HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.26 pm]: I rise tonight to raise my concerns, which I am sure all members share, about our responsibility as a community to ensure that we do everything we can to protect children from harm. I specifically want to speak tonight about some of the deficiencies in the Western Australia child abuse prevention system, most notably the lack of independent oversight to prevent child abuse in institutional settings; the lack of child advocacy services; and the need to put in place child-friendly complaint systems.
The Greens policy in this area is very strong. It states —
Children have a right to a loving and nurturing environment free of neglect, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, exploitation or discrimination.
It states also that the important task of raising and protecting children is a shared responsibility of the community as a whole.
We know that child abuse, whether physical, sexual or psychological neglect, is absolutely unconscionable. It can, and must be, prevented. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Australia is one of the only developed countries in which there has been no methodically rigorous, nationwide study of the prevalence or incidence of child abuse and neglect. Members should be concerned about that. The Australian Institute of Family Studies estimates that in Australia, between five and 18 per cent of children are physically abused; between 1.6 and four per cent are neglected; between nine and 14 per cent are emotionally maltreated; between four and 23 per cent per cent are exposed to family violence; and between five and 26 per cent are sexually abused. These estimates vary significantly. Therefore, we clearly need to do more work to establish an evidence base in this area. However, even if we take the lowest estimates in these ranges, it is clear that child abuse is occurring at significant levels. I note the particular vulnerability of children in care, including foster care, residential care and youth justice detention.
We know that the number of children in out-of-home care in Western Australia has increased from 2 630 in 2007 to 4 795 in 2017. That is an enormous increase of 82 per cent. We also know that children are now entering care earlier, staying there for longer and exhibiting increasingly complex behaviours. In addition, within WesternAustralia, over 1000 young people are being managed through our youth justice system. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse raised concerns about the ongoing deficiencies in our regulation and oversight of institutions caring for children. I quote the Honourable Justice Peter McClellan, AM. He said —
... the research appears to indicate that, overall, there does not appear to be either frequent or wide-ranging engagement by oversight bodies with matters concerning institutional child sexual abuse.
The royal commission also went on to recommend the establishment of dedicated services for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to make sure that they were able to receive ongoing advocacy and support. This is nothing new to members. I and other members here were in this place in 2012 when the Blaxell inquiry came down. It examined the abuse that occurred at St Andrews Hostel in Katanning and made for pretty harrowing reading. It outlined the importance of, and the need for, individual advocacy and support for children and also for the public sector to better protect children against sexual abuse. In addition to that, in June 2016, the Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People released a report that discussed this need. I acknowledge the work of Hon Donna Faragher and Hon Dr Sally Talbot who were on that committee and played a key role in that really important report. That report, “Everybody’s Business: An examination into how the Commissioner for Children and Young People can enhance WA’s response to child abuse”, is comprehensive and important. It identifies what is already in existence, what is working, what is not working and where the holes are. Importantly, that report highlighted that, again, there is a glaring gap when it comes to individual advocacy for children. Since then we have also had the “Statutory Review of the Children and Community Services Act 2004”. That report was released last year in November. It considered the functioning of the main piece of legislation that provides for WA’s child protection system. That report also identified the need for independent child advocacy services, a child-friendly complaint system for children in care, and independent oversight of out-of-home care, in particular secure care. Released that same month was the Commissioner for Children and Young People WA’s report “Oversight of services for children and young people in Western Australia”. Amongst that particular report’s recommendations was that we need to establish a robust and comprehensive system of independent oversight for all children and young people in out-of-home care. It went on to make a series of recommendations for establishing or increasing independent oversight for other cohorts of vulnerable children, including children who are in the education system, children, importantly, within police custody, and children who are accessing disability services.
It recommended that children engaging with child and young people services have access to an independent individual advocacy mechanism.
I note that we already have some excellent agencies within Western Australia. I think primarily the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services, the Mental Health Advocacy Service and the Ombudsman are some excellent models. But there are some significant gaps still in our oversight, particularly in secure care and police custody, and also that we do not have the capacity for individual advocacy for children. We know, as demonstrated by the Blaxell report and the royal commission, that it is too easy to dismiss, ignore or simply not believe what children are saying about abuse. It is really important that we consider establishing an individual child advocacy service, and that that also, like the other entities I have just referred to, is created independently of government to ensure it is able to respond appropriately when concerns about government agencies are raised.
I acknowledge that there is no clear model to follow for establishing this service, and I am not proposing to tell members what that service should be; that should be subject to broad consultation. But we know that it could be an expansion of an existing service or a new one. It could also undertake oversight of children in care, or that role could be done by a separate body. At the moment the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s role is one of systemic advocacy. It does not have a role in individual advocacy so it cannot deal with any complaints that come to its office. I recognise, of course, that this could be changed.
I recognise also that establishing a service will require significant investment and that is not something that is likely to be contemplated very seriously in the near future, but this is something that has come out of multiple recommendations over a considerable period of time. We know that investing in children is really essential, because, ultimately, we know that child abuse destroys lives. We have an obligation to ensure robust systems are in place so that everything possible is being done to protect children and to prevent child abuse. The royal commission has put forward some comprehensive recommendations and there is some really good work happening at the moment. I note again that the Commissioner for Children and Young People is already working with various agencies, businesses and organisations to try to increase practices that will improve child safety, but that is not going to fill the significant gaps that have been identified in successive reports. A number of reports have already identified those gaps. We need to start shining a light on this issue and get agreement to start addressing them as an absolute priority.