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Safeguarding children from harm: the availability and comparability of data to facilitate cross-national comparisons. Emily R. Munro Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University. Background.

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Emily r munro centre for child and family research loughborough university

Safeguarding children from harm: the availability and comparability of data to facilitate cross-national comparisons

Emily R. Munro

Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University



There has been an increased focus on child well-being in recent years, but despite good work at a United Nations and Council of Europe level, one important dimension – child maltreatment (abuse and neglect) – has received less attention. This is an important gap since the effect of maltreatment on individual children cannot be understated .

(Doing Better for Families, OECD, 2011, p.246)



  • Recognised challenges of comparing child maltreatment data (UNICEF, 2007; OECD, 2011)

    The ability to undertake international comparisons of the extent of child maltreatment for comparative research purposes, using either social survey information or administrative data sets, is extremely limited. These limits are imposed by definitional differences in maltreatment measures across countries and variations in reporting rates generated by different institutional choices and societal attitudes (OECD, 2011, p.247).

Scoping study

Scoping study

  • DFE funded study to explore the availability, comparability of child maltreatment data and its potential use to improve understanding of similarities and differences between countries

  • Scope existing international data on safeguarding children from physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and exposure to intimate partner violence and from child death and injury

Research questions

Research Questions

  • Availability of data

    • What official statistics on preventable child injury and safeguarding are routinely collected by countries and how frequently is information collected? Is there a core set of variables that most countries include in their statistical returns?

  • Comparability of data

    • What conceptual and definitional issues are encountered and need to be resolved to facilitate meaningful cross-national comparison of official statistics on child injury and safeguarding?

  • Preliminary interpretation of data

    • What do official statistics tell us about incidence of preventable child death, injury, abuse and neglect in England and how do these figures compare with other developed countries?



Countries for in depth study

Countries for in-depth study

In addition to England countries included:

  • Australia

  • Canada

  • Denmark

  • Finland

  • Norway

  • USA

International datasets

International datasets

  • International data collection

    • 200 variables initially identified;11 (all concerned with child mortality) were relevant to the study

    • No data collated at an international level on prevalence of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect in the developed world

    • Adult risk factor/parenting capacity data available (but not in relation to children)

    • Findings from scoping study reinforce challenges of making meaningful comparisons of existing datasets

Definitions of abuse

Definitions of abuse

  • Different definitions will result in different rates of identification and in the relative numbers and percentages identified as suffering each abuse type

  • In some countries (including Denmark, Finland and Norway) physical punishment is banned

  • Variations in precision of definitions (Canada comprehensive and detailed definitions and efforts to ensure inter-rater reliability)

Definitions of abuse1

Definitions of abuse

  • Greater international consensus re: definitions of physical abuse and sexual abuse – therefore scope to explore reasons for variations

  • Emotional abuse, neglect and intimate partner violence more problematic – definitional ambiguity

  • Neglect – at least 13 characteristics covered in definitions

National statistical returns

National statistical returns

  • Data collected and published influenced by ideology and systems and processes

  • Differences between what is collected and what is published/in the public domain

  • Different approaches to safeguarding and these influence the data that are collected and its comparability

  • Strong centralised systems (England and Norway) more readily able to gather national datasets than Australia, Canada, Australia and the USA where there is greater diversity

National statistical returns1

National statistical returns

  • Disparities in legal frameworks and administrative systems raise challenges

  • USA longitudinal case level data on child protection services but variations in operational definitions of maltreatment

  • Australia provides aggregate data on child protection (but plans to move towards collation of child level data)

  • Canadian data are collected by trained researchers (every 5 years). Focus is on children subject to investigations

Availability of data an overview

Availability of data: an overview

  • Child safety approach (Australia, Canada, USA)

  • Data primarily on child protection cases

  • Mandatory reporting requirements

  • Investigations focus on substantiation of abuse

  • Data are collected on substantiated cases but not on children in need

Availability of data an overview1

Availability of data: an overview

  • Child welfare approach (England, Finland, Norway and Denmark)

  • Data collected on referrals includes requests for services

  • Assessments focused on ascertaining need and determining the appropriate service response rather than substantiation

  • Difficulties disaggregating data on services for children with lower levels of need vs child protection

Availability of data an overview2

Availability of data: an overview

  • Referrals - majority of countries publish data on the source of referrals and child attribute data

  • Denmark and Finland do not collect data on abuse type

  • Norway collects and publishes more data on issues affecting parenting capacity and service responses

  • England publishes more data on LAC than other countries



  • Australia, England, Finland and the USA collect and publish data on the total number of referrals received

  • Majority of countries publish data on the source of referrals (scope for England to collect)

  • Data on the outcome of referrals are published in Australia, England and the USA

Referrals comparability

Referrals: comparability

  • Data may be presented on: all cases received (England, USA, some Australian territories); cases requiring further assessment (following screening) (USA, some Australian territories, Norway); cases that are substantiated and progress further

  • Influences figures and comparability

Referrals comparability1

Referrals: comparability

What comes to the attention of children’s social care influenced by:

  • Legal and policy frameworks

  • Mandatory reporting expectations and thresholds

  • Professional and public knowledge and understanding of thresholds

  • Media reporting and cultural attitudes

  • Economic climate

  • Levels of need

Assessment and substantiation

Assessment and substantiation

  • Every country except Denmark publishes data on: total number of assessments

  • Australia, Canada, England, Norway and the USA publish data on: the outcome of assessments (substantiation in Australia, Canada and the USA, service responses)

  • Australia, Canada and the USA collect data on: category of abuse (collected later in the child protection process in England and Norway)

Assessment and substantiation1

Assessment and substantiation

  • Variations in assessment processes and thresholds (risk of significant harm or assessment of need)

  • England and Finland have a two-tier process and in-depth assessment rates per 1000 are not dissimilar (12.6 per 1000 children in England and 13.7 in Finland)

  • Rates of substantiation ranged between 0.3% (England) and 1.3% (USA)

Provision of community based services

Provision of community-based services

  • Drawing valid comparisons is problematic

  • Variations in the population being served and in the services provided

  • Little data on services collected or published (except in Norway)

Out of home care

Out-of-home care

  • Every country collects data on the number of children and young people in out-of-home care within their respective systems and on placements

  • Different definitions (voluntary placements and/or legal orders, respite, placements with parents, youth justice)

  • Ideological differences



  • Data readily available and has the potential to assist with cross-national comparisons BUT

  • Considerable variation in what is collected at key stages in child protection processes

  • Differences in legal and policy frameworks and definitions mean that there are challenges in making valid comparisons; easy to draw erroneous conclusions

  • Qualitative data and input from experts from sample countries important

Further information

Further information

  • E.Munro@lboro.ac.uk

  • Report: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/RSG/AllPublications/Page1/DFE-RR083

  • Further work underway to analyse aggregate administrative data on child maltreatment in Australia, England, New Zealand, Norway and the USA and explore changes in the recognition of, and responses to, abuse and neglect

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