Monday, January 25, 2010


Greater front-line roles on child welfare watch at school


January 25, 2010

TEACHERS, police and doctors will have more responsibility for child welfare decisions under changes to the state's child protection system that came into operation yesterday.

In preparation for the start of school on Thursday, most government school principals have been trained in new guidelines aimed at reducing calls to the overwhelmed Department of Community Services' Child Protection Helpline, which received 309,000 reports about suspected cases of child abuse or neglect last year.

Teachers and other professionals will have to decide whether or not a child is at risk of significant harm, and refer those they believe fall below the threshold to four new child wellbeing units in government departments rather than to DOCS case workers, who will concentrate on serious cases.

The Premier, Kristina Keneally, said the new system was about sharing responsibility for child safety and would provide better support for vulnerable families before they reached a crisis point.

''We want to prevent abuse and neglect,'' she said. ''Children's care is the responsibility of families, friends, neighbours, government - because it really does take a community to raise a child.''

The Minister for Community Services, Linda Burney, said more than 23,000 teachers, doctors, nurses, police and other mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse had attended information sessions about the new system, and training packages had been provided to more than 200,000 people who work with children.

She said an example of a child who was above the significant harm threshold, and should be referred to DOCS for immediate action, was one who came to school with bruises or other injuries and was fearful of returning home.

If a teacher noticed a child was consistently unwashed and had no warm clothes or lunch, the case should be referred to the wellbeing unit in the Department of Education and Training.

Its staff of 28 social workers would co-ordinate family assistance from a range of government agencies and non-government organisations.

The system's $750 million overhaul follows the recommendations of the Wood inquiry, which was sparked by the death of Dean Shillingsworth, whose body was put in a suitcase and dumped in a pond, and of a girl known as Ebony, who starved to death.

Ms Burney acknowledged the Government had failed children with some ''very, very real tragedies''.

Three other child wellbeing units have been established in NSW Health, NSW Police, and Human Services departments.

The acting NSW Police Commissioner, Dave Owens, said police made about 98,000 reports to DOCS last year. He expected about 60,000 would go to its new child wellbeing unit.

The director-general of Education and Training, Michael Coutts-Trotter, said teachers would discuss the system at a development day on Wednesday. ''The vast majority of principals have been trained or will be trained come Thursday.''

Teachers at non-government schools will still have to use the DOCS helpline.