Office of Children and Families admits legal action over failure to provide information

Two children died while in government care in last 12 months.

New laws “to address extreme behaviours”.

 

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

The Office of Children and Families (OCF) has admitted that legal action is being taken against it over the alleged failure to disclose information to children’s representatives.
The office’s acting chief executive, Alastair Shields, made the admission after the Alice Springs News Online raised the issue in a report on February 12.
We also reported that the minister, Robyn Lambley (pictured), had since November last year refused to be interviewed about government child care issues and other matters.
The only response we received at the time was an offensive and wholly uninformed tirade delivered in a phone call by her media officer, Camden Smith.
Mr Shields has now said in a statement to the Alice Springs News Online yesterday: “I am aware of two legal actions taken by a child [independent legal] representative in which they have applied to the court seeking an order that OCF provide them with information about children who do not have upcoming court appearances.
“This application has been adjourned and no further comment can be made pending the court’s decision.”
However, Mr Shields says “no vital communications with agencies and people have been shut down” and the “OCF complies with all legal requirements designed to ensure independent scrutiny of child protection services”.
On other questions raised by the Alice Springs News Online Mr Shields says two children who were in the care of the OCF have passed away in the past 12 months.
And he disclosed that powers to “involuntarily detain children and young people in secure care facilities where therapeutic support can be provided to address extreme behaviours” are being created in a re-write of the legislation.
Mr Shields makes further statements on issues raised by the Alice Springs News Online but our requests to explore them further with the minister continue to be denied.
We quoted the source for our original report as saying that “easy options are likely to be taken, shortcuts are likely to be made, necessary expenditure may not be incurred, the work becomes slack”.
Mr Shields: “No. There are no details of what this allegation relates to.”
Have good staff left because they are disenchanted that ticking boxes is more important than saving kids?
No direct answer from Mr Shields except: “OCF staff have the opportunity to undertake an exit interview so that the Department can understand what factors impacted their decision. This enables OCF to put in place strategies to improve retention of workers”.
Are there enough facilities – including long term – to cater for uncared for and wayward kids?
Mr Shields: “OCF currently provides care for over 750 children.
“Home based care is known to be the best option for most children entering the Out of Home Care system.
“OCF is always seeking additional kinship and foster carers to provide a family-based home placement for children.
“OCF is currently undertaking a major project to reform the Out of Home Care system. This will focus on improving the type, number, location and cost of out of home care placements as well as enhancing the processes, infrastructure and services that support this system.”
Mr Shields says the OCF’s compliance with policy response times has substantially improved in the last 12 months: “For example, a recent comparison of figures showed 127 outstanding child protection reports as at 18 January 2012 compared to 12 on 18 January 2013.”
The Alice Springs News Online raised the question whether children can be kept under supervision against their will.
Mr Shields replied: “The minister … has announced the need for Therapeutic Orders to enable OCF to involuntarily detain children and young people in secure care facilities where therapeutic support can be provided to address extreme behaviours.
“This power does not currently exist and is being progressed through a rewrite of the Care and Protection of Children Act.”
Mr Shields made the following comments about the provision, by the OCF, of legal representatives for children and families in contact with it: “The Northern Territory Government funds independent legal child representatives to act in a child’s interest while the Government seeks protection orders in Court.
“This process ensures the Court hears from an independent legally qualified person on behalf of the child during the court proceedings.
“Recently correspondence was sent to all Alice Springs Child representatives by the Solicitor for the Northern Territory to confirm that their role ceased once the court matter was concluded.
“I am aware of two legal actions taken by a child representative in which they have applied to the court seeking an order that OCF provide them with information about children who do not have upcoming court appearances.
“This application has been adjourned and no further comment can be made pending the Court’s decision.

“It is worth noting that the Board of Inquiry considered the role of child representative and did not accept that the role extended to monitoring children in out of home care, that is once an order was made by the court.”

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