Information sharing to assist families and children in the child protection system

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What the Commonwealth Government can do

Report to the Department 


Contents

Executive Summary

Chapter 1 - This Study

Chapter 2 - Focusing on families and children in the child protection system

Chapter 3 - Priority information on families and children in the child protection system

Chapter 4 - Current provisions for Commonwealth agencies to share information

Chapter 5 - Barriers to effective information sharing

Chapter 6 - Recommendations to facilitate and expand information sharing

Appendix A
References



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Executive Summary

This study assesses what the Commonwealth government can do to improve the effectiveness of information sharing for families and children in the child protection system. It focuses on how to expand the role of Commonwealth agencies - Centrelink primarily and, to a lesser extent, the Child Support Agency (CSA) and the Family Court - in providing information to child protection agencies.

Priorities for sharing information about children and families

Location information is the highest priority for child protection agencies. Child protection agencies need to know the whereabouts of families that are under active investigation, or the addresses of the parents of children for whom there are care arrangements in place. Agencies also identified information around changes in family circumstances - such as changes in parenting or custodial arrangements - as important for their work. Information is most critical during initial assessment stages, formal investigations, and when orders are being made in relation to a child.

Barriers to effective information sharing

Information sharing between Commonwealth agencies and child protection agencies can, and does, occur under current legislation. There is a low level of understanding of what information can be requested, and how to manage information requests. Key barriers identified are:

  • provisions in legislation for the sharing of information - while there are legal avenues available for information sharing, requesting agencies in State and Territory governments report that legal obligations are often given as a reason why information cannot be disclosed
  • the lack of agreed processes - child protection agencies are not typically aware of what sort of information Commonwealth agencies hold, and there is no national standard process for requesting information
  • risk aversion in organisations - stakeholders report risk aversion on the part of both requesting and responding, likely as a result of the two barriers above.

Facilitating and expanding the Commonwealth's role in information sharing

The current arrangements can be improved, without undertaking legislative change. We recommend three ways to facilitate and expand information sharing.

Agree a protocol for information sharing

A protocol for managing information sharing between Commonwealth agencies and child protection agencies would address key barriers to information sharing for child protection purposes. This would apply to Centrelink in the first instance, with a view to looking at other agencies such as the CSA and the Family Court.

The protocol would establish processes for information sharing. It would:

  • specify the information that can be requested from Commonwealth agencies and the format in which it can be provided to child protection agencies
  • set out a standard process for requesting information, including required authorisation (reflecting legal obligations)
  • specify what supporting information is required to request information, including evidence supporting the need for the information
  • include timeframes for responding to information requests - particularly important during investigations or when Court orders are being made.

Recommendation 1:
The Commonwealth establish with State and Territory child protection agencies a protocol for managing requests of information for child protection purposes. This protocol should focus, in the first instance, on requests for information to Centrelink.

Improve understanding and consistent application of legal thresholds for disclosure

In consultations, we found inconsistent views on the effectiveness of current arrangements for information disclosure, particularly around the application of legal thresholds. Child protection agencies reported only minimal contact with Centrelink, indicating that they were discouraged from requesting information because of perceived difficulties in getting a positive response. Conversely, Centrelink report that they can, and do, provide information in circumstances that meet their Guidelines. Centrelink also report that their staff always apply information disclosure Guidelines consistently, though this study does not have sufficient evidence to verify this statement. Given these differing perspectives on the effectiveness of the current process, further assessment by Centrelink of information disclosure processes is recommended. At a minimum, this assessment would be valuable to improve perceptions within child protection agencies on the current arrangements.

Recommendation 2:
As part of developing the protocol, Centrelink to review its guidelines for information sharing - particularly the application of the legal thresholds to disclosure of information - and the training of staff to ensure that there is a good understanding and consistent implementation of the guidelines.

Include Centrelink in the interstate alerts system

A component of the protocol should be the inclusion of Centrelink in the current interstate alerts system. The interstate alerts system is used by child protection agencies in all States and Territories (and New Zealand) to assist in locating a family or child where child protection concerns exist.

Child protection agencies are supportive of including Centrelink in the alerts system, noting the obvious efficiencies from building on an established process that focuses on the most critical cases in the child protection system. Thhas noted, however, that there would be legal and operational implications for Centrelink which would need to be considered and assessed more thoroughly.

Recommendation 3:
Make Centrelink a party to the current interstate alerts process used to find the location of families and children in the child protection system.

Consider the appropriateness of thresholds for disclosure in review of secrecy provisions

Establishing a protocol would provide greater certainty and consistency in the management of information requests to Commonwealth agencies and in the Commonwealth's response to requests. This protocol, however, would operate under current legal constraints for disclosure of information.

An assessment of the appropriateness of the thresholds for disclosure in the child protection context could be undertaken as part of the recently announced Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) review of secrecy provisions in federal legislation (due for completion in October 2009). The Community and Disability Services Ministers' Conference (CDSMC) should consider contributing to this review to ensure that child protection matters are adequately addressed.

Recommendation 4:
The CDSMC should make a submission to the ALRC review of secrecy provisions in federal legislation, identifying the need for child protection matters to be adequately reflected in legislation.

Further work

This report has focused on information sharing between Centrelink and child protection agencies, which States and Territories identified as their highest priority. However, States and Territories also raised the possibility of obtaining valuable information from a broader set of Commonwealth agencies.

Recommendation 5:
Undertake further work on opportunities for information sharing with a broader set of Commonwealth agencies, including Medicare Australia, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and the Family Court.

Action Plan

The report puts forward a suggested action plan to progress the recommendations.

Table ES.1
ACTION PLAN FOR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING INFORMATION SHARING
Recommendation Responsibility Timeframe
1. Establish a protocol between Commonwealth agencies and child protection agencies for information sharing, beginning with Centrelink States/Territories working with Centrelink By December 2008
2. Centrelink to review its guidelines for information sharing and the training of staff Centrelink By December 2008
3. Include Commonwealth agencies in the alerts process, beginning with Centrelink Centrelink By December 2008
4. Make a submission to the ALRC review on Commonwealth secrecy provisions CDSMC Within ALRC timeframes as advised
5. Undertake further work on opportunities for information sharing with Medicare Australia, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and Family Court CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group In time for COAG March 2009

Chapter 1 - This Study

1.1 Project brief

At its meeting on 3 July 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) requested advice from the Community and Disability Services Ministers’ Conference (CDSMC) on:

...how to improve sharing of information about families and children at risk between governments at the local level and between governments and non-government organisations.

This decision was prompted by recent cases that have highlighted the need to re‑examine current information sharing arrangements within and between jurisdictions and across non government organisations to ensure the safety, ongoing support and assistance of vulnerable children.

This project will form part of the advice to Ministers. It focuses on what the Commonwealth Government can do to improve sharing of information it holds about families and children in the child protection system with State and Territory governments and relevant non-government organisations.

A summary of the project objectives is given in Box 1.1.

Box 1.1
PROJECT OBJECTIVES

The project will:

  1. Review current protocols and legal and administrative arrangements for sharing information about families and children who are in a State or Territory child protection system:
    1. between state or territory governments and the Commonwealth, or organisations funded by the Commonwealth, and
    2. between non-government organisations and the Commonwealth, or organisations funded by the Commonwealth.
  2. Examine any legal or other barriers or impediments to effective information sharing within or across jurisdictions that arise from the operation or interpretation of Commonwealth law or the practices of Commonwealth organisations.
  3. Make recommendations on nationally consistent approaches to overcoming any such barriers that inhibit sharing of information, and facilitating the sharing of information to assist families and children in the child protection system.

