“Keep them Safe” – new child protection legislation
There is little question that NSW’s child protection system has had some fairly major flaws. Over the last few years we have been inundated with media reports about child abuse and neglect, and cases that have “fallen through the cracks”.
Recently released figures revealed that one third of NSW teenagers aged 15 or 16 had been reported to the Department of Community Services (DOCS) at least once because of a concern about abuse or neglect.
Why such high figures in NSW and not elsewhere?
The reasons would seem clear; the system for mandatory reporting of risk of harm to children and young people has meant a flood of reports to DOCS, many of which have not needed further action. Many minor and sometimes baseless concerns have ended up on DOCS’ doorstep, creating a pile of paperwork for an overwhelmed department. Often with the result that the really serious cases of abuse and neglect get overlooked.
Mandatory reporters, including teachers, health care workers, police and child care workers, have faced penalties if they did not report their concerns about children at risk of neglect and abuse, adding to the problem of over-reporting.
Plus the fear of violating privacy laws has meant that there has been little information sharing between government agencies and non-government organisations (NGOs), so services that could assist young people have been under-utilised.
A rather ineffective system.
But we’re starting to see some sensible changes. The NSW government has taken on a number of the recommendations made by the 2008 Wood Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW. The new approach, known as “Keep them Safe”, is a five year plan to improve the system.
One key change is that since January 2010, instead of having to report concerns about “risk of harm”, the wording in the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection Act) has changed to “risk of significant harm”. So only serious cases go through to DOCS. A NSW Mandatory Reporter Guide has been created to help reporters work out when the harm is significant enough to involve DOCS.
Another is that government agencies and NGOs are now authorised to share information, with the safety of young people overriding privacy laws.
Newly established Child Wellbeing Units will provide support for the new two-track process, distinguishing between cases that go to DOCS, and less serious cases that may be referred to an appropriate young person’s service.
And penalties for mandatory reporters who fail to report suspected cases no longer apply.
It’s early days. While a new culture of information sharing may take time to gain hold, taking the pressure off DOCS and having more than one agency with access to information about children at risk would appear to make enormous sense.
For more information please see our 2023 article Focus on best interests of the child in planned changes to family law.