26 September 2023

Ombudsman finds flaws in child protection

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The Victorian Ombudsman has uncovered serious shortfalls in the State’s ‘Working with Children Check’ scheme.

In her report Investigation into a former youth worker’s unauthorised access to private information about children, Ombudsman Deborah Glass outlined why the screening authority, Working with Children Check Victoria, was unable to consider “relevant and highly concerning police and child protection intelligence” to assess a former youth worker’s suitability to work with children.

“When he applied for a job in Victoria he was already the subject of multiple serious interstate child protection concerns and Apprehended Violence Orders,” Ms Glass said.

“But because he was never charged with a crime, these did not appear in his national police check, nor were they disclosed to Working with Children Check Victoria,” she said.

“Even more remarkably, the inadequacies in Victoria’s child safety screening legislation mean that these prior investigations would not have been grounds to refuse [the man] a Working with Children clearance, even if the screening authority had been aware of them.”

She said Melbourne City Mission failed to deactivate the former worker’s access to a Government information system, unintentionally providing him with continued access to sensitive information about vulnerable young people.

Ms Glass said the subsequent data breach was facilitated by inadequate privacy measures put in place by the Department of Health and Human Services, and that the Department failed to regularly audit access to the information system, “despite multiple warnings about the need to improve privacy oversight”.

The Ombudsman said her investigation found good intentions by many, but a lack of meaningful collaboration between Agencies meant Authorities failed to identify the former youth worker’s earlier misuse of the system.

Reassuringly, she said the failings appear to have been rectified, with systems and processes significantly overhauled.

“The biggest remaining gap is the need to amend the Worker Screening Act 2020 (Vic),” Ms Glass said.

“Working with Children Check Victoria should be able to act on information that indicates someone poses an unjustifiable risk to the safety of children, regardless of whether criminal charges are brought,” she said.

“This is imperative: The powers of Victoria’s screening authority are among the most limited in Australia.”

Ms Glass called on the Attorney-General and the Department of Justice and Community Safety – which administers the Working with Children Check scheme – to consider much-needed amendments to Victoria’s child safety screening laws to ensure Working with Children Check Victoria was able to consider all relevant information relating to a person’s risk to children.

The Ombudsman’s 89-page Report can be accessed at this PS News link.

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