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‘Don’t blame the public service for child protection failures’

The ACT opposition today attacked Canberra’s care and protection services for children and young people, based on the annual report of a committee whose chair says they’ve got it wrong. She is highlighting the complex role the public sector has in child protection.

According to the shadow minister for family and community services, Nicole Lawder: “The ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee 2013-14 Annual Report released yesterday highlights ongoing and systemic issues within the ACT’s care and protection services.”

But the report shows nothing of the sort, according to former Australian Institute of Health and Welfare director Penny Gregory, who chairs the independent committee.

Lawder says the report is “particularly disturbing” because it shows “38 of the 109 deaths between 2009 and 2014 were of children and young people either in the care of or known to Community Services”. But Gregory says that figure is incorrect.

“They’ve doubled counted 11 deaths in there,” she told The Mandarin. “It should have been 27, not 38.”

The annual report shows that between 2009 and 2014, 12 of the deceased children were the subject of a child concern report and 15 were the subject of a child protection report.

Gregory explained that care and protection services creates a child concern report when a member of the public reports suspected abuse or neglect, and investigates further. An official child protection report is only created if the concerns raised are substantiated.

“… by the time anything comes to the notice of government it’s usually too late, or very late, in the process.”

“But,” she added, “once there’s a child protection report it doesn’t actually mean that they will intervene. They still do further investigation so what we have is three steps along the way. There were 11 of the children who actually had some kind of intervention in place from child protection. The remainder of the 27 had either been assessed as not warranting further child protection action or there was ongoing monitoring, or some other kind of process in place.”

Gregory says the data in the report doesn’t show a spike in deaths among children known to care and protection services, a broken system, or ongoing failures on the part of the public servants, or their minister.

“I think the whole issue of abuse and neglect of children and what government can do about it is probably one of the most difficult issues that government faces, quite frankly, because by the time anything comes to the notice of government it’s usually too late, or very late, in the process,” she said.

“So you get this process where the public service is picking up the pieces that are often reasonably broken already, and the ACT is absolutely no different from any other jurisdiction from that point of view.”

‘A really fraught area’

Child protection units, Gregory says, deal with “situations that are incredibly difficult and really hard for governments to anything about, quite frankly, apart from taking children away”.

Gregory agrees child protection services nationwide often come in for harsh criticism from the public when intervention to remove children from their parents is necessary, but it’s not helpful for politicians to criticise them for the deaths of children that are known to them.

“It is a really fraught area, a really difficult area, and there just aren’t any easy answers. And to my mind, politicising it can be very detrimental to good outcomes, because the fact that these are abused and neglected children is not the fault of the public service,” she said.

“[Public servants] do what they can to pick up the pieces but as I say it’s often too late. And I absolutely agree that child protection services need to be constantly looked at, supported, they need to constantly improve their processes. They need to attract the best staff, and of course [that is challenging] because it’s a really difficult area to work in.

“I’m totally in support of giving more support to the public service to manage these issues but I’m not sure that coming out and blaming the public service is the best way to achieve better outcomes.”

Gregory, who was also chief executive of the ACT’s former health and community care department, has over 30 years’ experience in health and community services policy, working both within and between both levels of government. She says the same issues are faced all over Australia.

“I don’t want to say that everything’s sweet in child protection land,” she said. “I think there are lots of difficult issues in there: trying to get good staff, trying to get good processes and trying to get people working together better, right across the system. They’re really critical issues and it’s something that the committee really wants to focus on; how can we get everyone across government working better together, and sharing information better.

“I don’t want to give the impression it’s all rosy, but there are the right things happening and the right attempts to try to improve it … I’m not saying anybody’s got it right — because it’s so difficult — but it’s not as simple as saying because a child dies who’s known to child protection means that child protection is failing. What’s failing is community, and families.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.