The CREATE Report Card 2013, commissioned by the CREATE Foundation, the peak body for children in care, surveyed 1,069 participants aged eight to 11 from all states and territories except Western Australia.
The report shows 37,648 children and young people were in out-of-home care at June 30, 2011. That represented a 33 per cent increase between 2007 and 2011, a rate of increase of more than 7 per cent each year.
Report author Dr Joseph McDowell said the jump in numbers had a lot to do with a broadening of the definition of abuse and greater vigilance.
"I think the community as a whole is becoming a lot more vigilant about the problems that many families experience," he said.
"There is a lot of attention being focused on that, and certainly in some jurisdictions you find that a lot of young people who are having problems with the family are being taken into care."
CREATE's chief executive Jacqui Reed said she thought there "probably" was "an increase in abuse and neglect".
"We certainly know that drug and alcohol issues play a part in that, and we're seeing that in endemic proportions. We also see families more fragmented," she said.
Hayden Frost was raised in 39 different foster homes from the age of three.
"There was a lot of drug and alcohol abuse and lot of mental issues in my family," the 22-year-old said.
For years, he did not know why he was in care, and was not involved in any decisions about his life.
"It was just someone would come and pick me up and then we're into a new family," he recalled.
"I wouldn't know until that day where I'm woken up and told, 'Mate, it's time to pack to your bags'.
"The anger that goes through your head... the first thing you want to do is just grab something and throw it through a wall."
The report examined how the child protection system was faring from the point of view of young people living in it.
It found that while more than 80 per cent of respondents were happy in their current placement, they were not as satisfied with their placement history.
Thirty-five per cent of those surveyed had to deal with five or more caseworkers during their time in care.
Around a third went to three or more primary schools, while 40 per cent did not feel like they could contact their caseworker when they needed to.
Around half of those surveyed did not know why they were in care. Less than a third knew anything about the care plan developed for them, including a leaving care plan for what was likely to happen after they turned 18.
The proportion of young people who know anything about the plan for the future has remained static in the CREATE studies since 2009.
"The most disappointing part is that still, after all the efforts so many people have put in, we're not getting the best participation we can from young people," Dr McDowell said.
"They're not being given the opportunity to be involved in the decision-making that affects their lives."
The situation is far worse for Indigenous young people, according to the report card.
They are up to 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care and experience more disruption during their placements.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people had more placements and caseworkers. Thirty per cent reported little to no connection with their cultural community, and only 10 per cent of those surveyed were aware of a cultural support plan.
"It's just a litany of problems that the Indigenous group faced, and certainly we have to do far more," Dr McDowell said.
"Maybe we have to take more overt action engaging with the elders of communities to actually prepare some sort of program in the different regions to help young people understand their background and their culture.
"A lot of the problem seemed to be because a lot of the young people seem to have nobody they can talk to about their culture about their background."
The report found 36 per cent of respondents in out-of-home care who had brothers and sisters were separated from their siblings.
The figure jumped to more than half in South Australia. But siblings were still the most frequently contacted family members followed by grandparents and then mothers.
In contrast almost 50 per cent never saw their fathers at all.
Dr McDowell says the lack of contact with fathers is problematic.
"There's a lot of literature now that's pointing to how important fathers are in the life of young people in general, particularly young people in care," he said.
"Placement durations can decrease, the likelihood of reunification with family is higher when there is some relationship with fathers."
Stephen Smith was reunited with his father when he was 10. The now 36-year-old was put into foster care when his parents split up when he was 12 months old.
"One of the problems I experienced while in foster care was lack of communication," he recalls.
"I'm sure all the adults were communicating around me."
He left home when he was a teenager and is now a successful opera singer, with a family of his own.
"I think it's hard coming from a broken family to really get the concept [of] family," he said.
"It's very easy not to realise the importance of the stability that a family provides, of the ability to talk to your brothers or your sisters, or your mothers or your aunts or your uncles, about the things that are important.
"Because without those people, who do you turn to? Who are your examples? Who are your mentors? Who is there to believe in you? Who is there to encourage you?"