NATIONAL: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
The Governor-General appointed a six member Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on 11 January 2013.
The Commission will inquire into how institutions with a responsibility for children, including public, private or non-government organisations, have responded to allegations of child sexual abuse within their organisations. The Commission will address cases where systems in place have failed to protect children and whether such organisations should be held responsible for the abuse or for not responding appropriately to allegations of abuse. The Commission is also tasked with making recommendations on how to improve laws and policies which have failed to respond to instances of child sexual abuse.
The Commission is expected to provide an interim report by 30 June 2014, with the Commission expected to continue for at least three years. 
VIC: Appointment of the first Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Youth
Victoria has become the first Australian state to appoint a Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People,  going some way to addressing the CRC’s concerns at a the lack of effective independent monitoring for Indigenous children. 
However, it must be noted that no other states have yet initiated similar action, despite public calls to do so in Western Australia in particular.  Furthermore, there remains no national role for a commissioner for Indigenous children.
VIC: Release of ‘Victoria’s Vulnerable Children – Our Shared Responsibility Strategy’
The Victorian government has released a ten-year strategy to improve outcomes for vulnerable children in the state.
Focusing on protecting vulnerable children and improving future outcomes, the strategy stresses prevention of child abuse and neglect and the need to act earlier in the case of vulnerable children.  As part of the commencement of the strategy, the new Commission for Children and Young People will focus on overseeing the development of the strategy and accountability across all sectors. 
This is a positive development in Victorian policy, and the establishment of the Commission for Children and Young People is commended.
VIC: Establishment of the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations
In 2012 a Victorian Parliamentary Committee (the Family and Community Development Committee) was established to investigate how religious and other organisations have responded to the criminal abuse of children by persons within their organisations. 
This mandate included the consideration of practices, policies and protocols for handling allegations within organisations; the existence of systematic practices which may have precluded or discouraged reporting of criminal child abuse; and whether changes to law or practice are required to help prevent and deal with criminal abuse of children by persons in such organisations. 
The Inquiry received 405 written submissions up until the last date for submissions on 7 June 2013 and held a number of public hearings across Victoria in late 2012 and the first half of 2013.
In its final report, the Inquiry found that “criminal child abuse has profound and lifelong consequences for the physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of victims”.  As a result of its deliberations, the Inquiry made recommendations on a number of levels, including:
- reforms in criminal law, including new offences regarding grooming of children for sexual abuse and offences for child endangerment;
- greater access to civil litigation for child abuse victims, including removal of current limitations and to ensure vicarious liability of organisations;
- creation of independent and alternative avenues to the formal legal system for victims to obtain justice;
- greater monitoring of responses by organisations to child abuse by an independent body; and
- prevention of child abuse in organisations through awareness raising, criminal checks and procedures. 
This Inquiry will not only provide assistance and justice for past victims of child abuse in Victoria, but also seeks to protect children from such crimes in the future. This is a significant development for the recognition of the severity of child abuse by organisations in particular, and hopefully for the future protection of children in Victoria from such abuse.
NSW: Continued development in working with children checks
There has been positive and continual legislative development in working with children regulations in NSW  as seen through the enactment of the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 and the Child Protection (Working with Children) Regulation 2013 . These legislative developments have acted to strengthen child protection through mandating working with children check clearances for persons working with children, and specifying circumstances for detailed risk assessments. The Commission for Children and Young People has also been granted powers under the legislation to review confer and refuse applications under the Act. 
Continued review and implementation of best practice policy is vital for the child protection sector. However it would be preferable if such policies and actions were national in application.
NT: New approach to domestic violence
The Northern Territory government is developing a new, comprehensive and cross-agency domestic violence reduction strategy.
Under the strategy, up to ten government agencies will work together to address the high incidence of domestic violence in the Northern Territory, particularly in relation to repeat offenders. Programs which are already resulting in increasing reporting of domestic violence incidents to police will be implemented in a multi-agency approach. 
While the effectiveness of the strategy will be assessed in the future, the incorporation of integrated agency cooperation and the focus on child rights in the plan are positive developments for children at risk of family violence.
