A good plan, now for the execution: Australia’s ‘world-first’ cross-border child protection system

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday November 19, 2019

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A new information-sharing platform designed to aid cross-border collaboration between child-protection agencies is expected to be up and running by mid-2020, following a joint effort to develop the IT solution involving several governments and an IT company based in New South Wales.

The data-matching system called REACH is a world first, according to its creators. It has emerged from the federal Business Research and Innovation Initiative, which sets public sector challenges and funds companies to test and deliver technological solutions.

The challenge of enabling state and territory child protection agencies to share information more quickly and easily was put on the BRII list in 2016. It lines up with the Third Action Plan of The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children (2016-2019) and the recommendations of the federal Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Wollongong-based vendor Itree first ran a 15-month pilot of its data-matching solution through the federal innovation initiative, and now has a five-year, $5.9 million contract with the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice to scale up the system.

Agencies from all states and territories worked with Itree to develop the system during the BRII-funded trial phase, explained Briony Foster, the director of Cross Cluster Operations and Business Support with the NSW department.

While NSW DCJ is the lead agency, the Commonwealth is providing the lion’s share of the funding — $3.9 million — with states and territories jointly responsible for implementation and providing the rest of the money in later years of the contract term.

“NSW Department of Communities and Justice is thrilled to enter into this contract,” said Foster, who played a pivotal role in the project.

“We are incredibly excited to partner with Itree to deliver this solution which will enhance child safety across the nation. We acknowledge the significant financial contribution of the Commonwealth Department of Social Services in making this possible, and are grateful for the ongoing collaboration of our jurisdictional partners.”

The federal Assistant Minister for Children and Families Michelle Landry said it would provide “a more extensive and accurate insight into a child’s history” to case workers in situations where families have moved between jurisdictions.

Landry suggested part of the problem was that some parents moved their families interstate with the intention of avoiding community services agencies.

“It’s an encouraging development because it will improve the way that government agencies share information across different borders, to prevent at risk families who move interstate from evading the gaze of those who have a duty to protect them,” the federal minister said in a statement.

“The aim of this streamlined national platform is to make sure that caseworkers across our nation have all the information that they require at their fingertips, which will allow them to respond to child protection incidents without delay.”

The platform will enable the exchange of “relevant information for purposes related to preventing, identifying and responding to situations where children are at risk of harm” between the various different kinds of systems used by each separate agency, according to a joint statement from Landry and the NSW Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services, Gareth Ward.

“There is a need for better information sharing at a national level and this landmark platform will enable States and Territories to improve communication in the best interests of vulnerable children and families,” said Ward.

Itree chief executive Ben Hobby says the cloud-based system is “truly a world-first development” and will connect up agencies in near real-time.

Hopefully the implementation of REACH will go more smoothly than that of ChildStory, which was heavily promoted by NSW Families and Communities but ran into problems that fuelled a major dispute between theunion and agency leaders.

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