We are often contacted by parents and members of the community querying whether they should inform the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services over concerns about a child’s welfare. It is important for parents, or anyone concerned about the welfare of a child, to understand the process adopted by the Department and whether their concerns are likely to justify making a report.
Who can notify the Department?
Anyone can notify the Department about a child (being anyone under the age of 18 years) who has been, or is, at risk of harm.
Understandably, reports are often made by parents, relatives or close family friends of the child.
However, it is mandatory for certain people to notify the Department if they reasonably suspect a child has been, or is, at risk of harm. Those people include:
- registered nurses;
- police officers;
- persons engaged to perform a child advocate function under the Public Guardian Act 2014 (Qld);
- Child Safety employees and employees of licensed care providers;
- Family Court personnel and counsellors; and
- interested persons in parenting proceedings (by way of filing a Notice of Risk or Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk of Family Violence).
From 1 July 2017, early childhood education and care professionals are also obliged to report any concerns of harm to a child.
What is ‘harm’?
Section 9(1) of the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld) defines harm as any detrimental effect of a significant nature on the child’s physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing.
It does not matter how the harm is caused, for example, whether it is a deliberate or inadvertent act. Harm can be caused by a single act and does not need to reflect a series of incidents.
Whom do you contact if you reasonably suspect a child has been, or is, at risk of harm?
If you consider that a child is in serious and immediate danger of harm, you should phone 000 to contact the police.
If you contact Child Safety Services to report a risk of harm, you will be asked for identifying details and questioned about your concerns. It is important to provide as much detail as possible to allow the Department to assess those concerns and determine whether to investigate further.
Who generally notifies the Department?
In 2015-2016, 22,607 notifications were made by the Department. Interestingly, the primary sources of those notifications were:
- 20% by police;
- 18% by school personnel;
- 18% by health sources;
- 9% by non-parent relatives;
- 7% by parents/guardians;
- 5% by friends/neighbours; and
- approximately 23% by all other sources.
The high frequency of police referrals may be due in part to parents contacting the police about concerns for their child. The police will then notify the Department if they are reasonably satisfied the child has been, or is, at risk of harm.
What will the Department do if a report of harm is made?
The Department has four ways of responding to reports about a risk of harm to a child:
- Limited intake response –recorded if the report contains no allegations of harm or risk of harm.
- Intake enquiry – reflects an enquiry that provides no identifying details or sufficient information for the Department to investigate.
- Child concern report – made where the allegations do not meet the threshold of significant harm, or risk of significant harm, to a child.
- Notification – made where the allegations meet the threshold of significant harm, or risk of significant harm, to a child.
If a notification is recorded, the Department will investigate to determine whether a child needs protection. This typically involves interviewing the parents and the child, along with any witnesses to the alleged harm.
Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the Department may intervene by seeking custody or guardianship orders.
Who will find out if a report of risk of harm is made to the Department?
A child’s parents will be contacted by the Department if a notification is made and an investigation will follow.
In certain circumstances, if a child concern report is made (i.e. the allegations are not serious enough to warrant further investigation) the child’s parents may be notified if the case officer refers the matter to another agency e.g. a counselling service.
The Department will not advise the child’s parents of the name or contact details of any person who makes a report.
Further, if a subpoena is issued to the Department for their file, the Department will redact the name and contact details of the reporting person.
However, it is important to note that the facts relating to the report will not be redacted. This means that, depending on the facts, anyone who reads the file may be able to determine who the reporting person was – despite their details being redacted.
Any person who makes a report to the Department of harm, or risk of harm, to a child, is protected from civil and criminal liability provided they acted honestly and reasonably when providing that information to the Department (section 197A of the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld)).
Should I get advice before making a report to the Department or after being advised of a notification?
We recommend that clients obtain advice before making a report to the Department about a risk of harm to a child, save for circumstances where there is an imminent risk of serious harm (in which case the police should be contacted immediately).
It is often our experience that reports made to the Department do not satisfy the necessary threshold for a formal notification. It may be more appropriate to pursue alternate avenues, such as family dispute resolution or counselling, to address any alleged concerns.
If you are informed by the Department that a notification has been made that affects your child, you should immediately obtain legal advice.
We can help you liaise with the Department and implement strategies to ensure your child is protected from harm while minimising any disruption to your time with the child.
For further information please contact Craig Turvey of Cooper Grace Ward’s family law team via +61 7 3231 2479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.