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Govt to overhaul checks for people working with children

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The State Government will introduce legislation to overhaul the screening of adults looking to work with children and allow the sharing of data between multiple agencies – because “the right of a child to be safe trumps the right to privacy”.

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The damning Nyland Report into child protection systems, released earlier this month, found South Australia’s two-tiered screening system – an assessment by employers or a more rigorous check by the Department of Communities and Social Inclusion (DCSI) – was “clearly inconsistent and unsatisfactory”.

“Disparities and inadequacies in screening pathways constitute weaknesses that unsuitable applicants may be able to exploit,” Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s report said.

“Organisations should no longer be permitted to complete their own assessments.”

Under the proposed law, all assessments would go through a single unit within DCSI, which would be given the power to ban adults from working with children if they have been found guilty of serious crimes – such as murder of a child, rape or other sexual offences against a child – or if they have already have been banned from working with children under any commonwealth, state or territory law.

Child Protection Reform Minister John Rau told reporters this morning: “We should have a single agency doing this type of checking for everybody who is … working with children.”

He said that screening outcome could be reversed if a person later committed an offence against a child or children.

“We will be basically aligning with other jurisdictions around the country.”

Rau warned that working with children checks only identified people that the agency was able to say with certainty should not be allowed to work with children.

“It is an important risk management tool, but it does not relieve any employer of … being nevertheless vigilant.”

Weatherill said the checks were “a useful component in the armoury of measures which can be employed to guard against people with evil intent”.

“They are by no means a foolproof measure, but are an important consideration in clearing people working with our most vulnerable citizens.

“However, we also need to keep a balance so that unnecessarily cumbersome regulations and barriers do not stop ordinary people – particularly parents – from playing their part in giving our children the opportunity to enjoy a range of activities.

“The proposed changes achieve this balance.”

But Rau said he expected “a fair number of people” who had been given employer-assessed working-with-children checks would have to be reassessed by the centralised unit.

The Government will also introduce a bill to allow data on a person held by the public service to be shared with the federal government, other states and territories, local government and non-government organisations.

“We believe the right of a child to be safe trumps the right to privacy,” Weatherill said.

“One in four children will have a child protection notification by the time they reach 10 years of age.

“What that tells you is that child protection agencies alone cannot deal with the scale of this challenge.

“We have to work across agencies – agencies that have anything to do with the family of a child that may be at risk, whether that’s a housing agency, a disabilities agency, a family support agency [and] police.”

He said “really, any agency that comes in contact with a family that has a child within it – and of course agencies outside government” had pieces of data on individuals that could help screen out those who should not be allowed to work with children.

Meanwhile, the Opposition is calling for the head of DCSI, former Education Department CEO Tony Harrison, to be sacked from his new position.

Deputy Liberal leader Vickie Chapman today seized on revelations in Nyland’s report that a social worker’s evidence to the commission was edited by senior Families SA staff before being submitted.

The report says: “the Commission’s inquiries were repeatedly frustrated by Families SA’s incomplete compliance with summonses” and that “this came to a head … when it was discovered that before producing a summonsed document, senior staff within Families SA had made substantial alterations to it”.

“The extensive editing that had occurred after the report left the social worker’s hands was not declared on the face of the document,” the report says.

“It was presented to the Commission in a way that suggested it was the work of the social worker alone.

“This had the potential to mislead the Commission and misrepresent the social worker’s well-informed professional opinions.”

According to the report, the incident exposed “an absence of training regarding the Agency’s legal obligations for all staff involved in producing documents in answer to a summons, poor communication from higher management levels through to the social worker about the state of the report at the time the summons was served … [and] an organisational culture that encouraged uncritical compliance with direction rather than independent thinking”.

Harrison was transferred to lead DCSI when the Government accepted Nyland’s interim recommendation to split the Education Department from Families SA in June.

Chapman has written to Weatherill, claiming Harrison’s “failure to provide training regarding agency staff’s legal obligations” was “totally indefensible”.

“The problem with poor communication reflects directly and particularly poorly on the Chief Executive.

“…I believe these findings of the Royal Commission disqualify Mr Harrison from occupying any leadership position in Government agencies.”

But Weatherill dismissed the claims against Harrison, labelling them “a cheap smear from a Liberal Party that’s lazy and doesn’t have any ideas, or anything positive to contribute in the area of public policy”.

“One of the [child protection] reports that was the most successfully implemented was the Debelle Report – Mr Harrison was appointed within days of the Debelle Inquiry being handed down.

“He took it as one of his key responsibilities, the implementation of the Debelle Report, which is all about the assiduous application of processes in relation to protecting children.

“The Nyland report finds that that report was incredibly well implemented so I think that is a good example of why Tony Harrison is an appropriate person to be in charge of this particular area.”

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