Guardian calls for monitoring power, funding after child protection scandal

South Australia’s Guardian for children in state care is once again calling on the Government to provide funding so that she can monitor all allegations of sexual abuse, following the release of a damning report into the Child Protection Department’s reporting protocols.

Feb 19, 2021, updated Feb 19, 2021
Guardian for Children and Young People Penny Wright. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Guardian for Children and Young People Penny Wright. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Guardian for Children and Young People Penny Wright, who is legislated to advocate for abuse victims in state care, wrote to Child Protection Minister Rachel Sanderson yesterday to request a meeting about former District Court Judge Paul Rice’s review into the sexual abuse of two teenage girls under the guardianship of the state.

The independent review was handed down to the Government on February 9 and made public on Tuesday.

It was prompted by two court cases last year involving pregnant 13-year-old girls in state care, who were found to have been sexually abused by paedophiles.

In his report, Rice described the department’s reporting protocols as a “mess” and said it was a “significant failure” on the part of Sanderson for not explicitly informing her department that she wanted to be made aware of sexual abuse cases.

He wrote that there are five other girls in state care who are currently pregnant, however the Government has refused to provide details about how they became pregnant or whether any criminal activity was involved, citing privacy reasons.

Wright told InDaily that she had previously raised concerns with Sanderson and the Department for Child Protection’s chief executive Cathy Taylor about “harmful sexual behaviour and sexual exploitation” of young people in residential care.

She said she was yet to meet with Sanderson to discuss Rice’s report, which “didn’t address the heart of the problem, which is how we can keep children safe from predatory harm, particularly young girls in residential care”.

“I have not yet had a meeting with the Minister to discuss the report but I have written to her to request one,” Wright said.

“I have previously notified the Minister and the chief executive about my concerns about harmful sexual behaviour and sexual exploitation of young people in residential care, including systems issues that my office has become aware of.

“I have not been consistently receiving notifications about sexual abuse occurring in care and I would expect that on the basis of the implementation of the recommendations of the review, I will receive formal (written) reports of serious incidents in the future.

“Increasing transparency and accountability in these systems will improve decision-making and safety for vulnerable children in care.”

Alongside her role as Guardian, Wright was appointed South Australia’s inaugural Child and Young Person’s Visitor in 2018, a position which grants her powers to conduct inspections of residential care facilities and to act as an advocate for the children who call the facilities home.

However, government funding to conduct the visitor scheme dried up in September 2019, meaning Wright has since been unable to fully carry out her functions.

InDaily reported in December that Wright provided Sanderson and Education Minister John Gardner with a business case that outlined how she could continue to carry out the visitor scheme and monitor all allegations of sexual abuse of children in care.

Wright told InDaily yesterday that she was yet to receive funding.

“We know South Australia has the nation’s highest reliance on residential care, but children and young people living in these facilities are at higher risk of harmful sexual behaviour and sexual exploitation,” she said.

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“This was behind the recommendations of the Nyland Royal Commission for a comprehensive, effective visiting scheme especially for these young people.

“I have been given the title to do this but no funding to implement it.”

Treasurer Rob Lucas said Wright’s business case would be considered as part of the upcoming State Budget.

“If the Guardian is making a budget bid this year it will be considered as part of the budget process,” he said.

“We’ll consider budget bids as best we can and make some decisions as a result of that – that’s the best we can say at this particular stage.”

A government spokesperson confirmed to InDaily that Sanderson had received a meeting request from Wright and a time was being arranged.

“Both the Department for Child Protection and the Minister regularly meet with the Guardian to discuss how we can continue to improve outcomes for children and young people in care, as well as individual cases,” the spokesperson said.

Wright said the Government could improve the safety of young people in residential care by educating them about sexual safety and “giving them confidence to have healthy relationships”.

A report released by Wright in December found that last financial year, her office was notified 94 times of children under the legal guardianship of the Department being subjected or exposed to alleged sexual abuse.

The 94 notifications represented 187 children, most of whom were girls aged between 10 to 14, who were looked after in residential care homes.

However, Wright noted that the number of children in care who were victims of alleged sexual abuse could be greater than 187, as not all children disclosed sexual abuse and her office was only notified of cases that constituted a “care concern”.

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