Monday, December 13, 2004

DOCS fails in its duty of care

ELEANOR HALL: A shocking report has revealed that the agency responsible for protecting children in New South Wales is partly to blame for the death of more than 50 children it knew to be at risk.

The report by the state's ombudsman has found that in the space of just one year, 53 children died in suspicious circumstances of abuse or neglect, despite being amongst the 103 children that staff at the Department of Community Services had been notified about.

In one case, a 3-year-old boy died after his mother left him in the care of two men known to police as sex offenders. Before the toddler died, DOCS had been repeatedly alerted about suspected abuse, as Toni Hassan reports.

TONI HASSAN: The report, highly critical of DOCS, will curl even the most hardened ears.

Ombudsman Bruce Barbour admits he was shocked.

BRUCE BARBOUR: The system isn't working as well as it needs to, and in my view it's unacceptable when matters are being notified to DOCS, that we have poor decision making around who gets help and who doesn't get help.

TONI HASSAN: Among the cases exposing the glaring failures of the New South Wales system involves a 3-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister, who were left my their mother in a one-bedroom flat with known sex offenders.

The boy was sexually abused, suffered anal and rectal injuries and died a few days later. One of his attackers had attempted to revive him using live electrical wires. One of the paedophiles videotaped himself raping the boy's sister.

The ABC's been told by a source in the Department that the 6-year-old girl is not in foster care, but today is still in the care of her mother, despite the mother's history of poor parenting. DOCS was notified of problems with the family seven times before the 3-year-old died. He was not removed from his mother for longer than one night.

This morning, Community Services Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, was keen to not to blame DOCS staff, but instead called for lessons to be learnt. She stressed that DOCS can only ever be a safety net and that in the end child protection was the responsibility of the whole community.

CARMEL TEBBUTT: Clearly, in individual cases, you'll have judgement calls made that will not necessarily be the right judgement calls. Overall, I think the philosophy of the Department is what we need to do is to get in early, to try and support families before problems become too entrenched, too difficult, but we also need to be able to effectively pick those families that no matter what sort of support you provide, they will not keep their children safe.

And they're the families that we need to be able to better predict, betterÉ and then be able to remove their children and convince the courts that that's the right course of action. And we're doing a lot of work on that front, but I have to say there's no simple, easy answer.

TONI HASSAN: DOCS gets 170,000 notifications of children at risk each year. The ombudsman acknowledges that DOCS cannot investigate every one, but says it can be more working more affectively to discern the cases that are most urgent. Working closer with other child protection agencies would be a good start.

The Minister says Government will take on board the recommendations of the report, the first report such report into reviewable deaths over one year. In this instance, from December 2002 to December 2003.

Carmel Tebbutt says DOCS has a new five-year child protection plan which includes boosting caseworker numbers.

The New South Wales Opposition says it's all spin, and believes the report demonstrates very little has changed in the Department.

Those are the views, also, of a former children's court magistrate, Barbara Holborow.

BARBARA HOLBOROW: And it's all duck-shoving, it really is. They're going to make excuses. It goes without saying there aren't enough DOCS workers. Babies are dying. I get letters from all over New South Wales saying please help us, DOCS won't.

TONI HASSAN: The state's peak children's welfare agency in New South Wales is pleased reforms are underway, but says a lot more needs to be done to speed up results.

The head of the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies is Nigel Spence.

NIGEL SPENCE: There's been a lot of emphasis on mandatory reporting and recognising risk factors for children. And that's been fairly successful, but what hasn't been nearly as successful is ensuring that the follow-through then happens once the child has been identified as having some risk.

So, the great majority of children would be far better, even in struggling family situations, if children can remain at home with their own parents.

At the same time, there are some very, very tough decisions that have to be made, where children are in serious danger and DOCS and other relevant departments have to act swiftly and get the kids out.

ELEANOR HALL: Nigel Spence, Chief Executive of the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies in New South Wales, speaking to Toni Hassan.

By Toni Hassan posted 13 December 04


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