Thursday, November 27, 2008

Journalistic bent 2: on the NSW child protection report

Like many government agencies around the world with a child protection brief, the New South Wales Department of Community Services is greatly understaffed and underfunded to achieve such aims. This is a tragedy for both individuals and the community. On the one hand, children are utterly precious: their innocence, joy and freedom is something we all aspire too, but mostly lose as we get older. Everyone deserves the opportunity to experience those qualities as long as possible. On the other hand, studies repeatedly show that investment in early intervention (education, income support, parental training, etc) is more than repaid for, in the subsequent adult-span cost savings on health, mental health, crime, and the like.

So to the Herald, front page of Tuesday, November 25:

'High-risk only' child protection (by Adele Horin)
"ONLY children deemed at "significant" risk of harm will need to be reported to the Department of Community Services' help line under a radical plan to reshape the state's overwhelmed child protection system. Others will be referred to a new service to receive assistance.

The higher threshold under the state's mandatory reporting laws - achieved by inserting the word "significant" to the law - is designed to potentially triage tens of thousands of calls to the department to enable it to focus on the minority of children in serious danger."

That story survives on the Herald website here, albeit with the toned-down headline 'Mandatory laws to be eased' (a sub-head on the front page). It was indexed via the 'National' section of that day's web pages.

A more conciliatory version of the same article is accessible (here) at, via the 'Breaking news' section of the day before:

Inquiry recommends changes to DoCS [bylined AAP]

Only children at risk of "significant harm" will be investigated by NSW child protection officers under reforms that will also see other at-risk kids outsourced to the private sector.

The special commission of inquiry into child protection on Monday finalised its year-long investigation, releasing findings that said the Department of Community Services (DoCS) was swamped by reports that don't warrant its time and effort.

Inquiry head, retired Justice James Wood, has called for changes to the mandatory reporting system so DoCS is only notified of cases where a child is at risk of "significant harm".

Horin's a longtime Herald reporter and columnist on social issues. Looks like she rewrote the original wire story for the front page of the following day. That later, more alarming version probably got read by more people than the online version. At my count, the later version appears on 14 websites, all of them owned by the Herald's owner, Fairfax. The original wire story appears on 7, three of which are Fairfax. It looks to be standard practice that re-written wire stories gain the byline of the re-writer.

I have not attempted to analyse other media's overall response to the event, the release of the report by the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW. However, the head of the inquiry was Justice James Wood, who also headed the Royal Commission into the NSW Police. Without knowing his sociopolitical bent, he seems to have a reasonable reputation.

The Herald beefed up the story for the front page. Was it the right thing to do?


Anonymous said...

The Wood Inquiry that is claimed to solve the sad and tragic cases of child deaths by neglect and other toxic events, does not even address the Coroner or his role in the 40 page Executive summary.

Which for an Inquiry that was brought about by the public outrage, when being informed of a small amount of the actual cases of child deaths seems more than a careless oversight.

Especially given that there has been a 40% increase in deaths of children already known to DoCS this year, with negligible comment or coverage by the Minister concerned is utterly unacceptable.

Yet she managed to usurp any fulsome comment from Bruce Barbour by beating him to the release as part of the Senate Estimates committee, thus being portrayed as a side issue, of where she was at that time.

The claim that the Minister would discuss this after the release of the independent Wood Report, remains an issue of her skills at dodging the major issues, while the report date seemed to fluctuate based on the best time for the govt to release it.

Its approximate final date only given days before its release.

Notably, other important announcements were simultaneously made to fold into the same news cycle- thus lessening the impact of the long awaited report.

I see, the day after the release, that Ms Burney is still not fronting the media on this issue, but instead cozying up to Maxine McKew.

Ms Burney also was completely unavailable for further comment after informing the public of a record 40% increase in Child Deaths in a 1 minute grab.

Where was the follow up?
Where is the follow up now?

Ms Burney skillfully avoids dealing with the serious issues at hand, but keeps right up with her own PR. I suppose that is what the Federal President of the Labor Party does

….but what does the newest bumbling Minister of Community Services do?

She spends an enormous amount of time doling out press releases to small newspaper with non existent legal teams to ensure that her “news/spin” isn’t edited at all.

The 13AB section of the Coroner’s Act is similarly not mentioned at all at this Inquiry. This addition to the Coroner’s Act is purely designed to examine child deaths in precisely these circumstances. Yet surprisingly few of these Inquests are ever actually done.

