In what has been described as a world-first examination of child protection reports, Australia's systems are shown to be in meltdown amid unprecedented levels of child abuse and neglect.
South Australia's Department for Child Protection opened its doors to the University of South Australia's child protection experts, allowing them access to abuse notifications for the first time.
What seasoned researchers like Fiona Arney found as they dug down into the records shocked them. They showed the state was "facing an absolute crisis".
Rather than being a South Australian problem, Professor Arney issued a warning to governments and experts interstate that the crisis was being replicated in all Australian jurisdictions.
By looking at the South Australian child protection reports, she found one in four children under the age of 10 are being reported to child protection authorities, and of these children, 90 per cent have multiple reports being made about "incredibly concerning" abuse and neglect.
'We are facing an absolute crisis'
The research began because Professor Arney wanted to follow up a statistic unearthed in retired judge Margaret Nyland's royal commission into child protection, completed in August 2016.
Nyland found that one in four children in South Australia had come to the attention of child protection authorities by the time they turned 10, a figure the researcher of 25 years found difficult to believe.
Professor Arney sought access to the state's child protection records to confirm whether this was the case and better understand what was going on across the state, with her team building a profile of families over an eight-year reporting period.
The team looked at three specific groups — unborn children who have a child protection report, families that were repeatedly being reported, and Aboriginal families.
Not only did they confirm the one in four figure, they also were alarmed to find out that most kids in the system were repeatedly reported, with one family reported 118 times over an eight-year period.
"Previously estimates would have been around 10 per cent of children being the subject of re-reports," she said.
"We've actually found that 90 per cent of those children are the subject of re-reports."
The results on the study of Aboriginal families is yet to be released.
'They saved my life'
Nicole Lindsay's family had many of the hallmarks that Professor Arney's work identified as placing them at risk — her first child was born when she was 17, she had a history of childhood trauma, a family experiencing domestic violence, and an undiagnosed mental health condition.
One day in 2010, social researchers turned up at her door, chatting to her kids who were playing in the front yard of her housing trust home, promising to return and feed her family of six Chinese takeaway dinner for free.
They followed through on their promise and recruited her family into Family by Family, a program that was being piloted in southern Adelaide to try and support troubled families into a healthy direction.
She has since completed a psychology degree and is working for a disability support organisation.
Her four children are now studying, working and starting families of their own.
Ms Lindsay said that if her family had not received the support they needed to change, her life would have turned out significantly worse.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we had some serious child protection involvement, that they were going to come and perhaps say what's going on here," she said.
More reports should be investigated
Professor Arney found the bulk of reports that were being made to child protection authorities should be "screened in" for investigation, with too many reports being closed off without being pursued or placed at the bottom of the pile.
She said the child protection system was initially set up to deal with a few hundred families where children were being abused or neglected.
"If we are talking about one in four children, we don't have a system that is equipped to meet that demand," she said.
"It's a crisis, we are facing an absolute crisis."
She said there was an assumption that children were being over reported to authorities by hyper-vigilant professionals and people in the community, but the data uncovered by her team showed the vast majority of reports needed to be followed up.
"I've been a researcher in this field for 25 years when I first was trained in research our explanation about reporting to child protection systems was that it was a needle in a haystack phenomenon and that there was over reporting … when in fact we found the reporting that is being made by notifiers in this state actually is about children who are incredibly vulnerable and have experienced repeated episodes of abuse and trauma," she said.
'Treat it as a health crisis'
Professor Arney said authorities needed to respond to the child protection epidemic as a health crisis.
"That includes working out how we can reallocate resources to meet the extent of the need and how we can identify the earliest opportunities for intervening in family life," she said.
"At the moment we are waiting until the problem gets so bad that the only recourse we have is the statutory child protection system."
The next phase of her work will look the ways early intervention can be rolled out to families at higher risk of abuse and neglect, possibly before a child is even born.