Nyland Report on Child Protection: SA Government Reacts as First Drafts Released

Thursday 18 August 2016 @ 10.49 a.m. | Crime | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure

On 8 August 2016, Commissioner Margaret Nyland delivered her Royal Commission's report "The Life They Deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission." The report has been been described as a damning assessment of the South Australian (SA) child protection system dubbing it a system considered to be in “disarray” and overwhelmed by demand and "... in need of near-total reform if it is to keep children safe". The report made 260 recommendations to improve the policies, structure and culture of SA’s child protection system; some of  which are already the subject of public consultation (see the YouSay website - Child Protection a Fresh Start: Children’s Commissioner - Powers and Functions, which is looking for feedback on Recommendations 245-251 of the Report).

Reason for Establishing the Commission

The Child Protection Systems Royal Commission was established in response to the arrest of a paedophile carer (the McCoole Case) who, until his arrest, was described as a "model employee." In fact, it was later found that McCoole had committed offences against children in his care in 2011 and 2014 and further that he was an administrator for a global child pornography website. In August 2015, he was jailed for 35 years.

The Key Commission Recommendations

Some of the main issues raised by Commissioner Nyland's report include the need to "transform" how concerns about abuse are raised and then responded to. In particular, how the screening of people who work with vulnerable children is carried out. Further, it is reported that Commissioner Nyland is seeking more funding for early intervention and support services and extra staff to enable Families SA to properly investigate concerns. Her report noted that a “staggering” 61 percent of Families SA notifications that required follow-up action in 2014-15 "...were instead closed without any action because there were more urgent priorities and not enough staff."

The reports key recommendations are as follows:

  • abolishing single shifts;
  • improving child abuse report line response and assessment times;
  • mandatory six-month probationary employment;
  • rigorous performance reviews for all new staff;
  • the provision of psychological services to address high stress levels in the workplace;
  • the enactment of standalone legislation to provide for a screening regime;
  • making sure there is a "real-time" monitoring system;
  • amending the Children's Protection Act 1993 (SA) to give more say to children;
  • establishing a child protection service at the Lyell McEwin Hospital;
  • ensuring that every child has a caseworker who has face to face contact once a month; and
  • reviewing the staff involved in the McCoole case and their suitability to stay in their roles.

The SA Government Response

The Premier, Mr Weatherill, described the Commission's report as “harrowing reading” which would have an “immediate” impact on how people viewed the problem. He conceded " that authorities had ". . . failed children and that the report leveled 'substantial criticisms' at his Government, but would not give a guarantee if [the Government] could completely prevent abuse of children in the future."

Mr John Rau, the Minister for Child Protection Reform, said the Government was already drafting new legislation to implement the recommendations (see for example Children’s Commissioner - Powers and Functions), which could be introduced to Parliament as early as September 2016. He also indicated that certain Families SA employees named by the Commission was “. . . suspended pending an investigation”. Also, the following recommendations have already been agreed to:

  • removing of Families SA from the Education and Child Development Department;
  • appointing a new chief executive of the new Child Protection Department;
  • stopping carers working alone, on single-person shifts, with children living in emergency accommodation such as hotels or rented apartments; and
  • the abandoning of a trial of using non-social workers to take calls to the abuse report hotline.

Other Responses

The SA opposition said the Commissioner’s report made it clear the state’s child protection system was “in crisis” and that the Premier Mr Weatherill as the former Education Minister was “inextricably” linked with that failure.

Welfare and advocacy groups are reported to have broadly welcomed the report, especially where it recommends giving non-government organisations a greater role in caring for and supporting vulnerable children.

The Public Service Association representing Families SA Workers has been reported as saying the report “provides real hope” and acknowledging that reforming the system would “take time” and urged the Government “to act decisively . . . for the sake of South Australian children”.

It will be interesting to watch how quickly the SA government is able to react to and attempt to fix what is seen, according to Commissioner Nyland, as:

". . . problems besetting Families SA and the child protection system [that] proved to be far greater than anyone had initially envisaged.”

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