Developments requiring attention
NATIONAL: Appointment of the first National Children’s Commissioner
In 2013 Ms Megan Mitchell was appointed Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner, after the enactment of the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children’s Commissioner) Act 2012 (Cth).  This is a positive development for children nationally, responding to the CRC’s recommendations that Australia focus on promoting independent monitoring.
However, at this stage only $3.5million has been provided to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for the funding of the position, to be distributed over four years.  This has been regarded as largely inadequate by a number of organisations, being only enough to cover minimum staff and travel expenses, rather than supporting the Commissioner’s role in advocacy and monitoring.  The number of individual complaints to the AHRC under the Convention is expected to rise as a result of the establishment of the Commissioner and the lack of further funding to address such a rise may result in the Commissioner being unable to perform her role properly. 
NATIONAL: ‘National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020’
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children (Framework) has now entered into its second stage (2012 – 2015) which is set to focus on achieving a unified and collaborative approach to child protection across all governments and sectors. 
The Framework seeks to prioritise early prevention programmes through provision of support services at early stages to vulnerable families.  Such an approach is in line with the CRC Concluding Observations and will improve long-term outcomes for vulnerable children, as well as being more cost-effective than providing crisis response or treating the impacts of abuse and neglect.  The development of the Framework has resulted in discussion and momentum, as well as unification of policies and a focus on early prevention programs. These are positive government initiatives.
The Australian government has also sought to increase funding for early prevention programmes through new and innovative methods such as social bonds. This is a new way of raising funds through the private sector and is currently being pioneered in NSW through two current ‘Social Benefit Bonds’ programs.  According to the Framework, “if these outcomes are delivered, the Government will be able to redirect funds away from acute services towards early intervention and prevention programs”.  Given that programs aimed at early prevention of child abuse and neglect are one of the Framework’s major focuses, funding for these programs must continue to grow. 
As a result of the l Framework we have also seen the development of the Common Approach to Assessment, Referral and Support (CAARS) which aims to assist health practitioners to better identify and refer at-risk children. This may be seen to address another of the CRC’s major concerns in relation to child abuse and neglect reporting. However, CAARS is still at trial level and has not extended toall jurisdictions. 
There are also a number of initiatives included in the First Three Year Plan of the Framework, or recommended for addition to the Second Three Year Plan, which have not been achieved or addressed. The Coalition of Organisations Committed to the Safety and Wellbeing of Australia’s Children in their submissions for the Second Three Year Plan recommended the review of and development of specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child protection initiatives. For example, a child abuse prevention initiative to deliver culturally-based protective behaviour programs for indigenous youth.  Other non-government organisations and actors in the sector have also called for increased funding to build on already-gained momentum;  however no budget figures for the next plan or its early prevention allocation have yet been released. 
While the Framework is a positive development for the protection of children and may assist in addressing the concerns of the CRC, it nonetheless cannot be seen as an adequate replacement for consolidated national human rights legislation. As stated by the Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Advocacy, Anna Brown, “[w]e are a stable, democratic and highly developed state with a government that espouses a commitment to human rights leadership. Yet we are the only modern democracy without a Human Rights Act or Charter”.  The reliance on acceptance and adoption by individual states and territories is inefficient and inadequate.
There has also been very little material progress on the key objectives of the Framework – to create a consistent national framework for preventing abuse and a greater focus (and funding of) preventative early intervention family support programs instead of the current emphasis on tertiary crisis services.
Furthermore, in developing the Framework, the government has not engaged in sufficient conversation and discussion with children. There is little evidence of contact with children in the Framework and a clear absence of in depth consultations. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have a right to have their opinion heard and taken into account when adults are making decisions which affect them.  This right has not been adequately considered by the government in establishing this Framework and additional consultation with children must be undertaken in the future to remedy this.
