Child Protection (Working with Children) and Other Child Protection Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

18th October 2016

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 19:40 :29 ): I too wish to contribute to the debate on the Child Protection (Working with Children) and Other Child Protection Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, which I broadly support. The bill amends a number of items of legislation. Schedule 1 contains amendments to the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012, to which I will principally speak. Schedule 2 contains amendments to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. Schedule 3 contains amendments to the Teaching Service Act 1980. Schedule 4 contains amendments to the Education (School Administrative and Support Staff) Act 1987.

I note the comments from the Opposition. A number of issues were raised that warrant consideration, although some of the comments referring to a private member's bill in the same arena are perhaps a little unfair and unnecessary because I imagine all members are very closely aligned in wanting to ensure the best protection for children in New South Wales. I am always supportive of new or refined legislation which genuinely protects our children. We will no doubt have to continue to be mindful of that and keep a watching brief on these areas in order to act quickly and responsively when anomalies arise. I note that these amendments are largely proposed to mend inconsistencies in existing legislation and are part of further reforms brought by the Government and the Minister for Family and Community Services.

I applaud the Minister on recent reforms which not only strengthened bans and checks on those who have committed serious sexual offences against children but also tightened the Working With Children Check regime. Again I am supportive of the amendments proposed in this new legislation but I take this opportunity to suggest that further reform of the check regime is needed. I wish to refer to a particular case as a case study in relation to this issue. I have a constituent in my electorate who has experienced ongoing frustrations with a system which has not been designed to fit her somewhat unusual case. The Minister and his staff are aware of this case. To his credit the Minister has asked for action to be taken to bring this longstanding matter to a resolution with the Office of the Children's Guardian.

The woman who I will refer to as Cathy has a story that is somewhat long and complex so I do not want to go into great detail about her case here. It is fair to say that it has been a somewhat arduous period for her and it is worth putting on record because it goes into some of the aspects of consideration of people under this legislation. Certainly there are parts of Cathy's past of which she is not proud—incidents which occurred when she was herself a juvenile and later when she struggled with the effects of alcohol. Now aged 36 and a mother of two, she has turned her life around, been clean from alcohol for six years, worked in government positions as a social worker and has otherwise been a respectable and upstanding citizen.

In October 2014 she applied to the Office of the Children's Guardian for a Working With Children Check. She submitted her application, later added references when asked, and waited. She is still waiting for that application to be determined—and remember that application was made in October 2014.

The main reason for that delay is that Cathy has several convictions for assault of a juvenile. Both of those charges occurred when she was also a juvenile. When she was 14 she assaulted another 14-year-old girl; when she was 16 she assaulted another 16-year-old girl. She does not shy away from those convictions or several others on her record, but she has well and truly got her life back together, furthered her education, attained skills, does community work and has, in my opinion, more than earned her place in the community.

Until May this year she was working as a sole practitioner at Broken Hill Hospital—allowable because she carried a Working With Children Check application number while her application was being determined. In February this year she applied for a similar position with Hunter New England Health. She was given the job but could not start until she received the check clearance. Further, Cathy has worked as a youth worker for four years where there was no need for the Working With Children Check and has also been subject to three risk assessments with three different New South Wales health districts and, with full disclosure, passed their requirements.

In June she was informed by the Office of Children's Guardian that her criminal history—those incidents she was involved in as a juvenile—had triggered a further risk assessment. So, to go back a little, she was working in a public hospital at Broken Hill without problem but could not perform the same job in the Hunter. She is still waiting for that clearance—the one she first applied for two years ago. I believe we need a system that allows for people who have been rehabilitated. Cathy made poor choices as an adolescent but has turned her life around, so surely the system should have the capacity to reciprocate. She was 14 and 16, a kid herself when those assaults happened. Regardless of how we judge that, a two?year delay in processing her application for a check clearance is, I think, very unreasonable.

I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot place too much importance on protecting our children—and Cathy also agrees with that. Assuming that people who have been down and out can turn their lives around—and I believe they can—then they are probably in a good position to help people who find themselves in poor social circumstance. As someone who has lifted themselves up, educated themselves and set out to help people through social work, I think Cathy should be applauded. As it stands, Cathy is now at home on Centrelink benefits because she cannot start the job she has been given without a final determination of her Working With Children Check. As I said, I was told only today that her case has been expedited, but I appeal to the Government at a time when it is reforming this system to consider cases such as Cathy finds herself in and ensure that the system deals with them fairly and in a timely manner.

Notwithstanding the particular case I have referred to, and as regards the current amendments before the House, I am very aware of the tragic outcomes that are possible when we do not do enough to protect our children or, indeed, when we get it wrong. I know that the Government, all members of this House and those who work in child protection in New South Wales take the issue very seriously. I commend those who work in that arena for their hard work, work that too often responds to tragedy, but which must at times also be very rewarding. These amendments reflect an ongoing commitment to improving the tools and the policies we have for protecting our children. We must continue to be mindful of needs and respond accordingly. At this point I believe this is a worthy bill. I commend the bill to the House.

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