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Fears child-protection system failing

Date

Noel Towell

File photo of public advocate Anita Phillips at her office in the city.

File photo of public advocate Anita Phillips at her office in the city. Photo: Melissa Adams

The ACT's public advocate is calling for major reform of the territory's child protection system after finding there may be ''many more'' unreported cases of systemic deficiencies and practice failures.

The advocate, Anita Phillips, made the comment in her response to the ''extremely disturbing'' case of Care and Protection officers taking a baby, born two-months premature, into care allegedly against medical advice.

The baby boy, who for legal reasons is known only as Baby R, was born in August last year and deemed to be at risk because both of his parents have mental health problems, although the child's extended family insisted it could provide the infant with a secure home.

The infant's family was left with a five-week battle to retrieve him after Care and Protection staff took him from Calvary Hospital in September last year while his mother and father were visiting. It is also alleged by the boy's family the move by child care authorities was in breach of an agreed protocol between hospitals and Care and Protection.

A spokesman for Community Services Minister Joy Burch said the department would not comment on individual cases but denied any knowledge of a child being removed against medical advice.

The case was one of several complaints raised with Ms Phillips in the wake of her report last year into the treatment of 24 children inappropriately placed in the care of the non-government agency, which had not been qualified for such work.

Ms Phillips is also conducting a review of 100 cases dealt with by Care and Protection, with the results due next month.

But in her response to the complaint from Baby R's family about their treatment by Care and Protection, Ms Phillips wrote that case had not been picked up in her investigation into Care and Protection.

''It is extremely disturbing to read the manner in which the case of this tiny baby, and your whole family have been treated,'' she wrote.

Ms Phillips also foreshadowed more revelations.

''My investigations revealed that there may be many more cases of systemic deficiencies and practice failures than I dare to think,'' she wrote.

''Because of this, my first recommendation in this interim report is to extend the review to all cases of emergency response over a certain period.

''The eventual outcome should be a reform of the organisational practices in the Care and Protection Services. One can only hope.''

Ms Phillips told The Canberra Times it was most common for her to refer cases, where a child had been released from care, back to Care and Protection so the agency could decide if it needed to review its actions and this practise had been followed in the case of Baby R.

In his complaint, which he took to the public advocate and to the minister in October, Baby R's great-grandfather alleged the child had been taken, three weeks before its due birth date, without due process and with no suggestion of violence, abuse or neglect. ''This baby has been placed at risk by Care and Protection Services ignoring laws and departmental instructions and being selective on which rules apply,'' the great-grandfather wrote.

Ms Burch's spokesman said frontline child protection workers had difficult decisions to make.

''Care and Protection works in the best interests of children in complex situations,'' he said.

''These decisions follow careful risk assessment and close liaison with professionals from other agencies, including health professionals.

''Care and Protection Services … is not aware of any cases where a child has been removed from a family against medical advice.''

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