How do we protect children and young people from abuse and neglect?

Across Australia, statutory child protection services in each state and territory receive mandatory reports and other notifications about potential harm to children and young people. These services investigate and respond to ensure their safety. There are also many dedicated professionals and agencies involved in addressing known risk factors (domestic and family violence, parental mental health, drug and alcohol misuse) that expose children and young people to harmful environments including maltreatment by parents, caregivers, and worker/volunteers in youth-serving organisations.

However, the prevention of child maltreatment can be further enhanced by a public health approach that draws on the trust—and reach—of services where children and families are already engaging. These services include early childhood education, schools, GPs, and other medical/health services such as maternal and child health. These agencies have the capacity to provide evidence-based parenting and family support.

For children to thrive, their parents and carers need help to navigate the tricky waters of parenting and care. But to get that support, they shouldn’t have to be seen as bad, or failing. Neither should this support be mandated through a statutory child service. Such an approach can be implemented through a prevention model that combines universal and targeted positive parenting interventions to protect children.

The Institute of Child Protection Studies is investigating and advocating a multi-level public health approach, led by Professor Daryl Higgins. Child abuse and neglect can be prevented by providing supports for parents and carers on multiple levels. Based on the following principles, public health-oriented child prevention strategies should be:

  1. Population based: learning and adapting similar population-level strategies
  2. Proportionate and progressive: applying interventions at universal, secondary and tertiary levels
  3. Prevention focused: understanding the causes of child maltreatment and poor child wellbeing
  4. Partnership based: supporting partnerships across different services and sectors
  5. Practice aligned: identifying innovative practice frameworks and prevention platforms

Download - 5 elements of a public health approach to prevent child sexual abuse and neglect (PDF, 171KB) 

We know that a public health approach to complex health issues works; a public health strategy was applied to tobacco-related cancers, road accidents/fatalities, dental carries and STDs/HIV and helped minimise their harm at a population level. Protecting children is perhaps even more complex. But it requires engagement from different government portfolios, service providers and the community.

Successful prevention strategies, services and programs need to address the diverse cultural needs, political environments and community expectations of our society. Services within different institutional and community contexts need greater support to build expertise in implementing a range of programs. Although parenting programs and supports can have a positive impact, participation needs to be normalised, destigmatised, and made widely accessible through concerted government commitment.

Systematic change at such a large-scale is a complex process; numerous strategies are needed to effect multi-level reform across Australia’s system of government, with roles for the Commonwealth, and the states and territories. This is a challenging aspect of our work but we are committed to highlighting how a public health approach can better support families and keep children safe.

To support these goals, IPCS contributes to the following national policy efforts in various roles:

  • Australian Child Rights Taskforce member, reporting to the UN on Australia’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Coordinated by UNICEF
  • Steering Group Member – National Coalition on Child Safety and Wellbeing (auspiced by Families Australia)
  • National Forum Member – oversees the implementation of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children action plans
  • Research Advisory Committee Member – advisory committee to the National Forum for the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children

We are involved in a range of activities that address the ideological, institutional and historical issues in the protection of children.

One major achievement is our involvement in editing a special issue of the International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy and Practice. The special issue presents eight articles on public health approaches to prevent child maltreatment. Read more about this special issue.

See below our range of publications and presentations related to public health approaches to child safety.


Parenting and Family Research Alliance (2021). Thriving futures for kids and families: The role of evidence-based parenting and family intervention. Recording of webinar by Parenting and Family Support Centre, The University of Queensland (13 July 2021).

Higgins, D. & Griffths-Cook, J. (2020). Re-imagining public health in the ACT. Recording of webinar Child Protection Week (28 October 2020). 

Higgins, D. & Parton, N. (2020). Putting children first: the primary prevention paradox. Recording of presentation at National Child Protection Week (7 September 2020).

Higgins, D. (2020, 11 March). If I wrote the blueprint, I would say… Panel presentation at The National Early Years Summit: Working together for their first 1000 days and beyond. Albert Park, Melbourne: ARACY.

Higgins, D. (2019). A public health approach to child safety: 7 components of a public health approach. Recording of presentation at National Child Protection Conference (Brisbane, 24-25 June).



