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"Serious systemic failings" in Child Protection Dept's handling of sexual abuse

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Over 180 children in state care were victims or at risk of alleged sexual assault last year, the Guardian for Children has revealed, amid concerns there are “serious systemic gaps and failings” in the Child Protection Department’s detection of abuse.

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Guardian Penny Wright said she was notified 94 times last financial year of children under the legal guardianship of the Department being subjected or exposed to alleged sexual abuse.

The 94 notifications represented 187 children, most of whom were girls aged between 10 to 14, who were looked after in residential care homes.

Some children were subject to multiple notifications, while some notifications related to multiple children.

Of the 94 notifications, 27 were deemed serious and 28 per cent related to alleged sexual abuse between children in care.

Wright, who is legislated to advocate for abuse victims in state care, wrote in her 2019-20 annual report that there were “serious systemic gaps and failings” in the Department’s protocols that prevent the detection of harmful sexual behaviour between children.

Allegations of sexual assault between children ranged from behaviour considered outside the normal age-appropriate range through to sexual offences for which children could be held criminally responsible.

Wright also pointed to “ongoing, targeted sexual exploitation” of children in care by adults in the community, with young people living in residential care homes particularly vulnerable.

Guardian for Children and Young People Penny Wright. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

It follows the shocking abuse case of a 13-year-old girl in state care who was preyed upon in January by paedophile Matthew McIntyre.

McIntyre was found guilty in September of grooming the girl using the teenage dating app MyLOL and having unlawful sexual intercourse.

The case sparked widespread community concern and exposed holes in the Department’s reporting protocols.

But Wright has revealed the 13-year-old girl was not the only child in state care who was the victim of sexual assault.

According to her report, one child – given the pseudonym “Billie” – was last year sexually assaulted by another child at a residential care home and later by an adult in the community.

“Over a period of several months, Shawn (15yo) engaged younger co-resident, Billie, in harmful sexual behaviour at their residential care placement,” Wright wrote.

“Shawn and Billie frequently absconded together, during which time there was no supervision.

“This exposed the young people to sexual exploitation by adults in the community, resulting in a sexual assault.”

According to Wright, her office “strongly advocated for an urgent placement move” for either Shawn or Billie, which was not actioned by the Department until five months later.

Asked why it took so long to relocate one of the children, the Department’s deputy chief executive Fiona Ward told InDaily she could not comment on any specific matter regarding a child in care.

Wright also revealed two young people with known histories of harmful sexual behaviour – given the pseudonyms Sage and Quinn – lived together at a residential care home, placing other children at risk of harmful sexual behaviour.

“Their co-location, and a lack of safety planning, provided the young people with opportunities for unsupervised contact, during which time one young person committed sexual offences against the other young person,” Wright wrote.

“DCP (Department for Child Protection) moved the young person who committed the offences to a placement where several other children and young people were already living.

“This decision placed further children and young people, who were known to be especially vulnerable, at risk of sexual abuse.”

One of the children was later moved to a sole child placement.

I am not confident that I am systematically informed about every case that the Department is aware of

Wright told InDaily children and young people had told her office that they don’t feel safe “year after year”.

She the number of children in care who were victims of alleged sexual abuse could be greater than 187, as not all children disclosed sexual abuse and her office was only notified of cases that constitute a “care concern”.

“These are allegations of abuse by a carer, employee, or volunteer of the Department or an agency – they don’t always include incidents of peer-on-peer sexual abuse or allegations about abuse by other members of the public,” she said.

“We know of cases where this is happening, through enquiries and other sources of information, but I am not confident that I am systematically informed about every case that the Department is aware of.”

Following former judge the late Ted Mullighan’s damning 2008 report into the sexual abuse of children in care, the State Government established a process – called “R20” – to monitor allegations of sexual abuse of children in care.

The R20 process involves Wright’s office, SA Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Child Protection Department working together to ensure that children involved in investigations of sexual abuse in care have an advocate.

Wright wrote that she had developed “serious concerns about the nature and prevalence of the issue of harmful sexual behaviour between children and young people in care” through her involvement in the R20 process.

She said there was a “severe shortage” of safe and appropriate placement options, which meant children with known histories of harmful sexual behaviour were placed with other at-risk children.

She also pointed to “insufficient” carer staffing in some residential care homes, “inadequate” training of carers in relation to identifying and responding to sexual abuse, and “unclear” reporting processes for carers and managers.

But Wright said her office was unable to properly scrutinise the R20 process, or to provide recommendations for reform, as it was not sufficiently funded by the Government.

“Additional resources are required if GCYP (Guardian for Children and Young People) is to provide the level of individual advocacy that was intended by recommendation 23 of the Mullighan inquiry… and to identify the systemic change,” she wrote.

Wright told InDaily she had provided Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson and Education Minister John Gardner with a business case to monitor all allegations of sexual abuse of children in care.

“I’m required by legislation to act as an advocate for any child or young person in care who has suffered, or is alleged to have suffered sexual abuse, but it’s impossible for me to meet this requirement if I’m not being notified or resourced to do this,” she said.

“The safety of these children and young people is everybody’s business.” 

A spokesperson for Education Minister John Gardner, whose Department funds Wright’s office, said the Government would consider the business case.

Fiona Ward from the Child Protection Department said the detection and prevention of sexual abuse was a “strong focus” of staff working with children in care.

The safety and wellbeing of children and young people in care is a matter that the department takes very seriously,” she said.

“Where there are allegations of neglect, physical or sexual abuse immediate action is taken to keep the young person safe and provide them with the necessary supports.

“All allegations of abuse or neglect, regardless of their severity, are assessed and receive a response from the Department.

“The most serious cases are subject to a full investigation. Criminal matters are referred to the police.”

Ward said where problematic sexual behaviour emerges, children were provided with therapy.

“It is a complex area of practice that we are committed to continuously improving,” the spokesperson said.

Sanderson said in a statement that the Government was committed to “improving outcomes for our most vulnerable children and young people”.

“We’re working hard everyday to ensure we’re continuing to give our most vulnerable children and young people – and their families – better outcomes and support in areas including early intervention and prevention, reunification, placement-matching, residential care, family scoping and foster care,” she said.

“Long-term changes take time.”

The number of alleged sexual abuse care concern notifications decreased by 15 per cent in 2019-20 compared to the previous year.

There were 4263 children and young people in state care in June this year, 36 per cent of whom were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander – despite Indigenous children only comprising about five per cent of South Australia’s total child population.

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