QLD: Child Protection Commission of Inquiry Report Released
In June 2013 the Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry released its final report on effectiveness of the entire state child protection system: ‘Taking Responsibility: A Roadmap for Queensland Child Protection’ (“the Report”). The Report has widely been acknowledged as the most in depth report on child protection in the state’s history.  It was commissioned in response to a number of concerns across the sector, including the increasingly high levels of child protection intakes and the number of children being placed in out-of-home-care doubling over the past decade.  The Commission made 121 recommendations, finding the current system is failing as a result of:
…too little money spent on early intervention to support vulnerable families; a widespread risk-averse culture that focuses too heavily on coercive instead of supportive strategies and overreacts to (or overcompensates for) hostile media and community scrutiny; and, linked with this, a tendency from all parts of society to shift responsibility onto Child Safety. 
The Report supports the CRC’s view that positive reunification of children with their parents should be prioritised: “wherever possible it is better for the child to stay safely at home”.  Many of the recommendations in the Report are consistent with the CRC’s Concluding Observations, including the need to focus on early intervention approaches and family support policies, rather than stigmatised intervention or investigative programmes. 
In terms of professional reporting of cases of child abuse the Report recommends a total review of “all existing legislative reporting obligations…” and the development of “a single ‘standard’ to govern reporting policies across core Queensland Government agencies”.  This was a major concern noted in the Concluding Observations. This is recommended in addition to joint training for professionals to assist them to decide whether a particular case should be reported to government.
Furthermore, the Report recommends that ‘dual reporting pathways’ should be created to allow at-risk families to access community-based brokers rather than reporting straight to Child Safety, allowing those families to access support services without attracting stigma or needless contact with the statutory system. 
However, recommendations including the disbandment of the Children’s Commission and the consideration of adoption as a routine consideration in out-of-home-care have also attracted some criticism.  Child rights organisations such as CREATE Foundation have stated this signals a return to self-monitoring rather than independent monitoring of out-of-home care organisations and government agencies, which will negatively impact on children’s safety and rights. 
The Report does however suggest the creation of the Family and Child Council to replace the existing Children’s Commission, broadening its ability to monitor and report on child protection system performance and allowing it to use cross-agency status to strengthen the capacity of the whole sector. Under this plan, the role of Child Guardian would be transferred to the Public Guardian of Queensland, while complaints and operational review would be performed by existing departments.  This is largely an operational concern, although the removal of a specific and easily identifiable Children’s Commissioner may be of concern for ease of contact and access.
CREATE Foundation is also critical of the recommendation to review the cases of all children and young people in long-term care and children who have been in care for less than six months, in light of the risk of young people potentially becoming homeless if faced with forced placement with their family or if moved from a placement they enjoy. 
The Queensland government has however pledged to honour the most of the 121 recommendations made in the report, accepting 115 recommendations and 6 in principle.  It is important at this stage then that the government be encouraged to listen to the non-government sectors concerns but also seek to prioritise child safety and child rights in implementing the recommendations of the report.
NSW: Extra officers added to Police Force Child Abuse Squad
In May 2013 the New South Wales government announced additional funding for 30 new positions in the Police Child Abuse Squad, after allegations that child abusers were not being arrested due to understaffing.
However, in its submission to the State Police Force, the Police Child Abuse Squad requested an additional 175 officers in order to respond to systemic short staffing and lack of resources. In light of the fact that the number of new positions allocated funding was dramatically less than what was requested, the governmental response in this case may be found to be insufficient. 
State opposition leader John Robertson and Shadow Minister for Community Services Linda Burney have heavily criticised the inadequacy of the government’s response, claiming the government have “fixed nothing” and called for more officers to be installed immediately. 
SA: Announcement of pending appointment of Commissioner Children and Young People
South Australia is currently the only Australian state without a dedicated, independent Commissioner for Children and Young People. Following the release of the South Australian Royal Commission Inquiry into Independent Education (“Debelle Report”),  the South Australian government has announced its intention to establish a Commissioner for Children and Young People. 