Doyle, F.L., Morawska, A., Higgins, D.J., Havighurst, S.S., Mazzucchelli, T.G., Toumbourou, J. W., Cobham, V.E., Middeldorp, C.M., Harnett, P. (2022). Policies are Needed to Increase the Reach and Impact of Evidence-Based Parenting Supports: A Call for a Population-Based Approach to Supporting Parents, Children, and FamiliesChild Psychiatry and Human Development [View infographic of paper]

Higgins, D., Lonne, B., Scott, D., Herrenkohl, T. & Klika, B. (2022). Core Components of Public Health Approaches to Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. In R. Krugman, & J. Korbin, (Eds.) Handbook of Child Maltreatment (Ch 22), 2nd Edition. Springer.

Lonne, B., Herrenkohl, T.I., Higgins, D.J., Klika, J. B. & Scott, D. (2022). Issue editors of International Journal on Child Maltreatment.

Lonne, B., Herrenkohl, T.I., Higgins, D.J., & Scott, D. (2022).The Implications of Leveraging Administrative Data for Public Health Approaches to Protecting Children: Sleepwalking into Quicksand? International Journal on Child Maltreatment. DOI: 10.1007/s42448-022-00126-9

Mathews, B., MacMillan, H. L., Meinck, F., Finkelhor, D., Haslam, D., Tonmyr, L., Gonzalez, A., Afifi, T. O., Scott, J. G., Pacella, R. E., Higgins, D., Thomas, H., Collin-Vézina, D., & Walsh, K. (2022). The ethics of child maltreatment surveys in relation to participant distress: Implications of social science evidence, ethical guidelines, and lawChild Abuse & Neglect.


Mathews B, Pacella R, Dunne M, Scott J, Finkelhor D, Meinck F, Higgins DJ, Erskine H, Thomas HJ, Haslam D, Tran N, Le H, Honey N, Kellard K, Lawrence D. (2021) The Australian Child Maltreatment Study (ACMS): protocol for a national survey of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, associated mental disorders and physical health problems, and burden of disease. BMJ Open. 11:11(5):e047074. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047074


Herrenkohl, T., Scott, D., Higgins, D., Klika, B., & Lonne, B. (2020). How COVID-19 is placing vulnerable children at risk and why we need a new approach to child welfareChild Maltreatment.

Herenkohl, T. I., Lonne, B., Higgins, D., & Scott, D. (2020). The personal security of children demands bold system reform. International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy and Practice 3, 9–17.


Higgins, D., Sanders, M., Lonne, B., & Richardson, D. (2019). Families – private and sacred: How to raise the curtain and implement family support from a public health perspective. In B. Lonne, D. Scott, D. Higgins, & T. Herrenkohl (Eds.) (2019). Re-visioning public health approaches for protecting children (Ch. 9). Child Maltreatment 9: Contemporary Issues in Research and Policy Series (pp. 127-143). Springer.

Lonne, B., Higgins, D., Herrenkohl, T., & Scott, D. (2019). Reconstructing the workforce within public health protective systems: Improving resilience, retention, service responsiveness and outcomes. Child Abuse & Neglect.

Lonne, B., Scott, D., Higgins, D., & Herrenkohl, T. (Eds.) (2019). Re-visioning public health approaches for protecting children. Child Maltreatment 9: Contemporary Re Issues in Research and Policy Series. Springer.


Sanders, M. R., Higgins, D. J., & Prinz, R J. (2018). A population approach to the prevention of child maltreatment: Rationale and implications for research, policy, and practice. Family Matters, 100, 62-70. Available at:

Further background reading on the public health approach to child protection

WHO guidelines on parenting interventions to prevent maltreatment and enhance parent–child relationships with children aged 0–17 years (2022). Geneva: World Health Organization; 2022. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

Herrenkohl, T. I., Leeb, R. T., & Higgins, D. J. (2016). The Public Health Model of Child Maltreatment Prevention [Introduction to the Special Issue of Trauma, Violence, & Abuse]. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 17(4), 363-365. doi: 10.1177/1524838016661034

Higgins, D. J. (2011). Protecting children: Evolving systems. Family Matters 89, 5-10.

Higgins, D. J. (2015). A public health approach to enhancing safe and supportive family environments for children. Family Matters, 96, 39-52.

Higgins, D. (2014, July 29). Safe and Supportive Family Environments. CFCA Connect.

Scott, D. A., Lonne, B., & Higgins, D. (2016). Public health models for preventing child maltreatment: Applications from the field of injury prevention. Trauma Violence & Abuse [Special Edition on Public Health Approaches to Child Maltreatment Prevention], 17(4), 408-419.

CFCA (2016). The public health approach to preventing child maltreatment.

Contact ICPS for further information

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