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Child abuse "red flags" dismissed or ignored, commission hears

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Signs that child protection worker Shannon McCoole had abused children in his care were dismissed or left unreported by Families SA employees, a royal commission has heard.

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Physical indications on infants who had been in McCoole’s care, among other “red flags”, were often dismissed by colleagues, the state’s Child Protection Royal Commission heard yesterday.

McCoole was last year sentenced to 35 years in jail for sexually abusing seven children, including boys and girls as young as 18 months old.

He committed the offences while he was employed as a carer for children in crisis by Families SA and private contractor Nanny SA, between 2011 and 2014.

McCoole’s offences were eventually uncovered by Danish police, who found images of child abuse he had created and posted on a global child pornography website, which he administrated.

Counsel assisting the commission, Emily Telfer, told the hearing that one girl in McCoole’s care referred to him as “Mr Paedophile” in the presence of other child protection workers.

But Telfer said workers dismissed the incident, assuming the allegation arose because the girl did not like McCoole, who was known to have a strict approach to discipline – using his “booming voice” and “imposing stature” to secure compliance from children.

In another incident described to the commission, a worker overheard a child telling McCoole “don’t tickle me there”, and the child later complained of physical pain. But McCoole’s colleague delayed reporting the incident, the commission heard.

Telfer said that when a report into the incident was eventually made, the child was interviewed by another worker who was untrained in forensic interviewing, in a place that was not private, during which the child made no disclosures of possible abuse.

The commission also heard of another incident involving an infant that raised suspicions of a fellow worker. The worker did not report the incident, resolving instead to keep “a closer eye” on McCoole.

Unusual and sexualised behaviour exhibited by children that had been in McCoole’s care was also dismissed by colleagues, the commission heard.

In addition, Telfer said, statements endorsed by McCoole on a psychometric test as part of his application for his job at Families SA indicated possible personality problems and psychological disturbance. But he was still offered the job with Families SA.

Telfer said that while it was tempting to consider failures to recognise signs of child abuse as “human error”, the commission would consider evidence about the culture within Families SA, and whether structural factors prevented McCoole’s offences from being identified earlier.

Families SA child protection workers will be called on to give evidence during the six-week hearing.

McCoole has offered to give evidence to the commission, but a decision on whether his evidence would be heard is yet to be made.

Expert witnesses will also be asked to give evidence to the commission on how child abuse might be recognised. The hearing continues today.

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