The overall objective of this project is to improve the sharing of information about families and children in a State or Territory child protection system between the Commonwealth Government and State and Territory governments and relevant non-government organisations, to help ensure the safety, support and assistance of families and children in the child protection system. To reach conclusions about how to improve information sharing, this study focused on answering the project questions set out in Box 1.2.

Box 1.2
PROJECT QUESTIONS

  1. How are 'families and children in a child protection system' defined? Who is included in this category? For example, does the category cover families who have been notified or only substantiated cases?
  2. What information held by the Commonwealth is being sought about these families and children?
  3. What government and non-government organisations want the information?
  4. Why do government and non-government organisations want the information? How would these families and children benefit from the sharing of the information? What are the problems if the information is not shared?
  5. What organisations hold the information?
  6. When and in what form would the information be wanted?
  7. What happens now? How effective are the arrangements?
  8. What are the current legal and administrative arrangements (including protocols and agreements) relevant to the sharing of the information?
  9. What are the legal, practice or other barriers to effective information sharing?
  10. What can be done to improve the sharing of information?

1.2 Study methodology

This study was conducted in a five week period in August to early September 2008. In this short timeframe, the study team focused its efforts on consulting with relevant Commonwealth agencies, State and Territory governments and a small number of NGO representatives. Interviews were conducted with:

  • representatives from child protection agencies in each State and Territory (with the exception of the Northern Territory)
  • Centrelink
  • the Child Support Agency (CSA)
  • the former Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA)
  • the Australian Government Attorney General's Department
  • the Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
  • representatives from Uniting Care, Child Protection Society and Family Life.

In addition, two meetings were held with the CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group, and one meeting was held with the NGO Coalition.

Following interviews, Centrelink and CSA provided source documents and data, as did some State and Territory representatives. These documents, along with relevant legislation and guidelines, were key information sources for this study.

1.3 This Report

The remaining chapters in this report cover the following:

  • chapter 2 discusses how families and children in the child protection system are defined, and the priority times for information sharing
  • chapter 3 sets out the priority information for child protection agencies, and how this compares with information held by Commonwealth agencies
  • chapter 4 describes how information sharing currently occurs, including legislative conditions for information disclosure
  • chapter 5 identifies the key barriers to effective information sharing
  • chapter 6 puts forward recommendations to improve information sharing arrangements.

Chapter 2 - Focusing on families and children in the child protection system

2.1 Introduction

As noted in Chapter 1, COAG is seeking advice on how to improve the sharing of information about families and children at risk. This is potentially a relatively broad category of families and children, which does not have an accepted definition between - and possibility even within - jurisdictions.

In scoping the present study we were mindful of the need to produce a report that would meet the reporting timelines for the next meeting of COAG on 2 October 2008. To ensure we could meet the timelines, this study focuses on the more narrowly defined population of families and children in the child protection system. However, it is important to highlight that in doing so we recognise that this is just the first step in addressing the COAG reference.

Within this scope it is therefore important to identify those families and children that are the focus of recommendations in this first stage of advice to COAG. This chapter provides a discussion on the key parameters that can be used in identifying families and children in the child protection system and how these can be applied to the information needs of child protection agencies. That is, what is the priority group, within the child protection system, for which information sharing is most important?

2.2 Defining families and children in the child protection system

Across Australia, organisations, individuals and governments define 'families and children in the child protection system' differently. Children and families may have contact with the statutory child protection system at many levels reflecting the stages in the child protection process.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provides the following summary of the stages of the child protection process across all jurisdictions:

Although there are differences between states and territories that affect the comparability of child protection data, the main stages of the process are broadly similar across jurisdictions. Reports of suspected abuse or neglect can lead to the matter being dealt with as a family support issue (whereupon services or information will be provided) or as a child protection notification. (In Tasmania, however, all reports to the department are recorded as a notification).

Departments then determine if a notification requires an investigation or is better dealt with by other means such as referral to other organisations or family support services. (In Queensland, however, all notifications must be investigated). If an investigation is carried out, the outcome can be a substantiation, meaning that the investigating authority concludes that the child has been, is being, or is likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed. Substantiations can (but do not always) lead to a child being placed on a care and protection order or in out-of-home care. In some jurisdictions, children can also be placed on a care and protection order or in out-of-home care for other reasons. (AIHW 2008, p.ix)

Reflecting the views of the CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group, for this report 'families and children in the child protection system' are defined as those children (and their families) in any of the following groups:

  • the subject of a current child protection notification
  • the subject of a child protection investigation in progress
  • the subject of a child protection notification that has been substantiated - 'a substantiation'
  • on a current care and protection order or in out-of-home care.

On this basis, a child or family may move in and out of the child protection system at any given time. They may be the subject of a notification that is not investigated, instead being referred on to a family support service. In that instance the child would not continue to be the subject of an active case in child protection system, though they may move back into the system if another notification is made.

Consultations for this study found that the distinction between the child protection system and the broader group of children and families 'at risk' is not as clear in some States and Territories. For instance, an NGO stakeholder from Victoria also considered that some 'at-risk' families in Victoria are in the child protection system. This reflects the Victorian model where 'Child Wellbeing reports' can be made to NGOs for assessment. In this model, NGOs are able to gain access to client information in order to make assessments and therefore, this stakeholder considered that these families should be included in the definition of 'families and children in the child protection system'. This example further emphasises the need for initiatives for information sharing aimed at families and children in the child protection system to be further supported by broader initiatives focused on the 'at risk' group.

2.3 Priority times for information sharing

In determining the best means through which Commonwealth agencies can contribute to information sharing, it is necessary to identify those families and children for which information sharing is most critical.

Consultations with State and Territory child protection agencies found that, rather than identifying a group for which on-going monitoring or reporting is necessary, information is most critical at particular stages or processes within the child protection system. These included:

  • any stage where there is a determination or assessment required, where information about the family history or circumstances would be valuable
  • stages, such as investigations or where there is a court process, where knowing the whereabouts of the child or family member is most important.

Specifying these stages assists in developing a process for information sharing. An example of how these requirements have been set out for intrastate information sharing process in Victoria is provided in Box 2.1. Standard and procedures under the Children, Youth and Families Act 1995 establish:

  • the prescribed list of persons, services and community organisations which are authorised to disclose information for child protection purposes
  • the stages when Child Protection can seek or require information from these parties, namely:
    • during intake assessment
    • during investigations
    • when there is protective intervention
    • when a protection order is taken out.

Box 2.1
STAGES FOR INFORMATION SHARING IN CHILD PROTECTION - VICTORIAN EXAMPLE

The Children, Youth and Families Act provides for information sharing between Child Protection, information holders, service providers and community services.

  • Information holders are professionals who may have contact with vulnerable children or their parents in the course of their work (including doctors, teachers and police).
  • Service agencies are government departments and services expected to take some responsibility for the vulnerable children of parents who may be their primary clients (including health services, disability services or psychiatric service.
  • Community services consist of services provided to vulnerable children and families.

Standards and procedures under the Act set out the stages during which information sharing should occur:

  1. Intake assessments - Where a report has been received Child Protection may consult with an information holder, a community service or a service agency to determine the most appropriate response to the report or to complete a risk and needs assessment of a child. The information holder, community service or service agency are authorised to disclose information to Child Protection and protected if they do, but they are not obliged to.
  2. Investigation and assessment phase - Where a report has been classified as a protective intervention report and is under investigation, community services and information holders are authorised to disclose information relevant to the protection and development of a child to Child Protection.
  3. Protective intervention phase - Where an investigation has been completed but there is no protection order, community services and information holders are authorised to disclose information relevant to the protection and development of a child to Child Protection. Information can also be collected and disclosed by consent.