After going to 3 of these meetings and speaking publicly at 2, I am amazed how little time was devoted to those wishing to address the particular area of child deaths. And the public 600+ submissions have been suppressed against their specific wishes.

One can only assume that discussion of how few actual 13AB Inquests there actually are, is completely off the agenda.

So is the blacklisting component, which I spoke of in relation to Melody Rose Conway at the Out of Care Hearing in Sydney, but it was removed from the official transcript.

The concept of the 13AB Inquest with the greater powers to investigate the events over the preceding 18 months thoroughly rather than the haphazard approach of the CDRT, seems like at the least that should be at the top of the list.

Yet it isn’t even mentioned in the Executive summary and is listed briefly in volume 3 pages 911 and 912 without mentioning all of the parameters applicable in the Coroner’s Act.

2 pages regarding the Coroner in the final volume, Justice Wood? Surely an Inquiry about Child Deaths deserves more in this regard, much more.

The CDRT which has had a name change to the Child Death and Critical Response Unit which has been roundly criticised since 2002 by former staff continues to be the preferred method for suppressing the role, that the lack of services, played in the child’s death. (See Anger at DoCS article at the abc website).

In Melody Rose Conway’s case the CDRT failed to adequately address where Melody was living at the time of her needless and avoidable death, such is the calibre of their investigation, even though the location was less than 10 minutes walk from their office.

They failed to look at the fact that Melody Rose Conway was stood over and threatened in said lodgings, the failed to look into the facts that, Melody had recently witnessed a murder at close range, even though police statements obtained, confirm this took place.
None of this was reputed to be known by the “investigation team”.

So why would Wood be advocating for more of the same level of investigation?
To absolve DoCS of its responsibility by investigating itself, as it has been doing?

The results have claimed a 40% increase and yet more thorough investigation of the events by outside agencies with better skilled and slightly more independent techniques are still refused?

The Coroner has the full rights of a Royal Commission but it is advocated strongly against holding these Inquests as they look over the last 18 months of a child’s life to determine in depth whether the appropriate strategies were applied.

Clearly these Inquests that may actually rightly conclude DoCS role by neglect or unconscionable conduct remain as secretive as ever.

Routinely Coroners have said in other circumstances that expose the culpability of the NSW govt “I don’t have the powers of a Royal Commission” as in the death of Vanessa Anderson and RNSH but clearly this is patently untrue, they do have the rights AND responsibilities to perform these functions as required by the Act.

For Woods not to advocate that more of these take place, seems ridiculous considering that the Inquiry was supposed to be about dead children and what happened to lead to their tragic downfall and death.

How can an Inquiry set up to examine child deaths fail to include this vital function that is regularly sidestepped?

Similarly Wood has said at these hearings that those over 13 have the greatest battles regarding the large gaps in services. Yet this too was not thoroughly addressed specifically.

My testimony where I stated that Melody was blacklisted and refused help 13 hours before her death was not in the official transcript. Neither was the fact that I stated that there was online chat about this by workers, even though it is understood to be illegal.
Why was this removed from my testimony?

Given the 2004 Ombudsman’s Report that claims only 16.75% of OOHC situations did NOT blacklist I feel that this area of neglect by govt needed to be addressed. (see this report at the Ombudsman's website)

I submitted a document that Wood refuses to release, along with 600+ others. I have written to him regarding my express wishes for the document to be public on September 3, 2008 but still have not been deemed important enough to reply to, even though my child died in DoCS toxic alleged care, still without any adequate investigation, redress or information.

None of those who spoke at the Inquiry were sworn in which is written in the Terms of Reference. Other specific conditions in the Terms of Reference were not honoured either, most notably immunity from prosecution. It must be noted that the tactics used to convince submission writers was verging on unconscionable.

For Wood to actively suppress and refuse to give reasons for this suppression against the express conditions put forth within that submission to the writer, makes his findings somewhat questionable to say the least.

The final report, to me seems to absolve any one body of responsibility for vulnerable children and yet set up a complex web of other govt agencies and alleged NGO services, but Wood’s report says will have seconded officers of DoCS at its branches? So who do these workers actually work for?

How is anyone going to bite the bullet for these children, when each can fob off their responsibility to someone else?

Wood’s constant regurgitation of the Brighter Futures mantra reveals that he remains unaware that this program at a time where the NSW Health budget has already been slashed is unable to fund such a program adequately. Yet it will however put NSW Health into the equation and given their past performances a happy outcome is entirely unlikely.

Given the reaction of the HCCC over many other issues and the revelation that with other serious issues they refuse to actually do any investigation anyway. They only investigate 11% of claims currently.

