An analysis of the deaths of ACT children shows suicide is on the rise and children whose families are known to child protection authorities account for a quarter of all deaths.
The ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee's third annual report was tabled in the ACT Legislative Assembly on Tuesday by the Minister for Children and Young People, Mick Gentleman. The report provided a sad glimpse into the number of local families destroyed by the loss of a child.
Committee Chair, Dr Penny Gregory said the report included information on the deaths of 153 children and young people under the age of 18 between July 2009 and June 2014. Of these, 109 were ACT children, while 38 reflected the ACT's role as a medical hub for regional families. Six of the deaths still await coronial findings.
The report shows that around a quarter of the deaths over the past five years occurred in families where members of the community had raised at least some formal concerns about the child's welfare.
Of the 109 deaths, 27 of children and or their siblings were known to Child Protection Services. This includes 15 children where the CPS had determined there were grounds to consider that the child might require care and protection due to abuse and neglect. In a further 12 deaths, concerns had been raised about the risk of neglect and abuse, but were not assessed by local authorities as warranting further investigation.
Dr Gregory said "This data must continue to be a wake-up call to us all about the risks to children of family neglect and abuse.
"While Child Protection Services pick up the pieces, there is no substitute for a well-supported and safe family environment and we all have a responsibility as family, friends, neighbours and citizens to provide support to families where children may be at risk. These figures show us again and again that there is no substitute for a loving and supported family environment and it's not something we can simply expect governments alone to fix."
Dr Gregory noted that the numbers were similar, if slightly lower, in previous five-year periods.
In the 2012-13 annual report, 22 of the 105 children were known to CPS , or 20.9 per cent compared with 24.8 this year.
Dr Gregory said the numbers had fluctuated over time and did not indicate a rising trend "at this stage".
On the issue of suicide, this year's report showed for the first time the number of suicides becoming great enough to be reported – at six deaths of young people aged between 15 and 17.
Previous reports did not disaggregate suicide from unspecified deaths when the number was under five as this was the threshold the committee used to protect the privacy and confidentiality of community members.
In Australia, suicide was the leading cause of death for males and females aged between 15 and 24 years in 2012. These suicides were almost half of the number of deaths due to "external causes", which include transport accidents and drownings. There were 13 "external causes" deaths across the ACT's reporting period, compared with 12 in the previous five years.
The ACT data was consistent with figures recently released by the NSW Child Death Review Team which also showed that suicide was the leading external cause of death in children and young people.
Dr Gregory said the committee had collaborated with work being undertaken by the National Children's Commissioner into intentional self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children and the ACT Government Ministerial Advisory Committee on Mental Health's research into suicide and contributing factors in the ACT.
"The devastation caused to families by such deaths simply doesn't end," Dr Gregory said.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 131 114; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.