Statutory child protection
Child protection reports in NSW have increased every year for the past decade with DoCS receiving 309,676 reports in 2008/09. Aboriginal children and infants under one year old are still over represented with domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse the key risk factors identified in reports.
The NSW Parliament passed legislative changes in March 2009 that define a new threshold for reporting matters to DoCS. Once proclaimed, mandatory reporters must tell the Department if they consider there to be a ‘risk of significant harm’. This raises the reporting threshold and ensures the most serious cases come to DoCS caseworkers. The new threshold is planned to begin in January 2010.
Keep Them Safe recognises that protecting children is a shared, community responsibility. It gives a greater role to other government agencies and the non-government sector. The new legislation and other reforms change the shape of the referral pathway – so that concerns about children are addressed earlier and the right services put in place to meet their needs.
DoCS is using its expertise to help set up new child wellbeing units to serve area health services, the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, NSW Police, and the Departments of Education and Training; Housing; Ageing, Disability and Home Care; and Juvenile Justice.
The units – expected to start operating in late 2009 – will support staff to identify when a child is at risk of significant harm and in less serious cases, advise about appropriate supports the agency can offer and referrals.
DoCS is also supporting NSW Health to establish and coordinate new family referral services. They will be trialled in three locations in NSW. The services will put vulnerable families in touch with local support services and help prevent families from entering or reentering the child protection system.
The changes will allow us to focus on cases that need statutory child protection intervention.
In April 2009, the Council of Australian Governments endorsed the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children – a 12-year (2009–2020) reform program recognising the need for a national approach to child protection. DoCS will progress initiatives outlined in the framework that are consistent with Keep Them Safe.
Intake and assessment
The DoCS Helpline provides a centralised system for receiving reports about children and young people who may be at risk of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. Members of the community and mandated reporters can both make these calls.
The Helpline receives the bulk of Australia’s child protection reports, handling more than 166,200 calls during 2008/09. These calls are answered in an average of two minutes and 51 seconds, an improvement of five seconds on the average waiting time in 2007/08. The Helpline is required to answer calls in an average of three minutes.
Helpline caseworkers take calls from the general, education, distressed and health queues.
More than 73.3 per cent of risk of harm reports are referred to a CSC or Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT) for further assessment.
When DoCS receives a risk of harm report, a Helpline caseworker assesses the information to determine the risk of harm for the child or young person. Caseworkers record the issues and apply the criteria in section 23 of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. Information is entered onto DoCS client information system – the Key Information and Directory System (KiDS).
Targeted training strategies will help mandated reporters identify the new statutory threshold, avoiding unnecessary reporting and promoting consistency in reports.
Mandatory reporters will need to report ‘risk of significant harm’ directly to the Helpline.
Work is underway to revise Helpline practices and processes to reflect the new threshold. CSC and caseworker practices are also being revised to reflect the new model.
DoCS is working with the US-based Children’s Research Center to develop and test a suite of structured decision-making tools for caseworkers. There are plans to trial some of these tools for use at the Helpline and a small number of CSCs.
Structured Decision Making® helps to ensure each decision about a child or young person is informed by relevant information using a set of assessment tools to guide decision-making.
The Helpline set up its Professional Development and Quality Assurance Unit in June 2008 to support and help staff to deliver high quality and consistent standards of intake and assessment. It monitors cases referred to CSCs and JIRTs and uses the data to improve caseworker practice.
Sophisticated contact centre technology is being installed to replace the Helpline’s ageing technology platform. The upgrade will begin in October 2009 and deliver a number of benefits. They include:
- supporting the business improvements recommended in Keep Them Safe
- providing a more streamlined and contemporary experience for reporters who contact the Helpline
- improving stability and performance at the Helpline
- enabling future process and operational improvements.
Approximately 241 reports were made via the eReporting system this year. eReporting allows mandated reporters to make non-urgent reports via a secure website called DoCS Connect.
A trial of the online reporting service was expanded to include staff at the Domestic Violence Line and teachers from Catholic schools in the Parramatta diocese. They join more than 150 staff from public schools who already have access to online reporting.