Melody’s case proves the deadly folly of the Brighter futures program entirely in exceptionally sharp focus, yet each body still 5 years after her death attempts to either blame Melody or someone else.

The relationship between the HCCC’s head person, Kieran Pehm and Jenny Mason remains questionable as a consequence, given that their public and private relationship surely presents a conflict of interest.
How many serious issues will be pushed under the bedroom carpet?

Wood’s magic wand approach to the DoCS dilemma is merely to foist responsibility onto other departments and thus create a situation where all those who drop the ball spend more time sorting out who’s responsibility it is, rather than attend to the child’s needs.

The use of the NGO’s who’s faint criticism of the hand that feeds them are the majority of the published reports. While these groups rely entirely on funding their criticism will continue to remain feint indeed.

"In the United Kingdom, Messages from Research proved to be a watershed in the development of policy and practice in child protection and child welfare (Parton, 1996).

"Messages" consistently notes the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of interagency child protection practice, alongside high rates of consumer dissatisfaction. This research, alongside the "poor value for money" Audit Commission report [1994], is the rationale for the current Government drive to "re-focus" work from "children at risk" to "children in need" (Dale, 1998:5)."

Obviously Wood didn't go with known research and opts for interagency approach, as a means of shifting responsibility and blame.

The NGO's are then able to get the same confidentiality and legally binding privacy agreements that were seen with both privatised prisons and detention centres.

Those went well didn't they? Well... no, but the details will never be known where the system broke down either as these details are completely off limits. Brace for the same.

S Simmonds said...

Thanks very much for your detailed commentary. I'm grateful someone has made the effort to offer a perspective.

I don't have enough knowledge to fully engage with your words, but I have a few isolated comments to offer back.

I can understand you may wish to maintain anonymity if you have a public role which you are obliged to avoid compromising.

I would reiterate the general comments I made at the start. All children deserve to have as unburdened a childhood as possible.

Despite some mistakes made by government agencies, I feel stongly that the capacity to intervene should be there, and should be properly resourced.

You clearly have very specific and indepth knowledge of these processes, and I'd have to defer to that knowledge.

However, if I were making a detailed critique of individual or institutional action/inaction, by temperament I would be inclined to figure reasons for the events, actions, outcomes. I can impute from your narrative some motivations, but I'm having difficulty tying it all together.

One possibility is that the various players don't have the power to achieve what they are responsible for, nor the desire to lay their jobs on the line to say it out loud. That could explain the actions of, say, politicians and _some_ of the public servants.

But I'm still not satisfied that I can work it all out. People do things for reasons - which may be wrong, bad or misinformed, but reasons still exist.

You did hint at some of the motivations.

(Further, my wife made the comment that one of the issues behind resourcing was a shortage of people prepared to take on the frontline roles. And the burnout rate would be high.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind response Stephen!

I agree that there must be a method of saving children's lives- but I do not believe that DoCS is the way to go at all.

I would rather hand over the responsibility to the police where the Evidence Act is employed and the "verbal" has been outlawed.

Another reason being the case in point of the "balcony kids" who there had been other reports to DoCs yet they chose to sit on their hands. The police however were quickly on the scene and HELPED those children.

There was also great evidence of their caring nature when describing these events to the media of the children clinging to their legs in appreciation, which prompted the interviewed officer to tears.

It is entirely notble that the MIA Ms Burney has chosen not to enact the ENTIRE children's Care and Protection Act forthwith , and yet further proof of her ineptitude has chosen the do nothing approach to its pinnacle by doing nothing until March.

The blood of all children's deaths from now to then she will never be able to wah from her hands!

I would also alert you to the Bloggerator who had written an open letter and it was ONLY the police who bothered to respond!

Bloggerator will be doing more articles on this suject, so keep an eye peeled

When a member of the public, and the blogosphere bothers to address these issues, DoCS in its usual fashion ignores them.


WE, THE PEOPLE have a right to the true nature of the debacle and yet the mainstream media goes for the quick knee jerk response rather than examine the details in depth, all apart from the excellent coverage by Ms Caroline Overington- that is a REAL reporter and I am greatly disappointed that she did not receive a Walkley nomination for her efforts.

Some of the reports there, are at least as notable, as the finalists efforts.

I have seen more backbone in Aeroplane Jelly than the media as a whole.

I do not have much time at present to address your fine questions in depth, yet I wish to acknowledge your reply with valid questions.

I intend to address them in detail asap
Kind Regards

there's a lot more to tell!