Child protection system is failing: calls for a full independent inquiry

In harms way: the child protection system fails to protect the vulnerable. Image: Nadia Alaoui.
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At least six child protection workers in Victoria were under criminal investigation since 2018, and one had previously committed a sexual offence. The Opposition says vulnerable children need better protection. Nadia Alaoui reports.

Of 19 child protection workers sacked or forced to resign over serious breaches since 2018, six had been under criminal investigation by Victorian police.

Victoria’s Minister for Child Protection Luke Donnellan said of those under criminal investigation, three were terminated, two received a warning or counselling, and one resigned.

“If we find that child protection workers are not acting appropriately and there are complaints, we take each one of these incredibly seriously,” Mr Donnellan told parliament.

The comments came during last month’s question time, in response to National Party MP Steph Ryan, who asked if those six people were working directly with vulnerable families and children.

Mr Donnellan said the department had investigated and dealt with the matters appropriately.

Child protection system is failing: calls for a full independent inquiry
Minister for Child Protection Luke Donnellan said all complaints were taken seriously. Picture: Facebook.

But Shadow Minister for Child Protection Matthew Bach said he wasn’t satisfied with the answer.

“This particular government has relied on overseas recruitment drives for child protection workers overwhelmingly from the UK … and as we’ve seen, the processes to check these folks is defective,” he said.

One of the six under investigation previously worked in the UK, where his position was terminated after he was found to have committed a sexual offence.

“It was … a sexual offence against the mother of a vulnerable child,” Mr Bach said.

A Google search could have told you that. This guy was given a Working with Children Check, allowed into a position of great power and authority over vulnerable children here in Victoria.

Mr Bach, who was in foster care as a child, said he had written to the secretary of the Department of Justice asking for a full audit into the background of all protection workers.

Mr Bach is also asking for a broader investigation into why the system continues to fail in protecting vulnerable children from harm.

“The vast majority of staff who work in child protection are just fantastic … a minority are not,” he said.

“So, I want to get to the bottom of it … I’m calling for a full independent inquiry, not just of this matter regarding staff, but the broader issue—why?”

“Why are we seeing this huge increase in the number of kids known to authorities, who should’ve been protected by the government, who are ending up dead?”

In an opinion piece for The Age, Mr Bach cited figures from the Coroners Court of Victoria that showed 65 children known to child protection authorities died in 2019-2020, an increase of 150 per cent since 2018.

Child protection system is failing: calls for a full independent inquiry
Matt Bach with Liberal Party leader Michael O’Brien. Picture: matthewbachmp.com.

Child abuse survivor Emine Zeybek, 21, said she did not feel safe anywhere even though her family’s case was known to authorities.

“My dad’s behaviour was everywhere. At my grandma’s house, my aunt’s house and even at school where cops came,” Ms Zeybek said.

The system only helps on a surface level and generalises situations. [The system] needs to help children and families in more ways than just counselling.

A Child Family Community Australian study said child abuse may have chronic and debilitating effects on some children and adolescents. This included developmental and behavioural problems, mental and physical health issues, substance abuse and risk-taking behaviours, and an increased risk of suicide.

Ms Zeybek said her own experience made her feel “trapped, helpless and on the verge of insomnia”.

Child protection system is failing: calls for a full independent inquiry
More resources are required to ensure the safety and wellbeing of at-risk children. Picture by Nadia Alaoui.

Mr Donnellan announced mid last year $77.5 million to support some of Victoria’s most at-risk children by strengthening staff and resources.

The model aims to deliver intensive and integrated support so families can access the services they need when they need them.

The current system focuses on hiring more social workers to help children already in vulnerable situations.

Mr Bach said it was important to prevent the abuse from happening, where possible.

“We’ve got to reorient the system towards preventing kids getting to that crisis point in the first place,” he said.

“And that that would be a fundamental change in the way we do things. It’ll cost a lot of money, especially at the start, but it’ll be worth it.”

If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues described in this paper, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or LifeLine on 13 11 14.

If you believe a child is in immediate danger call Emergency Services on 000.