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Department too slow to act on child safety concerns: Ombudsman

Politics

A damning review of Queensland’s child safety system has highlighted bureaucratic delays in formally registering concerns as complaints – when little is done to protect kids who may be at risk.

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Even when complaints are formally registered, there is confusion in the Department of Child Safety over who should be making decisions, a lack of merit review, duplication of resources and a Complaints Management System that allows cases to fall between the cracks.

The Ombudsman’s review comes a month after the family violence murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children. Police are preparing a report for the coroner, that will raise any previous interaction between the family and authorities, while the Palaszczuk Government has promised to do more. However, a Domestic Violence Summit planned for today has been postponed indefinitely due to pandemic restrictions and may become an online forum.

Ombudsman Phil Clarke and his staff completed the review in March. On Thursday, the document was tabled in State Parliament – following a previous review and a 2013 inquiry – and revealed complainants who had a reasonable expectation the department would act were left disappointed.

“The department’s attempts to locally resolve a client’s concerns, before classifying them as a complaint, often resulted in a drawn out cycle of interactions with agency officers as the client’s concerns are escalated from Child Safety Officer to Senior Team Leader to Manager often without reaching a resolution or taking any action to rectify the concern,” the review found.

“Further, the concept of an ‘issue’ in the department’s Complaints Management Procedure has resulted in the department miscategorising many complaints as ‘issues’ rather than complaints. This often results in a frustrating cycle for the department’s clients before their concerns are correctly responded to as a complaint. As a result of local resolution and the use of ‘issues’, the department is almost certainly under-reporting its child safety complaints and is potentially wasting resources through duplication of effort. Even when a client’s concerns are classified as a complaint and the department’s CMS is engaged, the process is unnecessarily complex and confusing, once again resulting in frustration and delay. Decision-making in the management of complaints was a key concern identified in the investigation.”

The review found the department had failed to meet legislative requirements or national standards, and not implemented previous recommendations. According to the Ombudsman, the department also misinterpreted the latest findings during consultation.

The department has a new director-general, Deidre Mulkerin, who was previously a NSW education bureaucrat. A formal response to the review was being prepared, and Child Safety Minister Di Farmer acknowledged staff worked “in one of the most challenging and complex environments in Queensland”.

“They are working more intensively than ever before with families dealing with challenges including domestic and family violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues,” Farmer said today.

“We are always looking for ways to improve what we do to ensure we are keeping vulnerable children safe, and that includes improvements to our complaints system.

“Being open and transparent to external scrutiny is vital to ensure our systems and practices are the best they can be.

“We will take on board the findings in this report and use them to create a stronger system.”

Amid concerns social distancing requirements of the pandemic will put some people at greater risk, Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month announced $328 million in funding to enhance domestic violence services.

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