    Child Protection can provide relevant information regarding the child and the nature of the concerns to assist the discloser to determine what is relevant
  4. Protection order phase - Where a protection order has been made, community services and information holders are authorised to disclose information relevant to the protection and development of a child to Child Protection, and Child Protection can disclose relevant information to the community service or information holder.

Source: Victorian Government Department of Human Services

Child protection agencies also emphasised the need, at any stage, for information to be provided quickly enough to be able to contribute to the above mentioned processes, including during investigations and when orders are being made for a child.

Chapter 3 - Priority information on families and children in the child protection system

3.1 Introduction

For effective information sharing to occur there needs to be an understanding of the following three elements.

  • What information is needed, and whether this information is collected - is there a common set of information both demanded and able to be provided?
  • Who collects the information and who needs it - the parties involved in the information sharing.
  • How the information is best shared between parties and what parameters to put around information sharing arrangements.

This chapter assesses the first two elements - what information is most important for child protection agencies and the relevant information that is collected by Commonwealth agencies. Chapter 4 discusses the third element - processes for sharing information.

3.2 Priority information for child protection agencies

Child protection agencies report that the highest priority information from the Commonwealth is about the location of families or children - that is, addresses or phone numbers of families, parents or relatives. Secondary to this is information that provides indications of a change in circumstances. Finally, child protection agencies would like stronger information flow from social workers and counsellors in Commonwealth agencies, providing qualitative information on the family or child, including where a professional has concerns about a child's welfare.

Location information

There are a number of instances in which child protection agencies require information on the location of a child, family or parent in order to alleviate a risk to the safety of a child and fulfil their core functions. All State and Territory agencies agreed that location information from Commonwealth agencies would greatly assist in addressing these risks. The highest priority for disclosure of location information is in cases where there is an unreported move of a family under investigation. There is currently an alerts protocol between States and Territories that is used in these instances (see Box 3.1), however this system does not currently include any Commonwealth agency.

Box 3.1
INTERSTATE ALERTS

The interstate alerts system is used by child protection agencies in all States and Territories and New Zealand. The purpose of the system is to assist in locating a family or child where child protection concerns exist. This includes where an agency is conducting an investigation or where a protection order.

A State or Territory, or New Zealand, will put out an alert indicating:

  • details of the child or young person that is the subject of the alert, including name, Date of Birth, last known address and names of family members who they may be travelling with
  • parent/carer details
  • details on the current concern in relation to the child, and the current involvement of the Department with the child
  • whether there are relevant child protection orders or applications
  • any safety issues for workers, or whether the police should be alerted if the family is found.

State and Territory agencies receive alerts via email. They do not actively search for the child in the alert, but will report back to originating agency.

Source: Alerts guidelines and State and Territory consultations

Location information from Commonwealth agencies could also be used by child protection agencies for:

  • locating parents to inform them of orders taken out
  • locating parents or relatives to inform them about the wellbeing of their child (for example, if a child is seriously ill)
  • locating relatives when determining care arrangements, especially in cases where a relative's name is known but not their location.

Other personal information

In addition to information on location, other types of personal information that child protection agencies would find valuable include:

  • details on Aboriginality
  • information on dependents of a parent (number and age of children)
  • information on care or custody arrangements.

Changes in circumstances

Indicators of changes in circumstances for families are also valuable for child protection agencies. These indicators may be useful in assessing a report or in a formal investigation. Indicators include:

  • new parenting arrangements, such as remarriage or a new de facto relationship
  • new care arrangements or living arrangements for a child (such as changes in custody or where a child has left home and is not living with a parent or relative)
  • the birth or death of a child, or the death of a parent or caregiver.

Perceived vulnerability or risk

The third type of information sought by child protection agencies is information from professionals within Commonwealth agencies about perceived vulnerability or risk for a child. The two groups identified by child protection agencies in this context are Centrelink social workers and Family Court Counsellors.

3.3 Relevant information held by Commonwealth agencies

At the start of this study, Centrelink and the CSA were identified as the most relevant Commonwealth agencies for information sharing on child protection matters. The Family Court was subsequently identified as another relevant agency. The following sections map out the types of information collected by Centrelink, the CSA and the Family Court.

Centrelink

Administrative data

Administrative data are information that assists in the administration of a program or payment. Centrelink manages a large administrative data set across the numerous programs assistance schemes that it administers.

The relevant Centrelink data set for child protection purposes is that collected by the Family Assistance Office. This data set includes 10 generic categories of data for each adult in the database. These are set out in Table 3.1. Centrelink provided this list of generic categories of data to this study as an indication of information they hold in their data set. Centrelink do, however, want to emphasize that they are not the primary collection agency for all of these data items, and therefore would not necessarily be the best agency to seek the information from in the first instance (for example, residency information is collected by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, tax details are collected by the ATO).

Recipients of payments are obliged to report changes in these details to Centrelink within 14 days.

Table 3.1
TEN ADMINISTRATIVE DATA CATEGORIES COLLECTED FOR FAMILY ASSISTANCE OFFICE CUSTOMERS
Question category Type of information collected
Contact requirements How the customer wants to handle Centrelink and Family Assistance Office contacts, if any special contact requirements are needed, arrangements for other people to enquire/act on the customer's behalf, and which CSC the customer prefers dealing with
Personal details A customer's other names (names the customer is currently, or has previously been known by and/or used, apart from their legal name) The customer's Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander or Australian South Sea Islander origin.

The customer's marital status and partner details are collected.

Generally for their current circumstances, but for some payment types previous partner information can be collected also.

Child details Child's personal details (family name, middle name, date of birth, gender etc.) customer and partner (if applicable) relationship to the child, and child's in care status
Australian residence Whether the customer lives permanently in Australia. This can include Country of citizenship, date Australian citizenship was granted, whether the customer lived outside Australia, date started in living in Australia, Outside Australia residence details (Country, date of arrival and date of departure)
Contact details Home telephone number, work telephone number, mobile telephone number, other contact telephone number, fax number, E-mail address
Additional addresses Addresses other than the customer (and partner's) home address if necessary. As an example, it would be used to collect a postal address.
Accommodation Home ownership and/or amounts paid for accommodation, a customer's living arrangements
Payment destination Customer's account details for payments to be made to.
Tax details Customer and partner tax file numbers, and/or re-authorisation of tax file numbers, known, and/or a statement that tax file number is not known
Income details Details of taxable income and additional income details for an assessment to be made on the payability to the customer of Family Tax Benefit and/or Child Care Benefit for the period being claimed.

Source: Centrelink

Changes in circumstances/events

Aside from the generic set of administrative data held from Centrelink, the agency also receives information when there is a change in circumstances for a family or when particular events occur. Such changes relate to anything that impacts on an assessment or payment made to a parent. These include:

  • when a new child is born, which is registered through the baby bonus, changes in family tax benefit payments or change in claims for pensions
  • changes in the care arrangements for a child, such as when a parent leaves the household or when a child moves to be cared for by a relative
  • when a parent starts a new job, or leaves work
  • new partner arrangements, including where there is a remarriage or a new de factor relationship.

Qualitative information on risk or vulnerability

Centrelink social workers have interactions with families through their counselling and support services. They are therefore in a position to receive reports or allegations of abuse, neglect or violence in a family, or observe problems themselves with the family without an allegation being made (effectively, using their own judgement as professionals). Centrelink social workers are able to report instances to child protection authorities where they believe these meet the thresholds in legislation (as discussed in more detail in Chapter 4).

