Thursday, 16 October 2008

Rise in deaths of children at risk

THERE has been a surge in the number of deaths of children at risk in NSW in 2007, despite a $1.2 billion funding injection into the Department of Community Services over the previous five years.

The revelation came at an estimates hearing at State Parliament yesterday, as an inquiry is finalising its recommendations as to whether the Government is doing enough to protect children at risk.

The Minister for Community Services, Linda Burney, said yesterday 156 children at risk had died in 2007, up from 114 in 2006. In all cases, the children were known to DOCS as being at risk.

For several years the number of deaths of children at risk has hovered at 100-110 a year. Criticism over the continued high level of deaths led last September to the Wood inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court judge James Wood, QC. It is to report its findings by year end.

The number of deaths of children at risk is usually disclosed by the Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, although Ms Burney said yesterday she had told him that if asked during the committee hearings, she would disclose the data.

Ms Burney pointed to the "significant increase" in the number of deaths, which would be of public concern.

"The most frequently-recorded risk factors in reports about children and young people who died in 2007 were domestic violence and parental substance abuse," Ms Burney told the parliamentary committee hearing. "These issues seriously erode our children's safety, accompanied by a third social problem, mental health issues for parents."

Of the 156 deaths, 72 were from natural causes, 18 were babies who died of sudden infant death syndrome, known as SIDS, eight were suicides, eight died in car accidents, five drowned, three died from fires, three from accidental choking or smothering, 11 died in uncommon circumstances such as from a snake bite, four died from fatal physical assaults, and the remaining 19 died due to causes unknown or undetermined.

In all, 55 per cent were involved either directly, or their sibling, in instances of domestic violence in the three years before their death, and there was also 55 per cent in cases where there was suspicion of parental substance abuse, and 24 per cent showing parental mental health concerns

"The Opposition has been calling for a royal commission into DOCS for quite some time," the Opposition spokeswoman on community services, Katrina Hodgkinson, said. She blamed the department for not working closely with other government agencies, a culture of bullying in the department, and a "revolving door of junior ministers" handling the portfolio for the chronic problems.

During the committee hearing, the director-general of the Department of Community Services, Jenny Mason, said that despite successes in hiring more case workers, staff turnover remains high, at 8.9 per cent in 2006-07.


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