However, at this stage legislation has not been passed through the state Parliament. Opposition Leader Steven Marshall has criticised the government as being “slow to act” on the issue, and “playing catch up on child protection”.  Current South Australian Guardian for Children, Pam Simmons, has also indicated the need for the role, stating that in the past there have been child protection matters raised but “no independent advocate with authority to intervene in those matters”. 
It is imperative that the South Australian government immediately act on its commitment to establish a Commission for Children and Young People, in order to appropriately support families vulnerable to abuse and neglect as well as protect other child rights as recommended by the CRC.
Areas lacking progress
NATIONAL: Child Caseworker Overloads
Although figures for rates of child abuse and neglect are unavailable for the current year following the conclusion of the first part of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, it is clear that case workers across Australia are continuing to complain of high referral rates and unsustainable case loads.
In July 2013, the ABC News released a report into the increase of neglect cases in the Northern Territory and insights into the problems faced by caseworkers. 
This concern for understaffed and under-resourced caseworkers has also been echoed in the New South Wales media, with claims that case workers are unable to respond to complaints due to understaffing.  Department of Family and Community Services’ caseworkers recently walked off the job in Wollongong over concerns that chronic understaffing led to the death of a toddler.  A caseworker at that office appeared on the 7:30 Report anonymously, claiming that “the managers and the manager client services could see it was a case that needed to be allocated and they wanted to allocate it, but there wasn’t any staff or capacity to do so.” 
NSW Minister for Community and Family Services Pru Goward admitted that in 2012, caseworkers could have done better to save the 83 children who were known to the Department who died that year. Ms Goward said that although “casework could have been stronger in some cases”, caseworkers were seeing 7% more children than they were able to 2 years ago. 
This is an issue which must be immediately addressed at both a state and national level. Understaffing and high workloads for caseworkers is unsustainable and will continue to place vulnerable children at high risk of serious harm or death.
NATIONAL: Continuingly high rates of child abuse and neglect
In the 12 months leading up to 30 June 2012, the number of children who were the subject of substantiated child abuse and neglect claims increased from 31,527 to 37,781, reversing a previous downward trend.  This increase was found across most jurisdictions, although may be influenced by a range of exterior factors such as increased public awareness, legislative changes, changed policies, as well as real increases in abuse and neglect.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be overrepresented, being almost 8 times as likely to be the subject of substantiated child abuse and neglect as non-Indigenous children. 
In the same time period up to 39,621 children were living in out-of-home care, an increase of 5.24% from the previous year. 
These statistics are due to be reviewed in early 2014 for the current year. However, this continuingly high rate of child abuse and neglect indicates that the system as it currently stands is not sufficiently protecting children from violence, abuse and harm. Although it may take some time for early intervention strategies to see results for children, the government must continue to fund education strategies and a sufficient number of child protection workers in order to safeguard Australia’s children.
NSW: Victims Rights and Support Act 2013 (NSW) reduces time limits for claiming victims compensation
Under new legislation, compensation payouts to victims of child abuse, domestic violence or sexual assault crime has been subjected to shorter time limitations. Under the Act, victims must make an application for compensation within 10 years of the date of the crime, or if they were a child at the time of the crime, within 10 years of reaching 18 years of age. 
Women’s and children’s rights groups have said this change ‘fails to recognise the harm done to victims of sexual assault and child abuse’ and is inconsistent with the need for victims to disclose harm done to them at their own pace.  It does not consider psychological issues associated with child sexual abuse in particular and fails to adequately compensate the most vulnerable of our society.
WA: Reduction in domestic violence funding affects Aboriginal women’s shelters
The Western Australian government is being urged to reverse a decision to slash funding from four Aboriginal-run women’s shelter in the Kimberley and Pilbara. 
While the Department for Child Protection and Family Services claims the shelters are over-funded and under-utilised, advocates such as the Women’s Resource Centre CEO June Oscar have labelled the decision as “shocking”, particularly in light of the high rates of domestic violence in the Kimberley. 
It is vital that the state government does not cut funding at the expense of the safety of women and children, particularly in high risk areas of the state. Alternatives to funding cuts should be the first consideration in the case of under-utilisation, such as additional programs or community education.