A further information source on risk or vulnerability are the data on vulnerability collected for employment benefit purposes. These data are in the form of indicators which are used to identify the vulnerability of an adult receiving employment benefit. Indicators include mental illness, drug abuse, homelessness and domestic violence. This information is used by Centrelink when setting activity requirements for employment benefit (with the intention of relaxing requirements were a vulnerability has been identified).

Child Support Agency

Administrative data

The CSA collects generic administrative information on parents in the child support system for the purposes of managing child support arrangements. These data may be useful in a child protection context. Data collected include:

  • most recently reported addresses of both parents (and therefore children in the care of that parent)
  • mostly recently reported information on custodial arrangements for children (e.g. child's main residence, as well as other addresses where they spend some time)
  • changes in parenting arrangements (e.g. repartnering/remarriage).

These data are very similar to data collected by Centrelink, and several stakeholders consulted for this study questioned whether the CSA data would be as accurate as Centrelink data (particularly for 'paying' parents).

Changes in circumstances/events

Parents in the child support system are obliged to report changes in circumstances to CSA. These can include:

  • new parenting arrangements
  • a change in the living arrangements for the child, including changes in custody arrangements.

Some changes in circumstances lead to termination of child support payments. Terminating events, as defined by CSA, are set out in Box 3.2.

Box 3.2
TERMINATING EVENTS FOR CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENTS

A terminating event happens if the child of the child support assessment:

  • dies;
  • ceases to be an eligible child because the child is in the care of a person under a child welfare law;
  • turns 18 (unless CSA has accepted an application for the assessment to continue beyond a child's 18th birthday);
  • is adopted;
  • becomes a member of a couple (living with a person of the opposite sex on a genuine domestic basis or with someone they are legally married to);
  • is no longer present in Australia, an Australian citizen, or ordinarily resident in Australia (and is not subject to an international maintenance arrangement); or
  • a second liability is registered for the same parents and child/ren

A terminating event happens if a parent or non-parent carer entitled to receive child support:

  • dies; or
  • ceases to be an eligible carer under section 7B.

A terminating event happens if a parent liable to pay child support:

  • dies; or
  • ceases to be a resident of Australia (and is not subject to an international maintenance arrangement).

In addition, a terminating event happens on a specified day if:

  • a parent or non-parent carer entitled to receive child support makes an election to end an assessment for the child from a specified day; or
  • CSA has accepted a child support agreement in relation to the child in which the parents and any non-parent carer agreed that the liability to pay child support is to end from a specified day; or
  • the parents of the child (to whom the child support assessment relates) reconcile and become members of the same couple for a period of 6 months or more.

Source: Child Support Agency

Qualitative information on risk or vulnerability

The extent to which CSA collects qualitative information on risk or vulnerability is very limited. CSA does not operate shopfronts, with the vast majority of interaction with customers being over the phone (though there are opportunities to have in person meetings with CSA staff in a number of Centrelink regional centres and other CSA locations). With the majority of customer contact being made over the phone, there are many indicators of vulnerability or risk that CSA cannot observe (those that are observed through face-to-face contact with customers).

Where CSA have concerns about the welfare of a client, they are able to refer on that person to a support service. Where there are serious concerns, the CSA staff member may conduct a 'warm-transfer' where they stay on the line with the person until they have been transferred to the service provider. There are no internal CSA processes for collecting information about vulnerable families or children, although CSA is able to report cases where there are sufficient concerns (bound by legislation, as detailed in Chapter 4).

CSA also collects an indicator (RACs) which may indicate domestic violence as a reason for providing a higher level of protection to a customer's information. It should be noted that the reason for this indicator is often not available on CSA's records.

Family Court

Neither the Family Court nor Family Court counsellors hold administrative data sets. The key type of information held by the Family Court and counsellors is reports on abuse or neglect of children, and the judgement of counsellors as professionals working with families.

Child protection agencies report that the Family Court holds two types of information that may be useful:

  • information from Family Court counsellors
  • information from Family Court proceedings.

Information from Family Court counsellors

The CDMSC Information Sharing Working Group noted that Family Court counsellors would likely hold useful information for child protection agencies. However, there are three types of counsellors that are associated with the Family Court system with distinct roles and functions. These are:

  • Family counsellors - a non-court based family service under the Family Law Act. Families are encouraged to access family counselling before bringing proceedings to Court. Family counselling services are currently provided by approved non-government organisations, although not by Family Relationship Centres (FRCs).1
  • Family dispute resolution practitioners - a non-court based family service under the Family Law Act. In the family law system family dispute resolution is required before either parent can apply for parenting orders in the Family Court (although there are some exceptions to this requirement). All FRCs provide family dispute resolution services but they are not the sole provider of these services.
  • Family consultants - counsellors appointed by the Court in some cases to assist with court proceeding. Family consultants' functions are:
    • assisting and advising people involved in the proceedings
    • assisting and advising courts, and giving evidence, in relation to the proceedings
    • helping people involved in the proceedings to resolve disputes that are the subject of the proceedings
    • advising the court about appropriate family counsellors, family dispute resolution practitioners and courses, programs and services to which the court can refer the parties to the proceedings.

State child protection agencies perceived that in counselling sessions Family Court counsellors would gain insights into what is happening in the family that could help child protection agencies assess the risk of harm to a child. For family counsellors and family dispute resolution practitioners, the communications within counselling sessions are confidential (subject to information disclosure provisions within the Family Law Act 1975 - discussed in Chapter 4) and information is collected for the purpose of counselling or resolving the dispute only.

The information held by family consultants however, is not confidential from the Court and is collected for the purpose of informing the Court's proceedings through assessments and reports. This information is therefore included in the information type below - 'information from Family Court proceedings'.

Information from Family Court proceedings

One jurisdiction also reported that information from Family Court proceedings would be useful. They report this information includes:

  • details of current or prior orders affecting a child including residency and contact orders and any conditions. In some cases, reasons for orders would be useful
  • registered parenting plans
  • interviews or assessments of parents or children used in court proceedings including family consultant assessments and clinicians reports that have obtained through the court.

Other agencies

This report focuses on the information held by two Commonwealth agencies identified at the commencement of the project as holding priority information - Centrelink and the CSA. Early guidance from the CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group also identified the Family Court as a relevant Commonwealth agency, which has also been assessed in this report (to the degree possible given project timelines). During the course of this study stakeholders noted other Commonwealth agencies that potentially hold useful information - Medicare Australia and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). A brief overview of the information that these agencies hold that child protection agencies consider would be useful is below. These issues may warrant further investigation with Medicare Australia and DIAC.

Medicare Australia

The NGO coalition reported that for children in out of home care, Medicare number information is important to be able to ensure the child accesses the services they need. In addition, one state child protection agency sought the views of its regional offices on what information Medicare Australia holds that would be useful to access. Child protection agencies reported that the following information held by Medicare Australia would be useful:

  • for children in out of home care:
    • records of any treating doctor and their location and history of visits to medical practitioners
    • quick access to Medicare numbers where the child does not have a card
    • immunisation history from the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register (although it was noted that there are current arrangements for accessing this information for children in the care of the Department)
  • for assessing reports or conducting investigations:
    • Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme records to assess parental prescription drug abuse
    • history of Medicare access to assess medical neglect cases.