Family case management
DoCS is working with the Department of Premier and Cabinet and other NSW agencies to pilot family case management projects in metropolitan and rural areas. The projects aim to provide an integrated case management response to families with a child or young person at risk of harm, who repeatedly come into contact with different agencies.
This Keep Them Safe initiative brings together staff from a range of government and non-government agencies to assist families with complex problems who need help from multiple services.
The pilot is expected to begin in October 2009. It will work with 90 families across nine locations in Sydney’s south west, and southeastern and western NSW.
Joint Investigation Response Teams
Joint Investigation Response Teams (JIRTs) investigate a report of child abuse that may be a criminal offence. They bring together professionals from DoCS, NSW Police and NSW Health.
The teams link the risk assessment and protective intervention of DoCS with the criminal investigation powers of police and diagnostic or therapeutic services of health workers.
More than 3,400 risk of harm reports were referred to JIRTs across NSW during 2008/09. Of these 63.9 per cent were in metropolitan areas and 36.2 per cent in regional/rural areas.
DoCS continues to implement reforms on behalf of JIRT partner agencies which were recommended in a 2006 service review. DoCS started internal structural and practice reforms to support continual improvement to JIRT work.
The JIRT Referral Unit (JRU) was successfully trialled and set up as the sole entry point into the program in 2008/09. The JRU is a central intake unit for case referrals with co-located staff from DoCS, Health and Police. It applies consistent criteria on incoming referrals which was instrumental in increasing the case acceptance rate.
Procedures that strengthen and promote joint decision-making were revised and re-trialled at two high volume JIRT sites. The trial highlighted the importance of co-location and DoCS is further revising procedures to enhance services in locations where DoCS and Police JIRT officers are not co-located.
Specific guidelines for JIRT work with Aboriginal communities were tested and introduced in Penrith, Tamworth, Liverpool, Chatswood, The Entrance and Parramatta during the year. Remaining JIRT units will adopt these guidelines in 2009/10.
Improving community services centres
From January 2009 a new process was introduced to measure the Department’s performance in early intervention, child protection and outof- home care against its business plan. This process enables each CSC to identify local strategies to address any issues and to contribute significantly to improving performance in these key areas.
DoCS is setting up new regional quality councils (RQC) made up of representatives from across each region to drive continual practice improvement and recognise good practice. Practice points arising from CSC reviews, critical event reviews and feedback will inform work for the councils. Terms of reference have been set and meetings will take place bimonthly or monthly.
The DoCS Enhanced Service Delivery project was completed in 2008 supplying improved resources, policies, procedures and systems that support staff to provide clients with better services. Sites across NSW got extra caseworker positions, early intervention casework teams and new or refurbished accommodation.
Professional development and quality assurance
The Professional Development and Quality Assurance program aims to support a culture of professional, evidence-based, high quality casework practice.
In May 2009, a trial of the CSC review and development process (CSC Quality Review) began in Blacktown and Goulburn CSCs. The results of this trial will contribute to the statewide roll-out of this review process to all CSCs.
DoCS has also developed the Aboriginal Client Pathway Tool which helps caseworkers decide where practice needs to be tailored to meet the specific needs of Aboriginal children, young people and their families.
This year, more than 550 new caseworker staff successfully completed an eight-week Caseworker Development course. DoCS and NSW TAFE developed a pilot program to allow staff who complete the course to gain substantial recognition towards a Diploma of Statutory Child Protection. Twenty staff achieved this qualification through the pilot program in 2008/09.
Briefings on best practice standards took place in February 2009 for operational staff and training will begin in July 2009. Casework specialists continue to deliver case consultation, case practice review, practice coaching and team learning activities.
Two courses for new managers casework were trialled on legal issues and case management. A third course on secondary assessment of risk of harm reports will be trialled in 2009/10.
Stronger, safer communities – Rosemeadow
Rosemeadow is located in the Campbelltown area and has a large proportion of public housing. Over time there has been a growing problem with antisocial behaviour such as violence and vandalism, drug-related activity and public drinking by minors, particularly in three streets of the housing estate.
