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Ombudsman slams "simply staggering" child protection practices

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The Ombudsman has added to the long list of daming reports about South Australia’s child protection system, slamming a practice by the previous Families SA agency which he described as “repugnant to the objects and spirit of the Children’s Protection Act”.

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The Ombudsman released a report today on a “lengthy” investigation into the actions of the state’s child protection agencies in the “Families SA era”, pre-2017.

The investigation, into the alleged failure of Families SA to take action to protect a succession of children from a perpetrator, also examined the agency’s decision to close three particular cases without action.

The practice of closing so-called “intakes” due to a lack of resources has been previously criticised by the Nyland Royal Commission into the state’s child protection systems, which recommended the approach be phased out.

Ombudsman Wayne Lines found in his investigation that “the proportion of intakes closed for such reasons each year was ‘simply staggering'” and that the practice was “repugnant to the objects and spirit of the Children’s Protection Act”.

The report says “each of the three intakes closed for such reasons in the present case raised serious and compelling child protection concerns and had been assessed as such by the agency”.

“The Ombudsman remarked that in each case, the agency had no basis to conclude that the matters causing the child to be at risk were being adequately addressed so as to negate the need for a response.

“The Ombudsman observed that by closing each intake without further action, the agency could not reasonably be said to have caused an assessment of, or investigation into, the circumstances of the child to be carried out in accordance with section 19(1) of the Children’s Protection Act.”

As a result, the Department’s actions were “contrary to law” – a conclusion that has been accepted by the agency.

The Ombudsman’s investigation was prompted by a handwritten letter from a prisoner, raising allegations about Families SA and the actions of a number of individuals over the better part of a decade.

The letter outlined the alleged failure of the agency to take action to protect a series of children from an individual, identified by the Ombudsman by the pseudonym “Peter”.

The prisoner alleged Peter sexually abused two girls in his care – given the pseudonyms “Kate” and “Emma”. Despite Families SA being made aware of the allegations, the girls remained with him.

The agency acknowledged to the Ombudsman that it had received such allegations, as well as allegations that Peter had abused three other girls.

None of the allegations were substantiated by the agency at the time, however Families SA did acknowledge to the Ombudsman that there was a “high likelihood that Peter sexually abused Emma when she was a child”.

The agency’s response to Kate and Emma “plainly failed the two girls”.

The Ombudsman found that at no stage during the girls’ childhood did the agency inspect Peter’s property, interview the children’s mother nor the children, nor any of the notifiers or informants, nor any of the other alleged victims.

Rather, the agency referred the allegations to SA Police – an act that “did not absolve the agency from conducting a thorough assessment into each child’s circumstances”.

The Ombudsman found the agency failed to properly assess and investigation the concerns; failed to consider its statutory powers and “factors unique to the child protection jurisdiction”, and failed to adopt a holistic approach to the notifications about Peter.

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