Territory Families records fewer child protection notifications and closes fewer investigations


The Territory Families Department finalised half the number of child-protection investigations it planned to last financial year, but child welfare advocates say the figure is a result of longer-term reforms that will improve the system.

In 2018-19, Territory Families budgeted the closure of 11,600 child-protection investigations but only completed 5,811, according to its 2018-19 report.

In the previous two years, the department completed 10,448 and 9,027 investigations respectively.

Territory Families Minister Dale Wakefield said she was not concerned by the figures, and explained the discrepancy simply owed to a change in how the department recorded its investigations.

Why were fewer investigations finalised?

"One of the things that we've done in the last 12 months, is when someone made a notification on an incident, a case was opened around that incident," Ms Wakefield said.

"Say someone rang about Dale Smith and said there was a fight between her parents and she was present, that notification would've set off an investigation.

"If I rang back in a week and said Dale Smith was staying at the women's shelter and her father came and made threats, that would have been a separate investigation under the previous policy.

"Now it goes into one case, so that all of the focus is just further information for Dale Smith's case."

Ms Wakefield said this streamlined system meant there were fewer investigations, but the same number of children and substantiations.

"Those are the figures that are stable which will give you a sense of the work that happens," she said.

"[A child] used to be able to have multiple investigations [in their name]. Now one child has one case and one investigation happening over their whole circumstance."

She said previously a child could have multiple cases, "with multiple workers … it was chaos, absolute chaos".

The drop in the number of finalised investigations also did not concern NT Children's commissioner Colleen Gwynne, who said real, lasting reform took time.

"When you look at that result, it's not fantastic, but what we would hope to see is an improvement in the percentage of investigations finalised next year," she said.

"This is a transitional issue that is a result of so much work being undertaken to change the department to look at longer-term reform. You just can't do everything."

Ms Gwynne said she would continue to monitor the number of child-protection investigations finalised by Territory Families.

'Unprecedented' drop in child-protection notifications

In the past financial year, the number of child-protection notifications received by Territory Families decreased for the first time in 20 years — dropping from 24,743 notifications in 2017-18 to 23,482 in 2018-19.

Ms Gwynne said reforms put in place three years ago by the NT Government were now starting to take effect.

"What we had three years ago was a system that was overburdened … people basically said it was broken and that was fairly accurate," she said.

"I think that the one child, one case policy is really making a difference."

Ms Gwynne said a drop in the number of notifications was "unprecedented".

"Already, you go, 'Wow, OK, something is going right here'," she said.

"It's a good news story, but nationally we still have a way to do … we know that we have poverty, we have intergenerational trauma, violence is still a big issue in our community and we need to address those complex social issues.

"There is no more critical issue in our society at the moment then what is happening to our children.

Ms Gwynne said looking at the figures, she felt there was a "turning point" in the Territory.

It's an improvement Ms Wakefield said was due to a number of factors, and the data would have to be examined over a longer period of time to find conclusive results.

"What we know is that there's been a whole range of work which could have possibly impacted," she said.

"But we know, for instance, alcohol-related assaults have also reduced dramatically in the same time.
"We know that if children were present at those assaults that would have generated a notification from the hospital or the police.
"We believe that it's through the good policy work and the investment we've got that those notifications are beginning to trend down for the first time in a very long time."

Last week, it was revealed there had been a 26 per cent decrease in alcohol-related assaults in the Northern Territory since the Territory Government introduced the country's first alcohol floor price and rolled out a range of new measures, including reinstalling the banned drinker register.

Higgins cautiously optimistic

Opposition Leader Gary Higgins said it was great to see notification numbers drop after a "significant rise" in the past three years, but warned more work needed to be done.

"It would be premature and risky to assume things have gotten significantly better, and we should continually strive for improvement in child protection," he said.

"We know numbers don't tell a full story, and as [Territory Families] director Luke Twyford was quoted [in the NT News], the change is largely due to a change in the notification system itself, not necessarily the number of children abused or the level of that abuse.

"We know that children in the NT face the highest level of disadvantage in the country, and we must not become complacent because of one statistic."

Mr Higgins said it was important to look at the bigger picture and consider the reasons why Territory kids were facing disadvantage and harm.

(Source)