagging high-risk cases to ensure adequate departmental responses have been initiated.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 60054
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Professional Doctorate by Publication)
Supervisor: McKenzie, Kirsten, Dunne, Michael P., & Fraser, Jennifer A.
Additional Information: Recipient 2012 Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award
Keywords: child abuse and neglect, child maltreatment, data linkage, intentional injury, medical record documentation, reporting behaviour, surveillance, , ODTA
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety - Qld (CARRS-Q)
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 16 May 2013 03:06
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015 04:42

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