In January 2009, a community disturbance involving violence and unrest took place. A multiagency Senior Officers Group was set up to develop an action plan for the Rosemeadow/Ambarvale area in response to this incident.
The group’s focus is to engage the local community to increase use of existing programs and opportunities and ensure services are targeted to improving community stability and safety.
DoCS Metro South West region is working with other agencies to implement the action plan and increase cooperation across government and local service providers.
There has been improved communication around strategies to meet local needs. This has helped to improve relationships with local residents, through community consultation and activities.
Improving policy and procedures
An independent evaluation of the NSW interagency guidelines for child protection intervention 2006 was undertaken in 2008/09.
More than 6,200 staff from government agencies and almost 1,000 non-government organisations took part in a survey on the guidelines. Response rates gave a large enough sample for a 95 per cent confidence level in the results.
Evaluation findings included:
- improved interagency collaboration on child protection matters over the last couple of years; a period which coincides with the publication of the guidelines
- support for additional practical advice about how to deal with child protection matters for Aboriginal children and families in a culturally appropriate way.
The evaluation’s results were considered in the context of the Keep Them Safe reforms underway across the child protection system.
An independent evaluation of the Parental Drug Testing policy (trialled over 12 months in four sites) was completed in December 2008. The evaluation report will inform the way DoCS conducts parental drug testing in the future.
Drug testing is crucial in situations where removal of a child is being considered. It is also important when drug use has already been a factor in a decision to remove a child and evidence is needed to determine whether they can be safely restored to their parent’s care.
Responding to children who display sexually abusive behaviour
The guidelines for responding to a report about a child or young person who has displayed sexually abusive behaviour towards another child or young person, were endorsed in September 2008.
They were published in early 2009 along with a supporting caseworker practice procedure. Practice Solutions sessions for caseworkers were held through March and April 2009 to support implementation.
A six-month trial of the Responding to Prenatal Reports policy began in June 2008 at the DoCS Helpline, Wollongong, Shellharbour and Coffs Harbour CSCs, as well as Figtree Private Hospital near Wollongong.
The policy aims to increase collaboration between DoCS caseworkers and NSW Health. It provides better support to at-risk pregnant women, in order to intervene early and reduce the likelihood their children will enter the child protection system. An evaluation of the trial is nearly complete and will inform further roll-out of the policy.
Aboriginal child protection
Aboriginal children are over represented in the child protection system with 12 per cent of all child protection reports referred for further assessments involving Aboriginal children.
Giving Aboriginal families a dedicated referral pathway into the Brighter Futures program is vital to preventing Aboriginal children from entering or re-entering the child protection system.
The NSW Aboriginal Maternal and Infant Health Strategy (AMIHS) works to improve the health of Aboriginal mothers and their newborn babies through culturally appropriate maternity care. Vulnerable families referred by AMIHS health workers are given priority in the Brighter Futures program (see Section 3).
Intensive family based services also help prevent children from entering or re-entering the child protection system.
Safe Families program
DoCS Western region continued to work closely with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to carry out the Safe Families program – part of the NSW Government’s response to the Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce. The initiative aims to tackle Aboriginal child sexual assault in five nominated communities in far western NSW. It does this through an integrated community development, child protection, early intervention and prevention, and riskreduction strategy.
Toomelah and Boggabilla are priority communities within broader NSW Government strategic frameworks. These include Two Ways Together and the Interagency Plan to tackle Child Sexual Assault in Aboriginal Communities. The Toomelah/Boggabilla Child Protection project is engaging communities through education and a whole-of-government response to providing and coordinating services for child sexual assault.
An evaluation of the project is being finalised. It will inform ongoing work to improve the statutory responses to child protection reports and help strengthen vulnerable families where children may be at risk of abuse or neglect.
Intensive support for Aboriginal families
More than 195 children took part in services or received support from an Aboriginal Intensive Family Based Service (IFBS) in 2008/09.
An IFBS provides an intensive, timelimited, home-based support program for Aboriginal families where children are at risk of entering the out-of-home care system, or are in care and a restoration plan is in place.