In this context, it is not expected that Medicare would hold detailed information on an individual's medical history, but that Medicare information would act as a 'gateway' to obtaining medical history information. It was envisaged that Medicare could provide information on visits to medical practitioners and prescriptions, which could be pursued further if deemed necessary.

Department of Immigration and Citizenship

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) was considered to hold several pieces of useful information for child protection agencies, when dealing with non-residents and refugees. Child protection agencies reported seeking information about:

  • the immigration status of persons, and progress on visa applications
  • any detention details to assist when assessing appropriate carers for children
  • any immigration or passport alerts where there is a risk of international kidnap.

In addition, the NGO coalition noted that immigration data may be useful for children who are taken out of Australia.


1. Currently organisations approved by the Attorney General can provide family counselling and dispute resolution services under the Family Law Act. As of June 2009, individual practitioners will require accreditation to be able to provide these services.

Chapter 4 - Current provisions for Commonwealth agencies to share information

4.1 Introduction

Chapter 3 identifies the set of information that is most highly sought by child protection agencies, and information that Commonwealth agencies can most readily provide.

For those agencies canvassed in this study - Centrelink, CSA and the Family Court - there are already provisions to share personal information for child protection purposes. These provisions are bound by legal requirements in Commonwealth legislation, which specify the circumstances under which information can be disclosed.

4.2 Mechanisms for sharing information

Centrelink

There are several mechanisms that Centrelink can use to share information relevant to families and children in child protection. It can:

  • respond to requests for personal information about a parent or child
  • make a report to a child protection agency about a child or family which they have contact with (primarily through Centrelink social workers)
  • report through the Youth Protocol
  • share information through specific initiatives, as agreed (such as the Child Protection initiative in Western Australia).

Responding to requests for personal information

The most fundamental way that Centrelink can share information on families and children in the child protection system is by responding to direct requests for information. These requests may be made to the Privacy and Information Access Section of Centrelink national office or through the Centrelink network across Australia.

Centrelink is able to provide information within legal parameters (as discussed in more detail in section 4.2) however there is no formal, nationally consistent protocol for this information sharing.

Centrelink reported that during 2007, the Privacy and Information Access Section in national office processed 1807 requests for information under the 'threat to life, health or welfare' provisions of the Social Security (Public Interest Guidelines) (DEWR) Determination 2006 (discussed in more detail in Section 4.3). These were in addition to requests processed by delegated officers within the network, for which no data are available. Centrelink advised that the most common requests for information are for addresses or phone numbers of a child's parent or relative.

Centrelink estimates that of those requests responded to by the Privacy and Information Access Section, the relevant information was disclosed in 75 per cent of cases. The majority of these requests were from Queensland, which is the only jurisdiction that uses a proforma to request information from this section directly.

This reported response rate is inconsistent with feedback received from child protection agencies, who reported that it is difficult to access Centrelink information. One state child protection agency sought the views of their regional offices on current arrangements for information sharing with Centrelink. Key findings from this consultation are:

  • the level of information sharing varies by region - some reported no, or little information sharing with Centrelink, others reported some sharing
  • the process is very formal for requesting information from Centrelink - in most cases Centrelink requires a formal written request from the Director-General (or delegate) in accordance with Section 248 of the NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998. Responses from Centrelink are also in writing which may not be the most timely mechanism. Centrelink report that they require responses in writing to allow accountability factors to be addressed and the scrutiny of disclosure practice to be undertaken. They further report that they are able to respond verbally and follow-up by fax in emergency situation.
  • where relationships were developed between child protection workers and Centrelink social workers there may be some informal information sharing, although this is minimal
  • regional officers reported significant delays when requesting information from Centrelink and would like a quicker process
  • some regions reported that Centrelink was the most 'difficult' Commonwealth agency for the purpose of information sharing but that other agencies appear more 'willing'.

One state stakeholder also reported that an additional information sharing mechanism is that in some cases where Centrelink is unable to provide information, Centrelink (at the child protection agency's request) will inform their customer that the child protection agency is attempting to get into contact with them and provide the customer with the child protection agency's contact details.

Referring cases to child protection agencies

Centrelink social workers can refer cases on to child protection agencies within legislative provisions for information sharing. Centrelink reported that, in the 2007 08 financial year, they directly referred 311 cases to 'state organisations'.2 These referrals are not necessarily all child protection referrals - they could also be the release of information to state mental health services due to risk of suicide etc. One state government child protection agency observed that referrals from Centrelink were rare in their state but could not supply actual data on Centrelink referrals.

The Youth Protocol

Centrelink also manages the Case Management Protocol between Commonwealth Agencies and State/Territory Welfare Authorities for Unsupported Young People (the Youth Protocol). The Youth Protocol is a formal, legislated mandatory reporting arrangement where Centrelink reports to child protection agencies any case where a child aged 15 or under claims a benefit as an individual rather than under their parent or guardian. Child protection agencies assess the circumstances and inform Centrelink of the most appropriate income support arrangements for the young person. A state child protection agency noted that in many cases, it is not a child protection issue, but may be a case of parent-teen conflict.

Western Australia Child Protection Initiative Trial

The WA Government and Centrelink are currently trialling a partnership to work together with families in three locations in WA. The initiative involves the WA Department of Child Protection (DCP) identifying to Centrelink families where there are serious concerns about neglect and recommending income management. Centrelink then administers the income management.

When a family's income in being managed, there is an agreement that DCP and Centrelink will inform each other about changes in circumstances for the family (i.e. if the child goes out of parental care). This initiative has required a change in legislation for both WA and Centrelink.

Child Support Agency

The CSA reported that it has limited opportunities for sharing information with States and Territory agencies due to strict legislative constraints. Police or child protection agencies could request information through a court subpoena or a written request from a government authority to a CSA State Office. CSA were unable to provide data regarding requests of this kind. The CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group noted that only a small proportion of families in the child protection system would be in the child support system, so requests for information are likely to be low.

The CSA noted that is does report information to Police when there is a credible threat, although this usually involves a threat to another customer, a staff member staff or suicide threats. The CSA does not make reports to child protection agencies but advises their customer who expresses concern about a child to report it to the relevant child protection agency in their jurisdiction.

The CSA can also refer cases to Centrelink case workers for assessment for an exemption where a client fears for the safety of themselves or their children if they claim child support. Information sharing between Commonwealth agencies in these circumstances is provided for in CSA's operating legislation and CSA customers are advised their information may be shared in this way.

Family Courts of Australia

In all States and Territories, except Western Australia, Family Courts are part of the Family Courts of Australia and are Commonwealth courts. Information sharing between the Family Courts and State and Territory child protection agencies and NGOs occurs in two directions:

  • child protection agencies and NGOs providing information to the Family Court to assist in the consideration of Family Court matters
  • Family Court counsellors providing information to States and Territory child protection agencies and police.

The Magellan Project

There are formal protocols for information sharing between child protection agencies and Family Courts through the Magellan Project. The Magellan Project is a case-management approach to address the needs of children and families where serious allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse of children are raised during parenting disputes (previously known as custody and access disputes) in the Family Court of Australia. The Magellan Project operates nationally, with only partial coverage currently in NSW.

Under the Magellan approach, when the Court is made aware of allegations of sexual or physical abuse that is deemed 'serious' by the Court, they can request the intervention of the relevant child protection agency under Section 91[b] of the Family Law Act 1975. The State or Territory agency will then assess the allegations of abuse and report its findings back to the Family Court. This report (known as the 'Magellan Report') is the key information sharing provision and includes information about the history of abuse in that family, any previous notifications and subsequent action by the child protection agency.

