Minister under more pressure over child protection pregnancies

UPDATED: The State Opposition has ramped up calls for Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson to be stood down, following revelations five girls in state care are currently pregnant.

Feb 17, 2021, updated Feb 17, 2021
Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The Department for Child Protection has also admitted that it does not keep records of the number of pregnancies involving girls under the guardianship of the state.

The findings were made in former District Court Judge Paul Rice’s damning report into the Child Protection Department’s mishandling of the sexual abuse of two teenage girls in state care, released publicly yesterday.

One of the girls became pregnant as a result of the offending, while the other became pregnant before she entered into a sexual relationship with a paedophile she met at a nightclub, who continued his offending despite learning her actual age.

It has now emerged that five other girls in state care are currently pregnant.

During his inquiry, Rice asked the department how many pregnancies involving girls in state care had been reported over the past five years.

The department, he wrote, told him that it did not collect those statistics.

“In effect I was told that the incidence of teenage pregnancy was an ongoing problem across all social levels,” he wrote.

“I was told that normally pregnancy would not be reported because ‘…children in care are no different to… other children’.”

According to Rice, of the five current pregnancies involving girls in state care, none have been subject to an “Incident Management Procedure Report”.

The department describes incident management reports as “critical documents” that “must be completed after an incident has occurred” and brought to the attention of senior staff.

Despite describing a reportable incident as a “major, critical or catastrophic event or incident that has had significant impact on children” or “concerning sexual behaviour”, the department does not refer specifically to pregnancy in any of its reporting procedures.

Rice wrote that it was a “significant failing” of Sanderson not to explicitly tell the department’s chief executive that she wanted to be informed of pregnancies involving children in state care.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas this morning called on Premier Steven Marshall to replace Sanderson as Child Protection Minister, claiming she was “completely out of her depth when it comes to taking responsibility in a portfolio that has within it the care some of the most vulnerable South Australians”.

“Those young South Australians that are within the care of child protection, they need a Minister who is across their brief, doing their job, exercising the function of leadership and here what we have in the case of Rachel Sanderson is a Minister that’s running to ground and not even facing up to the most basic questions that go to the heart of this Rice review,” he said.

Malinauskas said Sanderson needed to reveal the age of the five pregnant girls, the circumstances of their pregnancies, whether they were sexually abused and whether they became pregnant in a state-run facility.

Opposition child protection spokesperson Katrine Hildyard said Marshall “must act immediately” and sack Sanderson.

“So far, Minister Sanderson has refused to take responsibility for any of these failings, for any of them whatsoever, instead, she’s had responsibilities taken away from her,” she said.

“Premier Marshall, the Deputy Premier, have been running a protection racket for Minister Sanderson.”

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In a statement to InDaily, a government spokesperson said that the department advised Sanderson of all current pregnancies involving young people in care.

The spokesperson said the Government would not discuss individual cases “given they involve vulnerable children and young people in care – and their privacy is paramount”.

“As recognised in the Rice Report, ‘much work’ is already being done by DCP and other children to support vulnerable children in care and this includes sexual health education, e-safety education and investment in new programs,” the spokesperson said.

“It is made clear in Judge Rice’s report that the current significant incident reporting processes need to be improved – and we’re fixing this as a matter of priority.”

Premier Steven Marshall told reporters this afternoon that he “absolutely” still supported Sanderson.

“Minister Sanderson is absolutely 100 per cent focussed on, I think, the most vulnerable cohort that we have here in South Australia – children in the state’s care,” he said.

“We inherited a mess, we’ve improved significantly, but what the Rice report reveals is that there were failures in terms of escalating the critical incident reporting throughout that organisation.”

Sanderson defended her actions yesterday, claiming she had made her expectations clear with the Department for Child Protection’s chief executive.

“I am getting regular reports from my CE of any significant incidents,” she told reporters.

“We are definitely on the same page and I am having reports of incidents regularly reported to me.”

In his report, Rice also found that the department was “riddled with cultural issues”, in which serious sexual offending against children “could be thought to be a sign of failure which may reflect badly upon the executive”.

But he noted that there was “little doubt” that the department was “doing much to support young children who become pregnant (and mothers), by providing accommodation and various programmes”.

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