HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.23 pm]: I rise to speak again about the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of 13 children and young people in the Kimberley. Tonight I would like to speak about the contents of that report that related to our child protection system. As I have mentioned previously, one of the significant strengths of this State Coroner’s report is the individual stories it contains and the insight they provide into the lives of the 13 children and young people.

One case outlined in the report is that of a young girl who died by suicide in 2013. Her mother, whose life had been marred by alcohol and domestic violence, which resulted in severe injuries and ill health, was periodically not able to care for her daughter. This young child was clearly very vulnerable. She was living intermittently with her mother and members of her extended family. When she was six years old—that is, many years before she died—an individual raised concerns with the Department for Child Protection and Family Support about the child’s care. The coroner’s report states —

On 12 April 2006 (during one of those periods when the child was in the care of her mother) the Department of Child Protection and Family Support was contacted by a concerned individual who reported that the ... child had been left in the care of a man who drank heavily. This individual also reported that the child was not attending school and appeared not to be adequately fed. This person requested that the Department of Child Protection and Family Support make relevant enquiries.

Despite that report, no assessment of the child’s welfare was undertaken, and seven years later, when the child was 13 years old, she died.

The second case was of a young boy who suffered extremely poor health from birth. His doctor indicated that his was the worst case of failure to thrive that he had encountered. That boy was subjected to “sustained periods of neglect and abuse throughout his short and tragic life.” After investigation, neglect was substantiated at least twice by child protection services and support was provided to the child’s mother, but the child unfortunately continued to be neglected. He died when he was 17 years old.

Child protection had some involvement directly with the child or child’s immediate family in 11 of the 13 cases investigated by the coroner, yet only six formal investigations were undertaken. In four of the 13 cases, the coroner made adverse comments about the Department of Child Protection and Family Support, finding a deficiency or failing in the department’s actions. The coroner found that child protection had failed to undertake proper assessments about the wellbeing of the children and, as such, had failed to meet the objects of the Children and Community Services Act.

In his 2014 report following his investigation into suicide by young people in Western Australia, the Ombudsman also raised concerns about child protection and questioned whether appropriate assessment and response to cumulative harm was occurring. More than half of the young people in the Ombudsman’s investigation had contact with child protection, and almost half experienced more than one form of maltreatment and were therefore likely to have suffered cumulative harm. The Ombudsman also noted —

Child maltreatment, and its individual forms, has been identified in the research literature as a factor associated with suicide.

He found that child protection services potentially have an important role to play in preventing suicide by young people. These failings, which have been identified by the Ombudsman and the coroner, are very concerning. The grave concern I have is that if the coroner had not looked into these cases, how would we know that these failings were occurring? By the time the coroner or the Ombudsman are looking into these cases, it is clearly far too late. The only way we know that we have seriously failed to protect and support children is when a case hits the headlines, which is invariably for tragic reasons. The coroner’s findings, therefore, provide further evidence of why we need an independent mechanism to oversee service provision to vulnerable children. It is about time that we started looking at that. It is not a new idea, nor is it particularly innovative. It was recommended by the Blaxell inquiry back in 2012—for members who have not read that report, I have; it makes for harrowing reading— a 2016 report, a current inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the Department of Communities’ 2017 statutory review of the Children and Community Services Act 2004. Also, in November 2017, the WA Commissioner for Children and Young People also recommended exactly the same thing. Clearly, there is broad recognition of this need.

I have to say that the need is growing. Last financial year, over 5 000 children were in out-of-home care in WA, and this number has risen by over 90 per cent since 2007. Children are entering care earlier, they are staying longer and, tragically, they are starting to display increasingly complex behaviours. Aboriginal children, who constitute only 4.5 per cent of our population, nevertheless constitute 55 per cent of children in care. When children are removed from their families, we know it has a profound and long-term impact and can in itself be a source of great trauma. Removal does not necessarily improve their long-term outcomes, but it is quite obviously unacceptable for them to be kept in situations in which they are experiencing harm and neglect. I, of course, acknowledge that working in child protection and, in fact, working in remote and rural parts of Western Australia, can be extremely challenging. I am not suggesting for a second that it is anything other than an incredibly difficult job. I note concerns raised by members of the Aboriginal community that children are being placed into care because of neglect, when this has arisen as a direct result of poverty. Whenever possible, we should be ensuring that we assist children to stay in the family home with appropriate supports. I am devastated when I hear about children being removed from their families simply because of the effects of poverty. National data shows that WA, despite this, is spending a significantly smaller percentage of its child protection expenditure on family support or intensive family support than New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. I think this is an appalling situation. It is clearly an area we have to look at investing in. We absolutely need to have form in this area. We need to prioritise the provision of parenting support, early intervention and intensive family support. We also need to have, finally, independent scrutiny of our service provision, particularly for the most vulnerable children in our community, those who are in the child protection system. I think the coroner’s report clearly shows how we have failed these children. It is completely unacceptable not to act on these findings. These are the sorts of things we need to address and I hope this government will seriously turn its mind to establishing that independent oversight.


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