Under Section 91[b] of the Family Law Act 1975, where a child welfare officer intervenes 'the officer shall be deemed to be a party to the proceedings with all the rights, duties and liabilities of a party'. For child protection agencies, this means they can also freely access information from the Court proceedings including information about court outcomes and any orders made.

The Magellan Project process is outlined in more detail in Box 4.1.

Box 4.1
THE MAGELLAN PROJECT PROCESS - AN OVERVIEW

Where a Notice of Child Abuse and Family Violence that contains allegations of serious physical and or sexual abuse is filed in a case involving an application for parenting orders, the application is referred to the Family Court Magellan Registrar to consider listing to the Magellan list.

A Magellan team of judges, registrars and family consultants at each family law registry manages the cases. Generally, the aim is to complete Magellan cases within six months from the case being listed as a Magellan case.

Early steps in a Magellan case include:

  • making appropriate interim orders to protect the child until the matter comes on for trial
  • ordering a report from the respective state/territory child protection agency including whether it intends to intervene in the Family Court proceedings, whether it has previously investigated these or other allegations, the conclusion and the reasons for the conclusion of the investigation, and any recommendations or other relevant information
  • ordering a subpoena of the state welfare authority file
  • ordering the appointment of an independent children's lawyer
  • ordering a detailed family report, where appropriate, analysing the family dynamics and the needs of the children.

Magellan Steering Committee:
In order to establish and maintain critical relationships with external stakeholders (which is a key feature of the Magellan model), each registry has a Magellan Stakeholder Committee, chaired by the Magellan Judge. The committee has representatives from the Family Court's Magellan Team, as well as representatives from that state/territory's legal aid commission, child protection department, and police service.

Source: Family Court of Australia 2008b, Higgins 2007

A recent evaluation of the Magellan project (Higgins 2007) found that having the protocol in place and stakeholder steering committees played a critical role in clarifying roles and responsibilities, and encouraging information sharing between child protection departments and the Court. Many participants in the project reported that the communication function of the steering committee was a successful element. However, one stakeholder from a state child protection agency reported to this project that even with the Magellan protocols, information was not being adequately shared from the Family Court to the child protection agencies once a determination was made.

Family Court counsellors

The CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group noted that the Family Court, through its counsellors, would likely hold useful information for child protection agencies. They reported however, that the processes for information exchange are very formal, with few structures to allow for more informal exchanges.

One state child protection agency that canvassed the views of their regional offices on information sharing with counsellors in Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) found that:

  • information sharing with FRCs is variable - most regions do not share information at all and were not aware of the information that FRCs may hold that would be useful. Several regions, however, reported good relationships with FRCs in their area
  • those regions that do have experience sharing information with FRCs reported that FRCs cite client confidentiality when information is requested and require client consent. This view was also supported by another state child protection agency.

In consultations, UnitingCare noted the confidentiality concerns of counsellors in FRCs and considered that confidentiality provisions were important to their practice.

Family counsellors in non-court based family services can make referrals to child protection agencies under their the Family Law Act 1975 and must disclose information to comply with state and territory legislation including mandatory reporting legislation. One state stakeholder noted that their child protection workers do seek information from Family Relationship Centres in the case of a referral. UnitingCare indicated that family counsellors in FRCs want more feedback on these notifications.

4.3 Legal obligations for information sharing

Commonwealth agencies must comply with both the Commonwealth Privacy Act and secrecy provisions within their operating legislation. These Acts legislate the collection and use of information, as well as conditions under which information can be shared with other organisations.

Federal privacy legislation

The primary piece of Commonwealth privacy legislation is the Privacy Act 1988. It applies to private sector businesses, health service providers and all Commonwealth Government and ACT Government agencies.

The Privacy Act 1988 is principle-based regulation governing the collection, use and disclosure of personal information comprising:

  • eleven Information Privacy Principles (IPPs) that apply to Commonwealth and ACT government agencies
  • ten National Privacy Principles (NPPs) that apply to parts of the private sector and all health service provider introduced in 2001. The NPPs cover NGOs. Under the Act, 'organisations' are defined as:

    an individual; or a body corporate; or a partnership; or any other unincorporated association; or a trust that is not a small business operator, a registered political party, an agency, a State or Territory authority or a prescribed instrumentality of a State or Territory.

    (Privacy Act 1988 Sec 6C)

Both the IPPs and NPPs contain similar provisions relating to the use and disclosure of personal information. The current provisions are summarised by the ALRC (2008):

NPP 2 prohibits the use and disclosure by an organisation of personal information for a purpose other than the primary purpose of collection (the secondary purpose) except in specified circumstances. The IPPs do not use the language of 'primary' and 'secondary' purpose. IPP 10 provides that where an agency obtains personal information for a 'particular purpose', it cannot use the information for any 'other purpose' except in specified circumstances. The concepts underlying NPP 2 and IPP 10, therefore, are substantially similar. IPP 11 simply restricts the disclosure of personal information by agencies except in specified circumstances. It does not refer to the particular purpose for which personal information was collected.

The key difference between the IPPs and the NPPs therefore is that the NPPs allow the disclosure of information with others if relevant to the primary purpose of collection.

Both sets of principles do allow the disclosure of information in specific circumstances. These are when:

  • the individual has consented
  • disclosure is required or authorised by or under law
  • it is reasonably believed that the disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of the individual concerned or of another person
  • it is reasonably necessary (IPPs), or reasonably believed to be reasonably necessary (NPPs), for the enforcement of the criminal law or of a law imposing a pecuniary penalty, or for the protection of the public revenue (OPC 2008).

The IPPs also include a provision that relates to the use and disclosure of information by the party receiving the information:

a person, body or agency to whom personal information is disclosed under clause 1 of [Principle 11] shall not use or disclose the information for a purpose other than the purpose for which the information was given to the person, body or agency.

(Privacy Act 1988, Sec14, Principle 11[3])

This provision would allow the receiving body to disclose the information to a third party, provided it was for the same purpose that the information was disclosed to them. There is no similar provision in the NPPs.

Secrecy provisions in Commonwealth Acts

In addition to the Privacy Act 1988, Commonwealth Government agencies are bound by the secrecy or confidentiality provisions within their operating legislation. Secrecy provisions are obligations for agencies to maintain the secrecy and confidentiality of information that they collect and use. These provisions typically set out under what conditions a Commonwealth agency can disclose information to a third party. Centrelink, the CSA and the Family Court each operate under secrecy provisions in Commonwealth legislation.

Centrelink

Centrelink operates under the:

  • Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, and
  • A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999.

The confidentiality provisions of these two acts operate similarly. Under both Acts, information can only used and disclosed in accordance with the purpose of the legislation. Specifically:

  • under the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, information can be disclosed for the purpose of the social security law, the Farm Household Support Act 1992, the Dental Benefits Act 2008 or the Family Homelessness Prevention and Early Intervention Pilot
  • under A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999, information can be disclosed for the purposes of the family assistance law, the Dental Benefits Act 2008, the Family Homelessness Prevention and Early Intervention Pilot, or the Child Care Management System Pilot.

There are two key provisions in both Acts that may allow disclosure of information to State Government agencies and NGOs outside of the purpose for which it was collected:

  • in the public interest - 'if the Secretary certifies that is necessary in the public interest' then information may be disclosed though a 'public interest certificate' (Section 208[1a] of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 and Section 168[1a] of the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999)
  • by including another purpose in the legislation - the Minister may, by legislative instrument, specify additional purposes relating to other programs administered by the Department for which protected information may be obtained, used and disclosed (Section 202[3] of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 and Section 162[3] of the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999).

