Skip to main content

Key messages

  • Child abuse is defined as an act by parents or caregivers who endanger a child's physical or emotional health or development.
  • Health professionals need only have reasonable grounds to believe that a child has been abused or neglected, or is ‘at risk’ of abuse or neglect, in order to make a report.
  • Take careful notes of what you observe and what everyone present says. Take photographs if consent is obtained.
  • Be aware that symptoms that may indicate abuse could also be indicative of undiagnosed medical conditions.

Please note that all guidance is currently under review and some may be out of date. We recommend that you also refer to more contemporaneous evidence in the interim.

Child abuse can be physical, sexual or emotional. Physical abuse is any non-accidental injury to a child. Sexual abuse is when a child (under 17) is forced by an adult to engage in any kind of sexual activity. Emotional abuse can involve rejection, threats and verbal abuse. Neglect refers to the failure by a parent or caregiver to provide a child (where they are in a position to do so) with the conditions that are culturally accepted as being essential for their physical and emotional development and wellbeing.

Notification is mandatory

Health professionals only need to have reasonable grounds to believe that a baby or toddler has been abused or neglected, or is ‘at risk’ of abuse or neglect, in order to make a notification, and they are not expected to provide ‘proof’.

Deciding to make a protective report is not always based on a single event or presentation. For example, forming a belief that a baby is being neglected may result from monitoring a concerning situation over time (cumulative harm).

When health professionals believe, in the course of their professional duties, that a baby or child has been or is likely to be physically or sexually abused, it is mandatory under Victorian state legislation to report the suspicions to Protective Services. See the online Vulnerable Children's training package

Photography is an important way to collect evidence of suspected physical abuse.

After-hours contacts

If serious concerns are noted after hours, contact either of these numbers:

  • Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) notifications: 13 12 78
  • Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service: 1300 661 142.

The identity of a person notifying protective concerns to the department about a baby or child is kept confidential, unless that person gives permission for his or her identity to be disclosed.

Acute health services first point of contact

Acute health services are often the first point of contact for infants at suspected risk of harm from child abuse or neglect. Responsibility for the protection of babies and children is shared between parents, government and the community. However, hospital staff members have a special responsibility to identify the risk and reduce it by offering crisis support, ongoing care, referral to specialist intervention services, and by working with other agencies to provide the best range of services for a particular child and family.

In delivering adult services, such as mental health or maternity services, the protection of children involved is paramount.

Babies, owing to their complete dependence on adult care and lack of physical reserves, are especially vulnerable to physical harm as a result of neglect.

In Victoria, the Protective Services Division of the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for receiving, assessing and responding to notifications of child abuse or neglect.

Compulsory minimum standards for organisations that provide services for children are now in force. For more information, see Child Safe Standards.

Concerns that a baby or child is at risk of emotional abuse or neglect should also be reported, although it is not mandatory.

Child FIRST partnership

Child FIRST (Family Information Referral and Support Team) is a partnership between the DHHS and local family service agencies in each region. It was established to:

  • provide a central referral point into family services programs
  • ensure that vulnerable children, young people and their families are linked with community services  and support
  • build strong connections between agencies to assist with coordination and planning.

Referral can also be made antenatally so that a wellbeing report can be made and early engagement with families can occur with their consent.

Child FIRST referral criteria

Child FIRST referral criteria includes:

  • significant parenting problems which impact on child development
  • serious family conflict
  • families under pressure
  • young, isolated, unsupported families
  • significant social or economic disadvantage that impacts on child development or care.

Risk factors for abuse or neglect

Significant family risk factors for child abuse or neglect include:

  • previous protective services involvement with the family
  • homelessness, or lack of stable accommodation
  • domestic violence
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • intellectual disability
  • significant history of psychiatric illness
  • very young parents.

Doctors and nurses should be aware that the following presenting circumstances may indicate that a baby or young child is being physically abused:

  • repeated complaints of illness, for which no medical explanation can be found (Munchausen by proxy should be considered)
  • the ‘accident prone’ toddler or child
  • inconsistent or implausible history of injury
  • sudden unexpected death of infant (SUDI) or ‘near miss’, especially if there is a history of similar episodes involving either the presenting child or other siblings.

Persistent parental concern about a baby's medical condition may be indicative of postnatal depression, therefore an assessment of the mother's emotional state must also be made.

Delay in seeking medical attention, or ‘failure to thrive’ may indicate that a baby is being neglected.

Differential diagnosis

There are some circumstances where signs of suspected child abuse might be due to an underlying medical disorder.  Examples include:

  • bruising - this might be secondary to a coagulation disorder or is sometimes confused with Mongolian blue spots
  • bone fractures - these might be pathological (for example, underlying bone defect, disorder, tumor, Vitamin D deficiency)
  • failure to thrive - there are many organic causes for 'failure to thrive'.

It is important to exclude possible medical conditions in suspected child abuse.

Management

A hospital nurse, doctor or social worker who believes that a baby or toddler may have been physically or sexually abused should notify the paediatric registrar or consultant paediatrician on duty if available.

If you work at a health service without a paediatric registrar or consultant, contact the on-call Medical Officer to contact the Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service (VFPMS) (24 hours 7 days a week) on 1300 661 142.

If you are not successful in gaining access to the above telephone number, you can call directly to the Royal Children's Hospital – 9345 4299 or Monash Medical Centre – 9594 2155.

The Medical officer needs to perform an initial examination and consult with the paediatrician on duty or the VFPMS to decide the appropriate medical management for the baby.

