In her annual report tabled in parliament last week, Guardian for Children Shona Reid stated her office was notified of 120 allegations of children in state care being sexually abused and/or neglected, where “the direct conduct or actions of the carer is alleged to have resulted in the child or young person’s exposure to sexual abuse”.
Of the 120 notifications referred to her office, 57 were categorised as “serious” – a 63 per cent increase from 2020-21, when only 35 serious care concern notifications were reported.
Reid receives care concern referrals as part of a process called “R20”, which involves the Guardian for Children and Young People, SA Police and the Department for Child Protection monitoring allegations of sexual abuse of children in care.
“It is challenging to draw any conclusions regarding the increase in R20 care concern referrals generally, and those determined as ‘serious’,” Reid told InDaily.
“There are many potential contributing factors, including the extent to which children disclose, the response of the adults around them, and variation in how care concerns are categorised.”
According to Reid, the number of care concern notifications was equally high in previous years.
She said it was possible that the current increase was prompted by the resumption of “normal” face-to-face contact post-COVID and an increase in community awareness.
“In light of these factors, we don’t have sufficient information to say whether there is a higher or reduced rate of abuse or neglect in care associated with these referrals,” she said.
“However, we remain concerned and continue take an active role in monitoring systemic factors that may contribute to risks of abuse or neglect in care.
“Sufficient resourcing for the office is vital for this work to continue.”
In her report, Reid stated that 36 per cent of the 120 care concern referrals related to allegations of harmful sexual behaviour perpetrated between or from children in care.
Those allegations varied from sexual behaviour considered outside the normal or age-appropriate range through to offences for which a child could be held criminally responsible if they are aged over 10.
Reid stated that the data outlined in her report did “not paint a complete picture of all allegations of sexual abuse of children and young people in care”.
“Other situations, including peer sexual abuse by other young people in care, and sexual abuse by ‘strangers’ in the community, often will not give rise to concerns about the quality of care the child received, and the Guardian may not be made aware of them,” the report stated.
Sexual abuse of children in state care became a political issue under the Marshall Government, following revelations two 13-year-old girls under the guardianship of the Child Protection Department’s chief executive were sexually abused by paedophiles.
The first case involved the abuse of a 13-year-old girl who had been in state care for about 10 years and who was preyed upon in 2020 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 girl became pregnant as a result of the offending.
The second case emerged after a different 13-year-old girl in state care was found to be living with paedophile Philip Edwin McIntosh for two months while she was pregnant to a different man.
The Marshall Government commissioned former District Court Judge Paul Rice to review both cases, with his report handed down in February last year.
The Department for Child Protection’s deputy chief executive Fiona Ward told InDaily last week that the department took all allegations of sexual abuse against children and young people seriously.
She said safeguards to ensure children in care are kept safe include:
- Thorough screening and assessment of all potential foster and kinship carers
- Ensuring all department and non-government staff, as well as carers and other adults living within their household have valid working with children checks
- Psychological suitability assessments for staff working in residential care
- Ensuring children and young people in care are aware of their rights and processes through which to make a report
- Abiding by the national standards for out-of-home care
“Listening to and acting on the voices of children and young people is critical to the safety of children in care. As soon as the department is made aware of an allegation of abuse, immediate action is taken to keep the young person safe and provide them with the necessary wrap around supports,” Ward said.
“The department works closely with key stakeholders including SA Police, the e-Safety Commissioner, other government departments and NGOs to ensure the ongoing safety of children and young people in care.”
Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard said the government would continue to look at how system improvements could be made to support children’s safety.
“On becoming Minister, I immediately set about improving the incident notification system to ensure I am provided with more detailed information more often and, in some cases, immediately. I also require thematic reporting so that we can continuously and more deeply understand system issues and how they can be addressed to improve the safety and wellbeing of children,” she said.
“I expect and receive frequent briefings from the Department for Child Protection about the progress on the implementation of recommendations from all reviews and inquiries.
“The current review of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 provides us with another opportunity to ensure serious care concerns are appropriately and expeditiously addressed.”
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