The Ministers of the Departments of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs have given guidelines for the exercise of the Secretary's power to disclose information through public interest certificates. These guidelines are the Social Security (Public Interest Certificate Guidelines) Determination.

Under the Ministerial Guidelines 'relevant information may be disclosed for the purpose of this section if the disclosure is necessary to prevent, or lessen, a threat to the life, health or welfare of a person' (Section 8). The wording in this threshold is consistent with the Privacy Act 1988, but is less restrictive as it does not require the threat to be serious or imminent.

The Guidelines also prescribe that:

In giving a public interest certificate, the Secretary must have regard to:

  1. any situation in which the person to whom the information relates is, or may be, subject to physical, psychological or emotional abuse and
  2. whether the person in such a situation may be unable to give notice of his or her circumstances because of age, disability, or social, cultural, family or other reasons.

(Section 6)

The Guidelines also specify when a public interest certificate can be issued. A public interest certificate may be given when:

 

  1. the information cannot reasonably be obtained from a source other than the Department
  2. the person to whom the information will be disclosed has sufficient interest in the information.

(Section 7[1])

A person has sufficient interest when 'the Secretary is satisfied that, in relation to the purpose of the disclosure, the person has a genuine and legitimate interest in the information' (Section 7[2a]).

Centrelink noted in consultations that these provisions, as with those in the Privacy Act 1988 are aimed at 'crisis points'.

The Child Support Agency

The Child Support Agency operates under:

  • Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989, and
  • Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988

Under both Acts, 'protected information' can only be recorded and communicated for the purposes of the Act, except through specific legislated exemptions (Section 150 [2] and [2a] of the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989 and Section 16 [2] and [2a] Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988).

These exemptions include a provision to share protected information:

to any person, if the information concerns a credible threat to the life, health or welfare of a person and either of the following applies:

(i) the Registrar, or the person authorised by the Registrar, believes on reasonable grounds that the communication is necessary to prevent or lessen the threat;

(ii) there is reason to suspect that the threat may afford evidence that an offence may be, or has been, committed against a person and the information is communicated for the purpose of preventing, investigating or prosecuting such an offence

(Section 150[3e] of the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989 and Section16[3e] of the Child Support
(Registration and Collection) Act 1988)

The 'credible threat' provisions in the CSA legislation are different from those in the Privacy Act 1988 in that the information itself must concern a credible threat rather than a threshold that is related to the impact of the disclosure in preventing or lessening threat. Under the CSA legislation, the sharing of address information may not meet this threshold.

The CSA noted that the assessment of credible threat needs to be based on the judgement of CSA itself rather than a third party, although third party judgments would be taken into account.

The Family Court

For non-court based family services, the Family Law Act 1975 also sets out specific disclosure provisions for communications made in family counselling (and family dispute resolution). Family counsellors must not disclose a communication made to the counsellor unless in accordance with certain provisions. These provisions (Sections 10[D] and 10[H] of the Family Law Act 1975) include the following relevant circumstances:

  • a counsellor may disclose a communication with the consent of the party who made the disclosure, where that person is an adult, or, where the disclosure was made by a child who is under 18, if parents consent to the disclosure
  • a counsellor must disclose a communication made in counselling if he or she reasonably believes that the disclosure is necessary to comply with a law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory. This would include a State or Territory law that required mandatory reporting of child abuse from this professional group
  • a counsellor may disclose information made in counselling if he or she reasonably believes that the disclosure is necessary for the purposes of:
    • protecting a child from the risk of physical or psychological harm
    • preventing or lessening a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of a person
    • reporting the commission, or preventing the likely commission, of an offence involving violence or a threat of violence to a person.

There are different legislative provisions for personal information collected and used for the judicial purpose (that is, by the Court itself in its judicial matters). The Privacy Act 1988 does not apply to information held for judicial purposes. Instead, this information is protected by the Family Law Act 1975 and the Family Law Rules 2004. The privacy protections for family court matters are outlined in Box 4.2.

Box 4.2
PRIVACY PROTECTIONS FOR FAMILY COURT MATTERS

Section 121 of Family Law Act 1975 limits publication of reports of proceedings and of lists of cases. The section sets out a number of exceptions. The Court may authorise publication of accounts of proceedings, including on the internet. Except in exceptional cases or in formal law reports, published accounts of the Court's proceedings are anonymised. The Court maintains non-anonymised versions of judgements in internal data-bases accessible to Court staff. Rule 24.13 of the Family Law Rules 2004 strictly limits those who are allowed to inspect the Court's records relating to particular cases.

Source: Family Court of Australia 2008a.


2. Centrelink noted that this figure does not include the cases where social workers assisted the customer in self referral to state organisations.

Chapter 6 - Recommendations to facilitate and expand information sharing

This study has assessed the extent to which:

  • Commonwealth agencies hold information that would assist families and children in the child protection system
  • there are existing, effective processes for the sharing of this information with child protection agencies, within given legal requirements
  • there are barriers, both legislative and non-legislative, to effective information sharing.

The evidence collected through research and consultations suggests that there are opportunities for the Commonwealth to expand and improve its role in information sharing in this context. Recommended actions under two approaches are discussed below:

  • establish improved processes for information sharing between Commonwealth agencies - primarily Centrelink - and State and Territory child protection agencies
  • assess the appropriateness of thresholds for disclosure of information in the secrecy provisions in federal legislation.

Other avenues for information sharing are also identified for further work.

6.1 Improved processes for information sharing for child protection purposes

Information sharing between Commonwealth agencies and child protection agencies can and does occur under current legislation, though in an ad hoc manner. The result is a system where there is low level of understanding of what information can be requested, and of how to manage information requests.

The current arrangements can be improved, without undertaking legislative change. This section recommends three ways to facilitate and expand information sharing through improved, agreed processes for managing information sharing between Commonwealth agencies - primarily Centrelink - to address key barriers to information sharing for child protection purposes.

Agree a protocol for information sharing

Under this first recommendation a protocol between Commonwealth agencies and child protection agencies would establish processes for information sharing between relevant Commonwealth agencies (in the first instance Centrelink, with a view to looking at other agencies such as CSA and the Family Court) and State and Territory child protection agencies. The intention would be to reduce risk aversion to information sharing, both in the requesting body and the responding body.

This protocol would set out how information sharing should occur. It would:

  • specify the information that can be requested from Commonwealth agencies and the format in which it can be provided to child protection agencies
  • set out a standard process for requesting information, including required authorisation (reflecting legal obligations)
  • specify what supporting information is required to request information, including evidence supporting the need for the information.

The protocol should also include agreed timeframes for responding to information requests, which is particularly important during investigations or when Court orders are being made. Timeframes for responding to requests will need to reflect these needs.

It would be essential to implement processes to support the protocol for information sharing - the effectiveness of the protocol would rely heavily on supporting processes. States and Territories consulted for this study were supportive of managing requests electronically, given the time critical nature of the requests and the workload of staff administering the process. Key elements of support processes are:

  • a standardised format for an information request (preferably an electronic form)
  • a process for managing requests through a central point
  • staff guidelines and training that inform staff of the processes for requesting information - including their own responsibilities for making requests (for child protection staff) and for managing requests (for Commonwealth agency staff).

These processes would be used primarily for requests of administrative information from Commonwealth agencies. They would not replace or replicate systems for making reports to child protection agencies where there are concerns about a child (which would continue to be used by professionals, such as Centrelink social workers).

