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Child Protection Inquiries

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this very important motion before the Assembly today. In doing so, I want to acknowledge the contributions of Ms Le Couteur and Minister Stephen-Smith. I thank them for their input and for their willingness to work with me on this very serious matter. As a consequence of our ability to work together, I have circulated an amended motion.

Exactly two years ago, I brought a motion before this Assembly raising concerns about the lack of external review for child protection decisions in the ACT. That motion was informed by Cheryl Vardon’s 2004 report entitled ‘The Territory as Parent: Review of the Safety of Children in Care in the ACT and of ACT Child Protection Management’, often called the Vardon Report, and Laurie Glanfield’s 2016 ‘Report of the Inquiry: Review into the System Level Responses to Family Violence in the ACT’, frequently referred to as the Glanfield Inquiry.

The Vardon Report notes the lack of ‘external scrutiny’ for many decisions made within the territory’s care and protection system, including matters such as placement decisions and care plans. It also notes that many submissions from parents, carers and agencies had highlighted the absence of an independence grievance structure. ‘The consensus’, according to the report, was that, quote, ‘an independent mediator was needed to deal with these disputes’. It then recommended the creation of the Office of the Child and Young People Commissioner, a figure who was to have the power to convene an independent tribunal. The office was eventually created, but it was not given the strongly recommended tribunal powers.

One of the global concerns behind the Vardon Report’s recommendation was the need for greater ‘transparency and accountability in decision making’. Twelve years later, this same point was repeated by Mr Glanfield in the report of his inquiry. In fact, ‘improved quality of, and transparency in … decision making and practices’ is one of the four key outcomes presented in this document. The Glanfield Inquiry also notes the territory’s lack of suitable review of decisions and encourages that this matter be looked into in relation to what happens in this space in other jurisdictions. It has taken three years to get there, but I am relieved that the discussion paper on this topic was released by the Minister earlier this month, and I strongly encourage people to take advantage of the submission process by making comments.

In response to the Glanfield Inquiry and other reports that appeared around the same time, the ACT Government acknowledged that ‘increased transparency and the building of trust is particularly necessary in child protection cases’, that the territory’s care and protection system ‘must adopt a culture of transparency’, and that ‘proper accountability enhances community confidence in public administration, especially in complex areas such as statutory child protection services’. In short, Madam Speaker, we have a long history in this territory of nearly everyone agreeing that our child protection system would function better with greater transparency and accountability.

And this brings us to the specific case mentioned in this motion. I want to be careful what I say in relation to this case, Madam Speaker. It is complicated and prone to being oversimplified. I doubt that anyone in this chamber has a full grasp of the details. But the general outline involves five children having been removed from their mother and eventually being placed on 18-year orders by the court. Then, five-and-a-half years later – and after the mother’s contact with her children had been severely limited – this decision was vacated through a series of legal appeals.

This is a very serious matter, Madam Speaker. As one legal professional recently noted, losing one’s children and having only eight hours of contact with them per year is not dissimilar in some ways to serving a prison sentence. Now we all know that in some cases, people need to serve prison sentences. Likewise, we all know that in some cases, children must be separated from their parents when they are at risk of serious harm. But if a person were imprisoned for five-and-a-half years and then released on appeal, the obvious question would be what went wrong. And that is the question that is on the minds of a number of Canberrans in relation to this case. This has been especially troubling to the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, in light of the fact that these children are Indigenous Australians.

But this matter appears to have been resolved, so why refer it to committee? Let me begin by clarifying what are not reasons for this proposed referral. First, this is not a request to relitigate this case. The mother involved in this matter, I have been told, has no interest in that at all. Secondly, and I want this to be very, very clear: this is not a finger-pointing exercise. In fact, it must not be a finger-pointing exercise, especially in relation to the good women and men who do very difficult jobs everyday working in this area. Most people would not wish to shoulder the responsibility of being a frontline caseworker in such a complex area as child protection. I honour those who do and publicly thank them for their service.

So what is the point? As another senior legal practitioner pointed out only a couple of days ago, it is easy to say that a system is working if one only looks at the system. It takes looking at individual cases to see where the system may not be working so well. If, as many have worried, this case is evidence that something in our system went wrong, then we need to know what that is so that the system can be fixed. Consequently, in this motion I am recommending an analysis of this case specifically as an exercise to identify any systemic issues that we need to be aware of.

We need to do this for the sake of everyone involved. I understand that the mother at the centre of this case desires this analysis of her experiences specifically for that reason: so that, going forward, others can potentially be spared some of the difficulties that she has been through. We also need to do this for the workers as well. They have incredibly difficult jobs where they are daily faced with incredibly complex decisions. A healthy system will recognise this fact and be designed in such a way as to support and protect the people on the frontlines. Any systemic failures hurt literally everyone involved.

This specific case is unavoidably entangled with the issue of information sharing and transparency specifically because those who feel most deeply that something has gone wrong understand that they can’t raise these matters anywhere without being compelled as a consequence of the privacy provisions in the Children and Young People Act. Now, we need to have rigorous privacy provisions. Children need to be protected. Families need to be protected. Those who report possible abuse or neglect need to be protected. I don’t think any member of this Assembly would disagree with any of those points.

But concerns have been raised – and specifically in relation to this case – that our privacy provisions go too far. That they have, in essence, become secrecy provisions that make it difficult for reasonable and correct actions to be taken in cases where things may indeed be going wrong. I note here that the Minister has assured me that she is likewise invested in reviewing the Act in relation to providing the maximum transparency and accountability so as to restore and maintain community confidence in the territory’s care and protection system. I am grateful to have her support, and the support of Ms Le Couteur, on this matter.

And so, Madam Speaker, I am calling upon the Assembly to refer these two related matters to the Standing Committee on Health, Ageing and Community services for analysis and inquiry. I acknowledge here that the Minister has some reservations about this being the correct body to conduct these matters, but I am convinced that it is. I have complete confidence in this committee and its members. This matter falls squarely within their jurisdiction, belonging as it does to the Community Services Directorate. The committee system of this Assembly empowers this committee to conduct this inquiry in an open way, which will be necessary to get the needed information, but also in a sensitive way in order to protect and support individuals.

Madam Speaker, this amended motion reflects discussions that I have had with Ms Le Couteur’s and Ms Stephen-Smith’s offices. I commend it to the Assembly.

Thank you.

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