Child protection advisory group to address ‘sobering story of disadvantage’

A new government advisory group has been established to respond to “overwhelming” demand on South Australia’s child protection system in the wake of intense scrutiny surrounding the deaths of several children.

Feb 10, 2023, updated Feb 10, 2023
Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The state government has appointed Australian Centre for Child Protection director and chairperson Professor Leah Bromfield to head the new “South Australian Child Protection Expert Group”.

The group has been tasked with developing a “long term vision” for the state’s child protection system and will focus on improving support for children in out-of-home care.

It has also been tasked with “quality of practice” improvements within the existing child protection system.

Bromfield will lead a group of government and non-government members from across Australia with specialised expertise in child protection. Their appointments are yet to be finalised.

Establishing a “South Australian Child Protection Expert Group” was a recommendation of New South Wales bureaucrat Kate Alexander’s 2022 review into the state’s child protection system.

The review was sparked by a scathing coronial inquest into the murder of siblings Amber Rigney, 6, and Korey Mitchell, 5, and was handed down months after six-year-old Munno Para girl Charlie Nowland and seven-year-old Craigmore boy Makai Wanganeen died from suspected criminal neglect.

In her 143-page “Trust in Culture” report, Alexander wrote that an expert group needed to be “formed quickly” to “give confidence to government and community alike”.

She wrote that she had uncovered a “sobering story of disadvantage” across the state, with one in four South Australian children reported to the Department for Child Protection before their 10th birthday.

The state government in November promised to “immediately” act on Alexander’s recommendation to establish an expert group.

Bromfield, who is based at the University of South Australia, said there was “overwhelming demand” on child protection services, but she was optimistic that the expert group could support “much needed system transformation”.

Child protection expert Professor Leah Bromfield. Photo: Facebook

“We need a long-term vision for how we transform the way we protect children in this state, which includes addressing the overwhelming demand on child protection services,” she said.

“This includes short-term changes to continuously improve current practice.

“Critically, it includes a long-term vision for transforming our approach to child protection across the whole of government.”

Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard described Bromfield as one of Australia’s “foremost child protection experts” who had worked with governments across the world to implement child protection reforms.

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She said Bromfield’s contributions to inquiries and royal commissions had “directly changed laws, policies and practices in the field of child protection”.

“An important step in better supporting children and young people and helping families address the interconnected issues that create entrenched and often intergenerational trauma, is the establishment of the Child Protection Expert Group and finding the right person to lead this expert group,” she said.

InDaily asked a state government spokesperson how much funding it had set aside for the group’s establishment, but is yet to receive a response.

It comes after Hildyard told state parliament earlier this week that authorities had completed welfare checks on 526 children who were identified as being at-risk in a review by former Police Commissioner Mal Hyde.

The checks were coordinated by SA Police and completed by workers from the departments for child protection and human services.

Hildyard said 45 children were assessed as having safety issues present within the family at the time of the assessment.

She said 12 children had been removed from their families, but of those, 10 were “already part of open and active cases” prior to the assessments.

Of the 526 children, 214 – or 41 per cent – identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders.

Sixty-five – or 12 per cent – were already in care when the welfare checks began.

“Prior to the commencement of this exercise, Government agencies were already working with 57 percent of the families of the potentially at-risk children identified and work with a number of these children and families will continue,” Hildyard told parliament.

Hildyard, who is also Minister for Recreation, Sport and Racing, has been the target of intense Opposition scrutiny this week, with the Liberal Party calling on the government to create a dedicated Child Protection Minister to oversee what it calls a child protection “crisis”.

But Premier Peter Malinauskas said he didn’t think that the sport and child protection portfolios were “opposing”, adding it was common for ministers to have multiple responsibilities.

Latest data released by the Department for Child Protection shows on December 31, there were 4810 South Australian children in care – up from 4740 on June 30.

The department received 6486 notifications of suspected child abuse or neglect in December, with 2796 of those meeting the threshold for further assessment.

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