Australia Still work to be done to improve Tasmania's child protection system, review finds

23:30  26 july  2021
23:30  26 july  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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A former health worker who blew the whistle on Tasmania's child protection system five years ago says she is "devastated" to learn reforms supposed to improve the system are yet to be fully implemented.

Former Safe Pathways manager Janne Holbrow spoke out in 2016, alleging the for-profit provider "didn't provide what they said they would".

"Our work cars weren't registered, our children weren't being seen by medical professionals, our children didn't have enough food," Ms Holbrow said this week.

In the wake of a review sparked by a series of allegations levelled at the broader child protection system, the state government announced the Strong Families Safe Kids reforms in 2016.

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The project acknowledged child wellbeing was a public health issue and that child safety required an "all of government, all of service system, and whole of community approach".

But a University of Tasmania evaluation of the reforms has found that while the intent of the reforms is supported, "there is still work to be done if … anticipated impacts on Tasmanian child wellbeing are to be realised".

It noted one of the greatest changes introduced was the establishment of what is known as the Advice and Referral Line, or ARL, which replaced two systems and is supposed to offer early intervention and support for children and families.

Review finds 45 per cent dissatisfied with ARL interactions

According to survey results released in the review, 36 per cent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their interaction with the ARL, 45 per cent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied and 19 per cent were neutral.

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"The evaluation has found general support for the introduction of a single entry point for those who may have concerns about children's wellbeing and safety," the report said.

"Concerns were raised about high workloads at the ARL leading to high staff turnover and a focus on the more significant cases at the expense of the wellbeing or early intervention aims of the ARL.

"For some, the ARL was a source of frustration and confusion as contact processes and procedures appeared to undermine their expertise and generate unrealistic professional practice expectations with no discernible increase in support for children and families."

The review also noted the line operated only between 8:30am and 5:00pm, and made 10 recommendations for the ARL specifically. Among those recommendations was an internal review of the recruitment of staff "including level of experience, qualifications and statement of duties".

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While raising concerns about the entry point for the child protection system, the UTAS report said the implementation of the ARL had been prioritised over a review of existing services which was promised in 2016.

"Concerns remain in 2020 about services and supports meeting the needs of young people at risk of or already connected to the child safety service and their families, with survey results showing that 69 per cent of respondents believe that the current system is meeting the needs of children, young people and their families to some extent, 4 per cent to a great extent and 27 per cent not at all," the review said.

'Lots of gaps that need to be filled'

An anonymous Communities Department worker told the review: "There's lots of gaps that need to be filled and it worries me that if something isn't done about some of those gaps, number one, you won't be able to do what Advice and Referral was all about, which is try to redirect kids and families earlier."

Ms Holbrow — who described her time working in Tasmania's child protection system as "awfully traumatic" — said she was heartbroken to hear things had not greatly improved.

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"It's absolutely devastating to hear five years later that things really haven't changed in any way," she said.

"It is hugely disturbing to hear these latest reports. People, instead of being moved around from department to department, need to become accountable.

"We had proof in 2016, we've still got proof, and we need people to be accountable."

Labor child safety spokeswoman Sarah Lovell said it was important the system was properly resourced.

"There is no more important responsibility of government than to look after the most vulnerable in our community," Ms Lovell said.

"Either the government does not place the importance they should on this, or they have no idea what they're doing, and both are unacceptable."

Figures released by the Productivity Commission earlier this year showed almost 80 per cent of child protection investigations in Tasmania took 29 days or more to even begin — the worst figure of any state or territory.

The majority of investigations then took more than 90 days to complete, again the nation's worst.

The state government has been contacted for comment.

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