Children’s services staff play a vital role in child protection, but do we have the skills and resources to properly fulfil our role as mandatory reporters under Keep Them Safe? Ingrid Maack reports.

While Keep Them Safe (KTS) has been welcomed as the necessary first step to better child protection, there are calls for clarity on the role children’s services are expected to now play.

There is growing recognition of the key role of children’s services in working with at-risk children and families. Relationships are trustbased and as such preschools and long day care centres are often the first port of call for many families in an early intervention model. With this in mind, many are asking why then the sector appears to have been largely overlooked in the restructure of the child protection system.

Why the change?

The KTS changes are in response to Community Services being overwhelmed by reports, with no process to identify children in situations of immediate and significant risk. Justice Wood’s Special Commission of Inquiry found NSW had one of the lowest thresholds for mandatory reporting in Australia and that the Helpline was being swamped by reports.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), a record 300,000 reports were made in 2008 alone. These calls were typically about children who, while not receiving ideal care and whose families needed support, did not require state intervention.

Anecdotal evidence also suggested that some professional groups had stopped reporting because they were frustrated at an apparent lack of action and follow up after making a report. The risk was that children were beginning to fall through the cracks in what was increasingly seen as ‘a broken system’. This culminated in 2007 when a seven-year-old girl, Ebony, died in her parents’ home on the Central Coast from starvation, prompting widespread outcry and calls for reform.

The change of the threshold for reporting is intended to address this. The KTS Five-year Action Plan aims to reshape the entire child protection system so that children and families get the support they need, sooner. In theory at least, the radical change (the introduction of a triage-like system) will allow Community Services to concentrate on the more serious cases and reduce the chances of children like Ebony falling through the cracks.

Under KTS, all childcare workers, family day carers, home-based carers and both paid and volunteer children’s services managers only report children deemed at risk of ‘significant harm’ to Community Services. The second key reform to take pressure off the Hotline is to create alternative referral pathways. When a child carer has concerns for a child that does NOT meet the ‘significant harm’, i.e. falls below the threshold, they can co-ordinate assistance or refer to other NGO services and agencies.

What role for childcare?

The online Mandatory Reporter Guide (MRG), available on the KTS website, is designed to determine risk via a decision tree. It has been criticised by some as ‘overly complicated’ and inaccessible to family day care and mobile child carers who do not always have PC or broadband access. There has, however, been significant thought put into developing this tool.

Also under the microscope are the new Child Wellbeing Units (CWUs) being established in four government agencies including NSW Police, Department of Education and Training, NSW Health and Department of Human Services. These are designed to provide assistance when concerns are below the significant harm threshold. Where concerns do not meet the new threshold, information about the child will be entered on the new CWU database called WellNet, and shared with staff at other CWUs to assess ‘cumulative risk of harm’.

But there is no CWU for children’s services. Peak organisations, such as the Community Child Care Co-operative of NSW, expect that in the absence of a CWU, they will increasingly field calls from childcare workers seeking reporting advice. As such, they risk becoming unofficial or ‘de facto’ CWUs, and will do so without resources or financial support from Government to cope with the anticipated workload.

There is a help line available for NGOs but it has been made clear that if this line is not used by the sector it will be withdrawn.

Dev Mukherjee from The Council of Social Service of NSW (NCOSS), however, believes a CWU for childcare is ‘not necessary’ and says there is a misunderstanding about what these units are for.

‘The CWU is not a service for families or children. It is purely to help frontline staff with the referral process. We believe early childhood services are doing the right thing.

Mr Mukherjee says that despite the Commonwealth Government’s efforts to communicate reporting procedure changes, and the role of the Mandatory Reporting Guide (MRG), ‘there is still some confusion’.

‘The message doesn’t seem to be getting through and people seem to be misinterpreting it. They think they have to go through the MRG, and then ring the KTS Support Line and meanwhile the child is being beaten up. If you are a childcare worker concerned for a child you think is at risk of “significant harm”, ring the Child Protection Hotline,’ he says.

Mr Mukherjee explains that early childhood professionals will also have access to the Family Referral Services or FRS (formerly referred to as Regional Intake and Referral Services) once they are rolled out across the state in 2011.

These are currently being piloted in Dubbo, Mount Druitt and Newcastle.

Renate Gebhart-Jones, Manager of Community Child Care’s Professional Support Team, is particularly concerned that early childhood is underrepresented as a group of mandatory reporters, making just 1.2 per cent of reports.

‘This under-representation is alarming given the level of contact childcare professionals have with children,’ explains Ms Gebhart-Jones, who says that statistics show 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys will experience abuse.

‘Considering the daily contact we have with children and families and the number of mandatory reporters in the sector, we would expect a much higher level of reporting.’

Ms Gebhart-Jones says the profession’s ability to work with at-risk families in ‘an early intervention capacity’ has been largely overlooked in the KTS changes, and is ‘a missed opportunity’.

‘Preschools and childcare centres can identify and work with at-risk families before they become a part of the child protection system.’

She said the NSW Government has engaged KPMG to look at capacity building of NGOs in early intervention and prevention but that childcare was specifically excluded.

‘In that discussion paper, they excluded childcare on the basis of the national strategy. I have challenged this and said you have to look at childcare in any prevention and early intervention model.’

Current KTS training focuses on the legislative changes but presently does little to develop the unique and important role we can play in the early intervention model, she says.

Ms Gebhart-Jones believes early childhood specific KTS training should be ‘long-term’, taught at a tertiary and Diploma-level, and focus on developing the capacity of the sector.

She says the changes could effectively make child carers ‘case managers’ but do not give them the resources, time or skills now required of them when referring and working with at-risk children and families.

‘Having a conversation with a family about concerns for their child requires a sophisticated level of communication, particularly in a childcare setting.’

