Whilst mandatory reporting obligations define the type of situations that must be reported to child protection agencies, the legislation defines the circumstances and the threshold at which the state may legally intervene to protect a child. The two are not aligned, although there is some support for aligning both thresholds.
In addition, not every report that justifies a statutory child protection intervention will warrant a criminal justice response. That determination is one to be made by the police, or in more serious cases of abuse or neglect, the office of the director of public prosecutions, where different considerations apply. The principal factor is whether the evidence would support a successful prosecution.
In several jurisdictions including South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory, reports of child abuse are directed to a centralised intake service or hotline. In Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, reports are directed to the district child protection department office closest to the child’s location, from which they are then referred to the police and/or an inter-agency team.
The systems in place for an initial assessment of a report and its referral to the police and/or the inter-agency team differ in each state and territory. In a number of jurisdictions, there is a positive obligation on the child protection agency to refer a report immediately to the police where the report contains allegations of harm that may involve a criminal offence.
The police must investigate allegations of abuse or neglect when there is a reason to believe that a criminal offence may have been committed. Invariably this involves interviewing the child or young person. The child or young person must also usually submit to an interview by community services caseworkers to assess whether there are legislative grounds for making an application to the court for a care and protection order, and to determine what family, social support and medical services should be provided.
The Commissions have heard in consultations that, even though there are cooperative arrangements in place between agencies for dealing with these matters, the police may not always understand the importance of their actions in providing evidence of abuse when matters of family violence or child abuse are, for example, raised in family law proceedings.
The Commissions are interested in hearing whether the current inter-agency protocols and memorandums of understanding are effective in practice to ensure that children are protected and that professionals in each part of the system understand the consequences of their actions for other parts of the system. The Commissions are also interested in hearing what changes are required in law to facilitate effective relationships between agencies.
Question 13–7 In practice, are the inter-agency protocols and memorandums of understanding between key agencies involved in child protection—such as the police and child protection agencies—effective to ensure that professionals in each part of the system understand the consequences of their actions for other parts of the system?
Question 13–8 What legal changes are required to facilitate effective relationships between agencies to ensure that evidence is obtained in a way that is appropriate not only for child protection purposes but also for family law purposes?
Consulting with child protection agency
When matters are referred to a joint or inter-agency team, the decision as to whether to initiate proceedings may be one made by the police in consultation with the child protection agency, or at least communicated to the child protection caseworker involved as directed under policy and procedure manuals. In Queensland and Tasmania, the police are statutorily required to consult with the child protection agency before investigating an offence against a child who is suspected to be in need of care and protection, or before initiating proceedings.
These provisions recognise that the child protection agency has an interest in decisions to initiate proceedings against a parent where such action may conflict with their work with the family to address the underlying risk factors that have given rise to the abuse or neglect.
The Commissions are interested in hearing whether child protection legislation should be amended to require police to consult with the relevant child protection agency before deciding whether to investigate an alleged offence against a child.
Question 13–9 Should child protection legislation be amended to require police to consult with the child protection agency before deciding to investigate an alleged offence against a child where the child is suspected of being in need of care and protection?
Question 13–10 Should child protection legislation be amended to require police to consult with the child protection agency before initiating proceedings in relation to an alleged offence against a child?