Three years on from royal commission, SA child protection agency struggling to change

By Stephen Easton

Monday July 22, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

Three years after a royal commission exposed a dangerous lack of resources in the South Australian child protection system, new questions are being raised about whether the government is living up to its commitments to change the system.

Margaret Nyland’s 2016 inquiry, prompted by sexual abuse of children in state care, explored a range of issues and made 260 recommendations to improve what is always a challenging area for state and territory governments, even when they do invest enough resources. It revealed the former agency Families SA was in a permanent state of crisis, lacking investment in prevention, early intervention and staff training, with its undervalued staff burdened by red tape.

One particular problem highlights the immense power of funding in the public sector: the present-day Department of Child Protection still has to close a large number of cases without taking any action due to a lack of resources, despite the fact this is not a valid reason under the relevant legislation. This includes cases where there are serious and compelling risks to child welfare.

Nyland recommended the department phase out the practice in five years and the former Labor government agreed “in principle” to this. But the department is still in the planning phase and a year behind schedule on implementation, The Advertiser reported last week.

The newspaper reported figures from the department in January showing the proportion of cases closed due to lack of resources had dropped from an incredible 60% in 2014-15 to 40% as of last December.

“There should be quarterly reports to the public on the rate of closures that are due to a lack of resources,” Nyland said in the same recommendation, but that has still not begun happening. According to The Advertiser, the department could not say if or when it would begin reporting on the numbers.

It’s yet another example of why the public is right to be sceptical of any government’s commitment when the words “in principle” are attached.

This financial year’s budget has the department’s workforce being reduced by over 100 full-time staff, on the basis of an assumption that the number of children put into care will stop rising and begin to decline. This depends on the impact of $26.9 million that was committed to prevention programs in the budget, including $6.9m for early intervention.

State ombudsman Wayne Lines said the proportion of cases closed each year due to insufficient resourcing was “simply staggering” in a report last September, and endorsed the concern raised by Nyland in her 2016 report.

“The Ombudsman opined that the practice was ‘repugnant to the objects and spirit of the Children’s Protection Act’,” adds the report of Lines’ investigation of three specific cases.

It observes that each of the three cases “raised serious and compelling child-protection concerns and had been assessed as such by the agency” and there was no legitimate reason for them to be closed without action. But funding doesn’t come out of thin air.

“The Ombudsman remarked that in each case, the agency had no basis to conclude that the matters causing the child to be at risk were being adequately addressed so as to negate the need for a response.”

“The Ombudsman observed that by closing each intake without further action, the agency could not reasonably be said to have caused an assessment of, or investigation into, the circumstances of the child to be carried out in accordance with section 19(1) of the Children’s Protection Act.”

The Department of Child Protection accepted the ombudsman’s conclusion that in these specific cases it yet again contravened the law. Lines did not make any further recommendation; he expects that of the Nyland royal commission to be implemented.

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