Since the Child Protection Panel (the Panel) commenced its work in March 2015, there has been a profound change to the immigration detention environment and that at the regional processing centre (RPC) in Nauru. The number of children in detention facilities or the RPC has decreased very significantly. This is the result of a major effort to move children and their families into community settings within Australia, and the Government of Nauru implementing ‘open centre’ arrangements while the processing of transferees’ claims is expedited.
These shifts have not reduced the relevance of this report. Community detention is now the primary form of detention of children awaiting status resolution in Australia. The Panel’s recommendations will further promote the wellbeing and protection of children in community detention. Further, some of the Panel’s recommendations, such as incident inquiry, internet security, information management and intelligence, have broader application beyond the child protection context.
A key emphasis for the Panel has been a focus on strategies to improve child wellbeing, as well as improving the responses of the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection (the Department) to incidents involving children. Since the Panel commenced its work, the Department has already responded positively to many of the Panel’s observations.The report goes on to state
The terms of reference call for the Panel to ‘ensure that a comprehensive and contemporary framework for the Department relating to the protection of children is in place’.
Importantly, the Department’s Child Safeguarding Framework has now been finalised, providing high-level guidance for staff and service providers. A key recommendation of the Panel is the completion of the policy architecture that supports this Child Safeguarding Framework, and the alignment of service provider policies and key departmental roles.
The terms of reference further call for the Panel to ‘assess the adequacy of departmental and service provider policy and practice around the management of incidents of abuse, neglect or exploitation involving children’.
The Panel assessed 242 incidents of child abuse. Responses to just over half of the cases were assessed by the Panel as adequate or good. The response to child victims was comparatively better than the response to persons of interest (POIs).
The Panel has observed that the held detention environment shifted considerably during its tenure. For matters reviewed throughout this process, and indeed early in the Panel’s existence, departmental service providers tended to control incidents and responses, with the Department, in many cases, playing a secondary role. A greater emphasis on accountability for departmental officers has led to a significant capability improvement in relation to the Department’s ability to respond to incidents.
Observations on the data
The most vulnerable victim group identified through the case reviews was children under the age of 6 years, who made up 40 per cent of the victims. Of this group, 70 per cent were males. Just over 75 per cent of POIs were adults, with males represented at twice the proportion of females. Service provider staff or subcontractors represented less than 10 per cent of the POIs.
The data show that nearly 25 per cent of cases featured child victims who had previously been reported as being the subject of earlier child abuse. There was a relatively small group of 22 POIs that the Panel would characterise as recidivists, as they featured in approximately 25 per cent of all cases.
The Panel notes that, notwithstanding the serious nature of many incidents reviewed, less than 1 per cent of all cases resulted in criminal convictions.
There has been a very high level of compliance by the Department and its service providers, achieving a 95.3 per cent rate against the mandatory reporting requirements in each state and territory jurisdiction.The Panel's Key findings are
Incident reporting and categorisation
High-quality incident reporting is critical to establishing a good basis for investigation and effective action. This is an area where considerable improvement is required. Incident reports often tended to be very brief, with inadequate description of what was reported or observed. The Panel was also of the view that improvements to complaint management systems were generally warranted, as there was a pattern of premature closure of matters and a lack of transparency in the complaint process. The categorisation of incidents needs to be strengthened to accurately identify the number, nature and seriousness of incidents – including improving consistency across different service providers.
Child safeguarding inquiries
There is a need to significantly strengthen the Department’s capacity to conduct child safeguarding inquiries into incidents of child abuse. This will call for stronger leadership from senior operational staff, including coordination of multi-agency forums to facilitate the outcomes of child protection safeguarding inquiries. It is essential that inquiries are not finalised until all available facts are established and effectively responded to, even if a criminal investigation cannot proceed. The Panel noted that the Department and service providers often lacked the capability to effectively respond to complex incidents.
Improving management of information flow
The Panel found that there was a need to improve the flow of detainee- and transferee-related information within and outside the Department. Staff need to know where this information is held and how it can be accessed. In the longer term, integrating the currently fragmented information holdings relating to children and their families will be important.
When privacy considerations restrict the flow of necessary information, this can be largely overcome by seeking consent from detainees and transferees to share such information.
Community detention capability
There is a need to strengthen the capability of community detention service providers to ensure that staff have the skills to identify and act on emerging risks to children, and respond effectively to critical incidents. There is also a need to develop case management protocols relating to children to inform placement decisions and identify support needs. This latter observation applies equally in held detention.
The Panel acknowledges that it had the least amount of time to work on community detention cas-es, which is arguably the most important area moving forward. There is important work to be undertaken on identification and management of risk in the community detention environment.
The Panel found that the current approach to risk management focuses broadly on physical security and good order of detention facilities. In community detention, the Panel found no risk frameworks in place. It is important that the Department works with service providers to extend existing risk assessment mechanisms to ensure that they specifically address the safety of children in detention and those who are a threat to children.
The Panel notes that, in promoting the wellbeing and protection of children, the Department must work in close cooperation with state and territory authorities – both child protection and others. It is important that the Department continue to build strong relationships with those authorities to enable the reciprocal flow of information about child protection matters and establish a common understanding of the processes followed by each party so that complex cases can be effectively resolved.
The Panel noted steps taken by the Government of Nauru to improve its child protection services, and the improved capability of its local police, supported by Australian Government officials