She encourages all directors and managers to attend training, as there is no current requirement to attend or upgrade child protection qualifications.

‘People going through the new child protection training will be trained on KTS, but people who have the old training are under no obligation to upgrade—and there is no planned bridging process.’


Resources on Mandatory reporting

There is range of available resources to help children’s services staff determine when to make a report. These include:

  • Child Protection Hotline: 133 627 When to use it: Call this number only when a child is at ‘risk of significant harm’.
  • The Mandatory Reporter Guide or MRG ( When to use it: The MRG is designed to assist mandatory reporters in determining whether concerns about a child reach the new risk threshold of ‘significant harm’ and whether a report should be made or another action taken.
  • The Keep Them Safe Support Line: 1800 772 479 When to use it: Call this number if you are unsure if a child meets the threshold of ‘significant harm’. Trained staff on this support line can also show you how to use the MRG tool whether you are offline or online. It is called the KTS Support Line and is only transitional. Future need for this service will be assessed. As such, child carers are advised to utilise it as much as possible.

Training for mandatory reporters:

  • TAFE NSW ran a series of children’s services-specific training sessions earlier this year, but it is unclear if this will continue. Check for updates: More information: offers fact sheets, a Keep Them Safe newsletter and Interagency Guidelines.
  • Subscribe to the Keep Them Safe email update from Community Services: Community Child Care via Children’s Services Central will support services through the change. See:

Sector concerns – why we’re worried!

Do we have the time?

Prue Warrilow, Families at Work:
‘Children’s services staff are still unclear on their role as mandatory reporters. Primary contact people do not have time to spend three hours online trying to understand this new information. The decision-making tree is confusing and cumbersome. If I found it difficult to use this tool how will someone in a room full of children be able to interpret it? ‘Resources for at-risk children below the threshold are inadequate … Childcare centres can identify and work with at-risk families before they transition into the child protection system. ‘I think every person employed in a children’s service [not just directors or Authorised Supervisors] needs to attend training. And they need adequate notice to attend (not a week’s notice).’

Do we understand the threshold?

Jennifer Evan, Early childhood consultant and former CEO The Infants’ Home Child and Family Services:
‘In terms of training, the not-for-profit children’s service sector is largely playing catch-up. Children’s services need more specific support and resources to help with referral and early intervention. (Children’s services ‘specific’ training is being rolled at TAFE from April 2010.) ‘Yes, children’s services are well-placed with an informed workforce to identity both risk and ‘significant risk’ of harm, but as the sector does not have a Wellbeing Unit significant information will be lost that could contribute to a picture of cumulative risk of harm. ‘Staff also need to understand their new responsibilities for managing those children who do NOT meet the ‘significant risk of harm’ test, i.e. they fall below the threshold. I think this is where there may be some uncertainty. Children’s services are a key link with the community and families requiring additional support. How will children’s services be supported to assist those families, who might be at-risk but who are not at significant risk? This is critical to the success of KTS.’

Will it work for FDC?

Anita Jovanovski, CEO of NSW Family Day Care:
‘The current training would in no way accommodate the 5,500 family day care carers in NSW. Some co-ordination units have undergone TAFE training but who is expected to on-train carers and who picks up that cost? ‘Any training of our carers is done out of work hours (evening or weekends) as our carers care for children during the day. Millions of dollars have been spent on KTS, so surely there should be some funds available for early childhood peak bodies to provide training. ‘The online tool (MRG) is really great if you have access to the internet but an awful lot of our carers do not. The downloaded hard copy (PDF) of the MRG is a difficult document to work through, and not user-friendly at all.’

Will it work for OOSH?

Robyn Munro Miller, Executive Officer, Network of Community Activities:
‘We decided to deliver our own OOSH-specific training, and to date we have run 20 information sessions across NSW. We’d like to get funding for this, as it is a costly exercise. We’re aware there are some concerns about KTS but we generally welcome the changes. In the old system, nothing happened to many of those at-risk children reported. I think the Department is just being more honest about this. ‘I worked at a high-risk service and was frequently making reports. Nothing would happen and I was still having to support and resource those families. ‘One of the biggest changes for us is in the exchange of information, which will allow OOSH services to work more efficiently with schools. In the past, I couldn’t talk to the school legally, and they couldn’t talk to me about a child we both had concerns for.’

Have we missed the boat?

Dev Mukherjee, Council of Social Service of NSW (NCOSS):
‘Government could have been better at communicating the changes. They could have written a letter to all early childhood services. It has basically come down to peak bodies to communicate changes, which is great if they have the resources e.g. KU Children’s Services are doing their own training, but few stand-alones have the capacity. ‘I don’t think children’s services were well-represented at the regional engagement tour in September last year, perhaps because these sessions were held during the day, when child carers are on the floor. ‘We have some concerns about the operation of the Family Referral Services (FRS). [The] Wood [Commission] recommended that a child protection worker be allocated with access to the data to build a picture of cumulative harm. However, there is a missing component in building that picture—the non-government sector. Health or Education might put information on the system but there is nothing there from NGOs such as childcare. They might have a critical piece of information that others don’t have access to.’

Are we ready yet?

Nan Greig, programs manager at ECTARC:
‘There has been a strong push to implement the KTS strategy as quickly as possible, and while I support the principles of KTS, the speed of the rollout has been problematic in having everyone fully informed and trained. The timeframe for full implementation is five years. ‘There needs to be clarity around the exchange of information. The sector is confused about exactly what and how to exchange the information—further up-skilling is required in terms of developing protocols around information exchange.’ Ms Greig sat on the SSAG (Service System Advisory Group), as a representative of Early Childhood Australia (NSW).

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 94, Winter 2010 

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