Report into Vulnerable Children in Victoria

By Anna Macdonald
February 28, 2012

[with audio]

MARK COLVIN: The Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu, once described the protection of vulnerable children as one of the biggest crises facing the state.

Now there's a long-awaited report on the issue and it calls for sweeping changes to the way the state cares for children most at risk.

It's also suggested a formal investigation into how religious organisations respond to claims of sexual abuse.

But child welfare agencies are wanting to know where the money will come from for the proposed changes.

Anna MacDonald reports.

ANNA MACDONALD: One of the first moves Ted Baillieu made when he became Premier was order a review into Victoria's child protection services.

Countless cases of neglect had plagued the system for years.

TED BAILLIEU: The failures of the child protection system over the past decade in Victoria have been to this state's shame.

ANNA MACDONALD: Now, after a year-long investigation, 90 recommendations have been put to government.

Headed by former Supreme Court Judge, Philip Cummins, the panel's aim was to reduce the incidence and impact of child abuse in Victoria.

The Minister for Community Services, Mary Wooldridge, says the report highlights the huge demand that's been placed on the system.

MARY WOODLRIDGE: Over the past decade the number of children and young people in out of home care has grown by nearly 45 per cent. It's a massive growth; so that the total number of young people in care is around 6,000 on any one night.

ANNA MACDONALD: One of the key recommendations in the Cummins report is the establishment of a Children and Families Commissioner.

The Commissioner would have similar powers to an Ombudsman, be able to report to Parliament and undertake own-motion inquiries.

Lynette Buoy is the CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare.

LYNETTE BUOY: They'll be able to call for information and they'll be required to report on it. So the issue will be about what the focus of their role is that will be important.

ANNA MACDONALD: The report also recommends an expansion of mandatory reporting of abuse but Lynette Buoy fears the move will put extra pressure on a system that's already under strain.

LYNETTE BUOY: We know through the Productivity Commission report in 2012 that in fact Victoria does have some of the lowest levels of investment in children across the state.

So we'll be looking to see that those benchmarks change in a positive direction.

ANNA MACDONALD: In October last year, the review was widened.

The panel was asked to consider extending mandatory reporting of child abuse to include clergy and church workers.

Instead, the inquiry recommends there be a formal investigation into how religious organisations respond to claims of sexual abuse.

Professor Patrick Parkinson is from the University of Sydney.

PATRICK PARKINSON: I think the state's inquiry already had a great deal on its plate and the terms of reference for that inquiry were focusing on other issues. So the particular problem of historic abuse by clergy, which raises unique issues; unique legal issues, unique pastoral issues, was one which I always felt would be better dealt with by a separate inquiry.

ANNA MACDONALD: If implemented, Patrick Parkinson says the investigation will be the first of its kind in Australia.

PATRICK PARKINSON: The reason why I think Victoria needs to do it and why Victoria should go first is that there are particular issues in Victoria. Now I raised concern about the Salesian Order, which is based in Victoria.

The Salesians are one of the largest male orders and they have these significant concerns about the way in which the Salesians have handled child sexual abuse.

ANNA MACDONALD: While the majority of recommendations have been welcomed by the sector, the question now is how will the changes be funded?

Julian Pocock from the child welfare agency, Berry Street, says the state budget in May must include adequate funding to support the recommended shake-up of the state's child protection system.

JULIAN POCOCK: Now estimates are that Victoria per year is about $260 million shy of where New South Wales is. So we're a long way behind.

ANNA MACDONALD: The Premier today announced more than $60 million in funding which, among other things, will pay for the recruitment of 42 additional child protection workers.

The Government will consider the report's findings before committing to the recommendations.

MARK COLVIN: Anna MacDonald.


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