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Child carers jittery as protection laws come into effect

By Geesche Jacobsen, Sydney Morning Herald,
5 December 2000

Teachers, police, child carers and health workers face fines of up to $22,000 for failing to protect children from harm and abuse under new child-protection legislation.

The laws, which take effect on Monday, will extend the responsibilities for child protection from the Department of Community Services to other government and community agencies.

They also focus on early intervention, require that problem families be put in touch with support services to keep their children, that children be involved in decisions about their future, and courts be the last resort for resolving disputes.

Other parts of the legislation, which was passed two years ago with broad support, will be introduced in July.

But now welfare workers, teachers and police claim they have not been adequately trained. DOCS workers say they have been given contradictory instructions and little chance to ask questions - claims denied by the department.

Under the changes, which come in the day before the school year ends, anyone working with children must report concerns about the welfare of children to DOCS - or face a fine.

Such concerns include: the physical, medical or psychological needs of a child not being met; physical or sexual abuse; and psychological harm, for example, because of domestic violence at home.

Even concerns for unborn children have to be reported.

The Public Service Association, which represents DOCS workers, said staff were given their new, extensive manuals only last week and found they contained contradictory sections.

Training had not been completed, the new helpline was understaffed and workers were confused and hysterical, said the union's senior industrial officer, Mr Greg O'Donohue.

The deputy president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Ms Jennifer Leete, said teachers were worried they had not been trained to pick up the early-warning signs.

But a spokesman for the Education Minister, Mr Aquilina, said all teachers had been given information and principals had received additional training.

The head of DOCS, Ms Carmel Niland, acknowledged there could be minor hiccups but rejected the criticisms, predicting the momentous changes would reduce the workload for DOCS staff because all child abuse reports would be processed thanks to the hotline (132 111).

Ms Niland said nervous jitters were normal when major changes were introduced. She said 1,300 staff had each received 70 hours of training and the helpline had 150 staff. Employees had been encouraged to report problems with the manual and help was available if they had questions.

But the State Opposition wants to see the introduction of the legislation - initially planned for last July - further delayed to iron out the problems.

Its community services spokesman, Mr Brad Hazzard, said: They are going to do more damage than good if they push on.

Ms Niland said the legislation was a world first.

Because it is about children's lives, and the consequences about getting it wrong, we want to assure people we are not doing this overnight, she said.

Things will not all automatically change over and it will take time for people to adjust.

The head of the Commission for Children and Young People, Ms Gillian Calvert, said people working with children would draw upon their experience when implementing the changes.

She announced yesterday that under new employment screening procedures administered by the commission, 14 people had been barred from working with children. More than 86,000 people had been screened for sex convictions or disciplinary proceedings since July.