Ensure careful documentation

Careful documentation is required, and needs to include:

  • a general medical history, including the presenting complaint and any explanation given, previous presentations, and a family history including pedigree
  • detailed documentation of the injury, in writing and with a diagram
  • photographs if possible, with consent as this is the best evidence
  • particular features to note (on physical examination) are:
    • bruising or bite marks
    • scars such as cigarette burns
    • napkin dermatitis
    • anal or vaginal excoriation or injury
    • finger marks on arms or trunk, which may indicate a shaking injury
    • retinal haemorrhages
    • pain or reluctance to move a limb, which may indicate a fracture
    • apathy, lethargy
    • developmental delay
  • weight, length and head circumference of the baby, which should be plotted.

For assistance in recording the information accurately you can call the Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service (24 hours 7 days a week) on 1300 66 11 42 or go to the VFPMS guidelines for forensic evaluation of suspected child abuse.

Record notes from everyone present

Details of persons present, their relationship to the baby, and their account of what has occurred should be noted. Question everyone in an objective, non-judgmental manner.

Note which information was obtained from each person. Information collected from each informant should be recorded on a separate sheet of paper, in order to comply with the Health Records Act.

Names of staff members present must also be documented. The name of the person conducting the examination, and what action is to be taken, must be clearly documented.

Admitting the infant to hospital

Admission of the infant to the hospital is an important first step where serious concerns exist. This should allow some time and opportunity to establish a relationship with the family, and a more thorough assessment of the child's medical and family circumstances.

If transfer to a larger hospital or the Royal Children's Hospital, is considered necessary this should be by ambulance, or by taxi with a nurse escort. Full documentation should remain at the referring hospital, and a copy should accompany the baby.

Do not intervene if parents resist advice to admit

If parents refuse to comply with medical advice, including admission to hospital, or attempt to remove the baby against medical advice, it should be made clear that hospital security and, if necessary, the police will be called.

No attempt should be made to physically resist the removal of a baby. In this case, the police and Protective Services must be notified immediately.

At most hospitals, the social work department is responsible for the coordination of Protective notifications to DHHS including antenatal notification. In this case, the social work department should be advised if physical or sexual abuse is believed to have occurred, or if a baby is considered to be at risk of abuse or neglect.

This will result either in a notification being made, or the family agreeing to referral to an appropriate community support agency.

Reports may lead to a protection application

A report to DHHS may lead to a protection application being made to the Children's Court, and hospital staff members or the baby's medical file may be subpoenaed. As stated above, it is essential that careful case notes are made. They should be objective, documenting what is observed or seen. Information that is given by another person must be clearly reported as such, and subjective judgments should not be made.

Hospitals should have clear policies 

Hospitals should have clear policy and procedures documents in place relating to vulnerable children. They should establish multidisciplinary committees to regularly review practices and support staff, and communicate regularly with local Child Protection and Child FIRST services.

Major effects of changes to Victorian child protection legislation

In accordance with the Children, Youth and Families Act (2005), which came into effect in April 2007:

  • DHHS can now accept antenatal (unborn) reports. No statutory action can be taken until after the baby's birth, but planning can be commenced.
  • Child FIRST teams can also work antenatally with families, with their consent. If in doubt as to whether an Unborn report to DHHS or a referral to Child FIRST is more appropriate, consultation with DHHS, Child FIRST or the hospital's social work department should be undertaken. (Child FIRST services are not crisis services and are open during business hours only.)
  • The cultural identity and needs of Aboriginal children are protected and promoted under the Act (see also Dardee Boorai: Victorian Charter of Safety and Wellbeing for Aboriginal Children and Young People).
  • Cumulative harm (the effects of patterns of harm over time that may impact on a child’s safety and development) is recognised under the Act. The effects of cumulative harm are specifically referred to as requiring consideration when determining decisions or actions to be taken in the child’s best interests.
  • When out-of-home care is deemed to be necessary in a child’s best interests, Child Protection will formulate a stability plan to ensure maximum timeframes for assessing care needs. Wherever possible, Aboriginal children will be placed with extended family or community members.

Changes to child protection law

In 2014, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation to stregthen Victroia's response to children and young people in out-of-home care.

Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Permanent Care and Other Matters) Act 2014  

Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Security Measures) Act 2014  

The amendments address key recommendations of the January 2012 Report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children’s Inquiry regarding the simplification of Children’s Court orders and identifying and removing barriers to achieving permanent placements for children.

Amendments include:

  • the authorisation of carers to make decisions on specified issues about the children in their care
  • increased penalties for offences relating to the protection and exploitation of children, including leaving children unattended and harbouring children
  • amendments to the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012 have commenced, addressing the focus of systemic inquiries and requirements to provide persons names in inquiries an opportunity to respond to adverse comment or opinion.

More information for where to access help

Protective services (after hours) - 13 12 78

Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Service: 1300 661 142

Hospitals' priority number- (03) 9843 5422

Royal Children's Hospital Gatehouse Centre for the assessment and treatment of child abuse:

  • 9345 6391 (business hours)
  • 9345 5522 (after hours - RCH main switchboard)

Child and family services information, referral and support teams

Get in touch

Centre of Clinical Excellence - Women and Children
Safer Care Victoria

Version history

First published: October 2016

Last web update: October 2018

Review by: October 2019

UNCONTROLLED WHEN DOWNLOADED

Page last updated: 17 Feb 2021

Was this content helpful to you?