Recommendation 1:

The Commonwealth establish with State and Territory child protection agencies a protocol for managing requests of information for child protection purposes. This protocol should focus, in the first instance, on managing requests for information from Centrelink.

Improve understanding and consistent application of legal thresholds for disclosure of information

In consultations, we found a lack of understanding about the application of the thresholds for disclosure of information. Several child protection agencies considered that Commonwealth agencies apply high legal thresholds to information disclosure, the result being that requests for information are responded to in only a very small number of cases (and subsequent requests are hence discouraged). Conversely, Centrelink considered that they can, and do, provide information for 'crisis' or immediate risk circumstances. Complicating these issues is the uncertainty around the extent to which both the Privacy Act and secrecy provisions apply to Centrelink decisions.

Recommendation 2:

As part of developing the protocol, Centrelink to review its guidelines for information sharing - particularly the application of the legal thresholds to disclosure of information - and the training of staff to ensure that there is a good understanding and consistent implementation of the guidelines.

Include Centrelink in the interstate alerts system

A component of the protocol should be the inclusion of Centrelink in the current interstate alerts system. The interstate alerts system is used by child protection agencies in all States and Territories (and New Zealand) to assist in locating a family or child where child protection concerns exist. Including relevant Commonwealth agencies - at a minimum Centrelink - in the alerts system would be a relatively administratively easy step to take to facilitate information sharing.

Child protection agencies are supportive of including Centrelink in the alerts system, noting the obvious efficiencies from building on an established process that focuses on the most critical cases in the child protection system, where information is required urgently.

The Department has noted, however, that there would be implications for Centrelink which would need to be considered and assessed more thoroughly. In particular, the agreement to include Centrelink in the alerts process would need to:

  • set out the process for Centrelink to respond to an alert, including to which agency it should report location information
  • agree a timeframe in which Centrelink can respond to an alert under its obligations to disclose information where there is an 'imminent' threat.

While there are advantages to expanding the interstate alerts process, it would not, however, capture instances when families move within States and Territories, which is where the protocol for requesting information from Centrelink would be valuable.

Recommendation 3:

Make Centrelink a party to the current interstate alerts process used to find the location of families and children in the child protection system.

6.2 Consider the appropriateness of thresholds for disclosure in review of secrecy provisions

Establishing a protocol, as outlined above, would provide greater certainty and consistency in the management of information requests to Commonwealth agencies and in the Commonwealth's response to requests. This protocol, however, would operate under current legal constraints for disclosure of information.

Both the Privacy Act 1998 and secrecy provisions within other relevant legislation only allow disclosure when particular conditions are met - that is, the 'thresholds' that must be met before disclosure is allowed. In the child protection context, the most relevant thresholds are those relating to a threat to the life or health of an individual.

There are two opportunities to ensure appropriate thresholds for child protection cases are reflected in the legislated provisions for disclosure of information. First, the issue could be considered in the Government's response to the recommendations from the ALRC's review of the Privacy Act (where it recommended that thresholds be lowered in particular instances). The response is currently being prepared.

Second, an assessment of the appropriateness of the thresholds for disclosure in the child protection context could be undertaken as part of the recently announced ALRC review of secrecy provisions in federal legislation (due for completion in October 2009). The CDSMC should consider contributing to this review to ensure that child protection matters are adequately addressed in any recommendations around the application of secrecy provisions.

Recommendation 4:

The CDSMC should make a submission to the ALRC review of secrecy provisions in federal legislation, identifying the need for child protection matters to be adequately reflected in legislation.

6.3 Further work

This report has particularly focused on information sharing between Centrelink and child protection agencies, which States and Territories identified as their highest priority. However, States and Territories also raised the possibility of obtaining valuable information from a broader set of Commonwealth agencies, including Medicare Australia, Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and the Family Court. In the time available for this report, it has not been possible to consult with these agencies to assess the opportunities for information sharing to assist families and children in the child protection system. This should be done in a subsequent stage of the work program of the CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group.

Recommendation 5:

Undertake further work on opportunities for information sharing with a broader set of Commonwealth agencies.

6.4 Action plan for implementation of recommendations

This chapter has proposed five recommendations for improving information sharing between the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments to assist families and children in the child protection system. Table 6.1 puts forward a suggested action plan to progress the options.

Table 6.1
ACTION PLAN FOR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING INFORMATION SHARING
Recommendation Responsibility Timeframe
1. Establish a protocol between Commonwealth agencies and child protection agencies for information sharing, beginning with Centrelink States/Territories working with Centrelink By December 2008
2. Centrelink to review its guidelines for information sharing and the training of staff Centrelink By December 2008
3. Include Commonwealth agencies in the alerts process, beginning with Centrelink The Department and Centrelink to consider and assess the implications for Centrelink By December 2008
4. Make a submission to the ALRC review on Commonwealth secrecy provisions CDSMC Within ALRC timeframes as advised
5. Undertake further work on opportunities for information sharing with Medicare Australia, Family Court and DIAC CDSMC Information Sharing Working Group In time for COAG March 2009

6.5 Issues around information sharing about families at risk

This report has focused on how to improve the sharing of information about families and children in the child protection system. We acknowledge, however, that this is just the first step in addressing the COAG reference, which seeks advice on how to improve the sharing of information about families and children at risk. This broader task, however, brings with it additional challenges.

The 'at risk' category is potentially a relatively broad group of families and children that does not have an accepted definition between - and possibility even within - jurisdictions. Information sharing provisions for this at risk group will need to meet the challenges of managing:

  • a larger and more disparate group of families and children
  • a larger group of responsible agencies, including greater involvement from the non-government sector than is the case with children and families in the child protection system
  • greater barriers to information sharing. For instance, current privacy and secrecy provisions within Commonwealth legislation tend to reflect the need for information sharing at crisis points - as may be appropriate for families and children in the child protection system - rather than at points for prevention and early intervention - which would be more appropriate for families and children at risk.

To address these challenges requires work to be undertaken clarifying the policy objectives for information sharing about families and children at risk - getting the objectives clear will help identify what information would be useful to help meet the objectives.

Clarifying the policy objectives is a much simpler exercise for families and children in the child protection system. As discussed in this report, child protection agencies identified that information is most critical at particular stages within the child protection system, which helps clarify the objectives for information sharing and hence the information sought. For example, in an assessment stage, information about the family history or circumstances is valuable, and when undertaking an investigation information about the whereabouts of the child or family member is obviously important.

In short, the reasons for seeking information are reasonably clear in the context of the child protection system. Once the target group is broadened out to families and children at risk but not in the child protection system the reasons for the information - and hence the type of information that is needed and from whom - are much less clear.

To inform the next stage of work in response to the COAG reference on information sharing, we suggest that further policy work is required to obtain clarity of objectives for information sharing about the broader category of families and children at risk. This is turn will help identify the information - and the sources of information - that would assist in meeting the objectives.

Appendix A - References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2008, Child Protection Australia 2006-07, Child Welfare series no.43. Cat no. CWS 31., AIHW, Canberra.

Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) 2008, For Your Information: Privacy Law and Practice, ALRC Report 108, Commonwealth Government, Canberra.

Family Court of Australia 2008a, The Family Court and Privacy, viewed 25 August 2008.

Family Court of Australia 2008b, Magellan Program Factsheet, viewed 23 August 2008.

Higgins, D. 2007, Cooperation and Coordination: An evaluation of the Family Court of Australia's Magellan case-management model, Family Court of Australia, Canberra.

Office of the Privacy Commissioner 2008, Federal Privacy Law, viewed 21 August 2008.

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