There are five operational IFBS sites in Mt Druitt, Redfern, Bourke, Casino and Dapto. Another site at Campbelltown is expected to reopen by the end of 2009. A new IFBS service is planned for the Hunter/Central Coast region in 2010 and consultation with four Aboriginal communities is underway.
During the year, we developed the IFBS Action Plan which includes 23 actions based on recommendations from a 2008 evaluation report. The plan will embed this specialist service into core business with three new IFBS functions to be incorporated into KiDS. This will help data collection and casework for Aboriginal children and young people.
DoCS is examining how families continue to be supported post-IFBS intervention – looking at options such as a priority pathway into Brighter Futures and better access to funded services. Community engagement will be a focus for work in 2009/10.
Improving court processes
Project Magellan is a partnership between the Family Court of Australia and DoCS. It continues to help in child protection cases where allegations of serious physical or sexual abuse are raised during Family Court proceedings.
DoCS provides the Court with summary information reports to help ensure court orders are made quickly and in the interests of the safety and welfare of the children involved. Project Magellan operates in all CSCs in metropolitan areas and is expected to extend across the state over the next year.
DoCS has partnered with the NSW Attorney General’s Department to pilot the Aboriginal Care Circle project in Nowra to meet the needs of Aboriginal families in the NSW Children’s Court system.
This year four matters proceeded to care circles, as an alternative to the normal court, by involving the Aboriginal community in determining care matters involving Aboriginal children and young people. An independent evaluation is planned for 2009/10 which will be used to develop and expand care circles in NSW.
In line with a recommendation of the Special Commission of Inquiry, Judge Mark Marien SC was appointed President of the Children’s Court. The appointment of a senior judicial officer to this role recognises the importance and complexity of many child protection cases facing NSW courts.
A new information sharing protocol between the Commonwealth and child protection agencies was set up in March 2009 under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children.
The protocol gives DoCS access to Centrelink information where it is deemed necessary to prevent or lessen a threat to the life, health or welfare of an unborn child, child/ren or young person.
A truly shared approach to child protection means greater information sharing between agencies involved in the safety, welfare and wellbeing of children and young people. Legislative changes flowing from Keep Them Safe will allow a broader range of government and non-government organisations to exchange information about a child or young person to help deliver services to them.
The still-to-be proclaimed Chapter 16A of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 will allow ‘prescribed bodies’, such as government agencies, NGOs and some health practitioners, to share information relating to the safety, welfare or wellbeing of a child or young person.
At present, information can only be sought by or provided to DoCS, and then only when that child or young person is ‘known to DoCS’. However once proclaimed, the same information can be shared between prescribed bodies – an important advance to achieve the seamless, cross-agency child protection system envisaged in Keep Them Safe.
A government agency or NGO will be able to ask for information if it relates to the safety, welfare or wellbeing of a child or young person. This includes information that may help an agency to:
- make a decision or undertake an assessment or plan
- carry out an investigation
- provide a service.
The new provisions are expected to be proclaimed in October 2009 to coincide with the start of the trial periods for child wellbeing units and the Family Case Management initiative.
Workshops are being held with stakeholders to discuss implementation, and details about the new provisions will be included in the NSW interagency guidelines.
DoCS is signatory to a number of memoranda of understanding (MOU) with other government agencies which support joint service delivery and collaboration. This year DoCS has improved those relationships through:
- an evaluation and review of the MOU with the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care on children and young people with a disability
- work with NSW Health to develop a best practice model to provide comprehensive health assessments for children and young people in out-of-home care. This will form the centrepiece for the revised MOU between the agencies
- a joint statewide training program between DoCS staff and NSW Health child and adolescent mental health services to improve understanding between the two agencies and better equip DoCS staff to make referrals to mental health services
- an evaluation of the MOU with the Department of Education and Training, which is completed and will inform revision of the MOU
- work with the Department of Education and Training on proposed legislative changes to compulsory school attendance legislation and on health and safety risks posed to schools by students with violent behaviours
- a review of the MOU between DoCS and the Department of Juvenile Justice.