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Child protection reform "half-hearted" without mandatory reporting overhaul

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The head of one of the state’s foremost welfare agencies has warned a major child protection overhaul will be “set up to fail” without fundamental systemic reform – including renewed consideration of scrapping the existing mandatory reporting framework.

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InDaily revealed last week that the Weatherill Government is poised to detail its formal response to the Nyland Royal Commission tomorrow, with new funding and sweeping structural changes likely to be unveiled.

That’s likely to include greater investment in “prevention and early intervention for vulnerable families”, with a heavy focus on the non-Government not-for-profit sectors – as highlighted by Supreme Court justice Margaret Nyland across the 260 recommendations she handed down in August.

But one area unlikely to be reformed is the current mandatory notification regime – despite both sides of politics recently questioning its effectiveness.

InDaily revealed in June last year that Premier Jay Weatherill had asked Nyland to review the effectiveness of mandatory notification, arguing that one child in four was now the subject of a report and that the state had a “real problem” with the current regime, which has operated since the 1970s.

The move had followed private discussions about the state’s notification system with Opposition Leader Steven Marshall. However the Liberal leader later changed his stance on the matter, denouncing any move to scale back the current system as “completely unfathomable” and “quite frightening”.

Nyland’s report effectively ended the debate, unequivocally recommending that the Government “maintain the current mandatory reporting threshold set out [in] the Children’s Protection Act”. Indeed, the report urged the existing regime be broadened, by making mandatory notification training compulsory for all teachers, police officers, and GPs, and restricting access to the Government’s online notification hub “to notifiers who have completed mandated notifier training”.

But Uniting Communities CEO Simon Schrapel has told InDaily scrapping mandatory reporting “needs to come back on the table if we’re wanting substantial reform”.

“My personal view is we’re mature enough to move beyond [the current regime],” he said.

“Otherwise we end up having half-hearted reform again.”

Schrapel said it was futile to continue pouring additional resources into the child protection system “if all we do is keep responding to particular matters, as we do now”.

“It’s set up to fail,” he said.

“Because everyone will think there’s a Government department that’s going to protect all kids – and it’s just not going to.”

He said the mandatory notification system was ostensibly designed to make people responsible for protecting children, but argued it largely had the opposite effect.

“There isn’t any evidence that it’s actually made things safer for children since we introduced it,” he said, adding that it was “disappointing” that SA missed the chance for a genuine debate about the reporting regime.

“I’d love the debate to be back out there… I think we haven’t had a proper community debate, because it started and got stymied by Nyland, and that was a great pity,” he said.

“It’s the community’s responsibility to do some analysis on it.”

Schrapel argues child protection should have a broader remit “that moves beyond mandatory notification”, wherein “everyone should have a responsibility for trying to protect children”.

“If a child’s in danger you should report that – it shouldn’t be down to a mandatory notification requirement to ensure that,” he said.

He argued compulsory reporting had led to the pervading “report and dump” mentality, wherein the state’s child protection agency “screens out” thousands of notifications each year due to lack of resources.

Instead, he said, the system should “put prevention much more front and centre” and recognise that “you can’t fix child protection by having a well-resourced statutory system that only responds when you’ve got major incidents occurring”.

“A lot of this is a result of neglect, and that’s where we’ve seen the big rise in child protection notifications – and if you’re not addressing those issues, you’re going to get completely besieged,” he said.

Another welfare agency chief, SA Council of Service Service’s Ross Womersley, last week told InDaily he was concerned the Government’s shouldn’t rush its response to the royal commission because “you might find yourselves doing a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t really achieve what you want”.

“We need to do it in a way that isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction… if we get stuck just fixing Nyland we miss the point really,” he said.

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