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Week of June 14 2022 public hearings – Out of Home Care

In the latest public hearings regarding the Tasmanian out-of-home care crisis, the Commission of Inquiry heard evidence from non-governmental providers, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre as well as former staff from the department. The key message conveyed by Counsel Assisting, Ms Ellyard, was that “children who are placed in out-of-home care will usually have a particularly heightened vulnerability, often experiencing trauma before coming into the guardianship of the State”.

Many of the children are at risk of being forgotten in the broader community due to their various economic, social and often generational disadvantages. We know that there is an overrepresentation of children with Aboriginal heritage, children with disabilities and children with other potential vulnerabilities in out-of-home care.

Between January 2013 and July 2021, there were an estimated total of 439 allegations received of child sexual abuse in out-of-home care. Many children were the subject of more than one report in just that 8.5-year period. 

The Commission heard many issues which directly and indirectly contribute to the risks of child sexual abuse as well as systemic issues contributing to poor responses to reports of abuse. Issues included:

  • multiple placements of vulnerable children in need of stability
  • multiple handover points within the Child Safety System
  • high staff handover resulting in information relating to the child’s welfare often being lost, such as confidential information relating to sexual abuse complaints but also primary information in relation to the child’s special needs and interests that determine a suitable placement.

Another glaring issue raised by Counsel Assisting, Ms Ellyard, is the lack of any out-of-home care standards set in Tasmania. When asked why Tasmania is lagging in implementing a functional set of standards to govern out-of-home care in line with National Principles of Child Safe Organisations, the key witness for the Department of Communities, Secretary, Mr Pervan, noted that ‘there are no standards in place at the moment’. He also noted that draft standards will be issued before the end of this month. However, it remains unclear on the evidence to what extent a set of draft standards are enforceable.

Counsel assisting, Ms Ellyard, also raised that on the evidence the Commission may find:

  • a complete lack of sufficient systems to keep children safe;
  • that there are cultural issues in the department charged with the responsibility for keeping children safe;
  • that there are continuing issues about where decision-making power should reside for children in care, including whether or not Aboriginal communities should have greater self-determination for their children, and
  • how carers and children themselves can have their voices heard.

We also learnt that out-of-home care falls within a pivotal stage in a young person’s development, where failures in the system outlined throughout the public hearing lead to the perpetuation of a trajectory pattern of juvenile and criminal offending.

The gaps in the system that continues to heighten the vulnerability of children with a history of trauma travels through to the present day, with a survivor/ witness describing her experiences with the National Redress Scheme as dissatisfactory.

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Public Hearings were adjourned to 14 June 2022. 

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Friday 13 May 2022 Update

We have been on the ground at the Commission of Inquiry again for week 2 of the Public Hearings.

This week’s focus was on the Tasmanian Department of Education, and the Commission heard from survivors of teacher-perpetrated sexual abuse, including our own client Rachel* who provided powerful and insightful testimony.

The Secretary of the Department of Education, Mr Tim Bullard, was also called in response.

Each day the hearing opened with harrowing survivor testimony, which included teacher/perpetrator grooming and a pattern of taking the student/survivor away from the school grounds to commit the abuse, as a means of isolating them. 

The Department of Education has, at times, relied on this aspect of the abuse in order to defend themselves and the teachers involved. Arguing the teacher/perpetrator was not in breach of the teacher’s Code of Conduct because there was not a sufficient connection between employment, and the teacher acting outside their professional capacity by involving themselves in the personal life of the child after school hours.

Rachel gave her evidence on Wednesday 11 May, disclosing to the Commission details of the sexual abuse committed against her by her secondary school teacher in the early 2000s. This teacher, known to the Commission as Wayne, would take her into his private office, sing to her, send her love letters and sexually abuse her on a regular basis.

Unlike so many historical cases, Rachel’s mother came forward at the time and reported Wayne to the Department of Education. This courageous act was met with a series of failures by the Department, which included sending two male investigators to interview Rachel for 2 hours. The Department’s independent investigation concluded after two years of drawn out, re-traumatising, often repetitive interviews. During this period, no updates were provided by the Department to Rachel or her mother.  

The Department's investigation found that Wayne would not be sanctioned, and he was allowed to continue working for the Department of Education until January 2022.

The Commission heard evidence that Rachel was not alone, and that other students had also reported inappropriate conduct by Wayne.

Mr Bullard was questioned by Ms Bennet SC on the bungled handling of Rachel’s case, and the decision to allow a joint statement from the Department and alleged perpetrator to run in the local paper, publicly absolving him of any breach of the State Service Act Code of Conduct, and of moving Wayne to another position within the Department.

Mr Bullard offered an apology to Rachel, but did not really address the Department’s knowledge or explain why the Department handled the investigation the way it did.

In relation to the failure of the Department to update Rachel or her mother, Mr Bullard noted, alarmingly, that "because of the Personal Information Protection Act, at no time can we update the person who's made a complaint as to what stage that investigation's at, nor can we tell them that the investigation's complete or of the finding that's been made in relation to that, and that really concerns me".

This week's hearings and testimony made clear the systemic failures of the Education Department, some of which continue to present day. Long, drawn-out investigations that allow the perpetrator to continue employment despite evidence of abuse, combined with the lack of a unified, trauma-informed approach when interviewing minors reporting child sexual abuse, only further compound survivor trauma. 

*Our client's name is protected and Rachel is a pseudonym. 

Be sure to follow us on Facebook, as we'll be posting updates there as they happen. You can also ask questions either in the comments or via direct message, about the inquiry, or anything else related to abuse claims. 

You can find out more detailed information at the links below. 

Useful Links 

Online Live Stream

Commission of Inquiry: Scope of inquiry

Friday 6 May 2022 Update

 

Welcome to the Maurice Blackburn live blog, which will cover the public hearings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Tasmanian Government's Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings. 

My name is Zoe Papageorgiou and I'm a lawyer based in Hobart and Melbourne,  specialising in Institutional, child abuse claims. I'll be publishing updates to this live blog in real time, as the public hearings unfold. 

What is a Commission of Inquiry?

Commissions of Inquiry, like Royal Commissions, are independent of the government and are tasked with investigating a particular issue or a network of related issues, and providing recommendations for reform.  

Tasmania’s Commission of Inquiry is of particular importance, as it will be a comprehensive investigation that will examine, expose and propose reform in response to current and systemic failures within government institutions and government responses to child sexual abuse in Tasmania.

The Commission of Inquiry will be headed by three Commissioners, President Marcia Neave, Professor Bromfield, The Honourable Robert Benjamin AM.

What are public hearings?

The public hearings involve the Commissioners hearing from survivors, experts in child safety and policy, and other stakeholders to help inform the final reports, which will include the Commissioners’ findings and proposed recommendations for changes to child safety policies and practises.

The public hearings began on 2 May and will run for approximately 6 weeks. The public hearings will be organised in terms of the four main case studies of the Commission being: Department of Education, Department of Health (Launceston General Hospital), Ashley Youth Detention Centre, and out of home care.

 We will cover the Commission’s key points on a week by week basis here.  

Be sure to follow us on Facebook, as we'll be posting updates there as they happen. You can also ask questions either in the comments or via direct message, about the inquiry, or anything else related to abuse claims. 

You can find out more detailed information at the links below. 

Useful Links 

Online Live Stream

Commission of Inquiry: Scope of inquiry

 

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