CHILD ABUSE FAIL

IT blun­der leaves hun­dreds of kids at risk

The Courier-Mail - - FRONT PAGE - SARAH VOGLER BRIT­TANY VONOW

DE­TEC­TIVES are rac­ing to check on the safety of hun­dreds of chil­dren af­ter a com­puter blun­der meant more than 600 sex­ual abuse alerts from school prin­ci­pals never made it to po­lice.

Fu­ri­ous Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Kate Jones re­vealed the bun­gle yesterday, which oc­curred be­cause a new com­puter sys­tem al­low­ing prin­ci­pals to re­port di­rectly to po­lice was not tested be­fore it went live in Jan­uary.

Two Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment staffers have been stood down over the scan­dal, which was only un­cov­ered by chance on Thurs­day af­ter a prin­ci­pal fol­lowed up to see how their re­port was han­dled.

“What we have seen is a fail­ure by a de­part­men­tal of­fi­cer in test­ing the changes to the sys­tem, the sys­tem that passes on in­for­ma­tion from the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to po­lice around sus­pected sex­ual abuse,” Ms Jones said yesterday.

Po­lice scram­bled to re­view more than 520 of the miss­ing cases in just 24 hours, but de­clared it could be weeks be­fore all were in­ves­ti­gated thor­oughly.

PO­LICE are rac­ing to in­ves­ti­gate more than 600 al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual abuse against Queens­land chil­dren which have gone un­re­ported for six months be­cause of a hor­rific IT bun­gle.

The IT sys­tem, rolled out to al­low prin­ci­pals to re­port abuse al­le­ga­tions di­rectly to po­lice, mal­func­tioned with 644 re­ports not re­ceived be­tween Jan­uary 22, when the sys­tem went live, and July 30 when it was picked up by a prin­ci­pal.

The sys­tem was im­ple­mented dur­ing the care­taker pe­riod be­fore the Jan­uary 31 poll fol­low­ing a rec­om­men­da­tion from the Car­mody child pro­tec­tion in­quiry.

It al­lowed three lev­els of no­ti­fi­ca­tion, one to po­lice and child safety, one to child safety and one to po­lice.

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Kate Jones said yesterday that while the first two cat­e­gories worked, one cat­e­gory of no­ti­fi­ca­tion – in which prin­ci­pals be­lieve a child is safe and un­der the pro­tec­tion of an adult but want to en­sure po­lice are aware of the al­le­ga­tion – was never tested and had never worked from the start.

Prin­ci­pals were re­ceiv­ing an email in­form­ing them their com­plaint had been made de­spite it never be­ing for­warded to po­lice.

Ms Jones de­scribed the er­ror as heart­break­ing, with two public ser­vants charged with im­ple­ment­ing and test­ing the sys­tem al­ready stood aside while an in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion was launched. More are ex­pected as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion widens.

Po­lice, mean­while, are work­ing with the depart­ment to sift through the com­plaints in an at­tempt to dis­cover if the bun­gle has led to the harm of the hun­dreds of chil­dren in­volved.

“It is deeply con­cern­ing to me that this was not picked up ear­lier,” Ms Jones said. “More con­cern­ing to me is that you would im­ple­ment changes to the One School sys­tem about the re­port­ing of sex­ual abuse and then not test them.

“What we have seen is a fail­ure by a de­part­men­tal of­fi­cer in test­ing the changes to the sys­tem, the sys­tem that passes on in­for­ma­tion from the depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion to po­lice around sus­pected sex­ual abuse.”

Act­ing As­sis­tant Com­mis­sioner Cameron Hars­ley said po­lice had re­viewed more than 520 re­ports since be­ing made aware of their ex­is­tence on Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

He said it could be sev­eral weeks be­fore all the re­ports were thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated.

“I am con­fi­dent that there is only a min­i­mal amount of chil­dren that may have been placed at risk,” he said.

“The re­ports will range from a child that is ex­hibit­ing a sex­u­alised be­hav­iour, and the prin­ci­pal in his own mind will think or talk to the par­ent or make an as­sess­ment that the child is not at an im­me­di­ate risk but it needs fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“That’s at the lower end, where the prin­ci­pal rightly makes a sus­pi­cion in his mind and thinks the po­lice need to con­duct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Mr Hars­ley said po­lice had put in place a num­ber of mea­sures to help en­sure any child found to have been placed at risk was iden­ti­fied and helped.

“Those that have been iden­ti­fied that are at risk or at im­me­di­ate risk at the mo­ment, there will be a safety plan that will be put in place with the po­lice and other agen­cies that will en­sure the safety of those chil­dren.”

Ms Jones could not ex­plain why the er­ror took six months to un­cover, nor could she guar­an­tee no child had been harmed as a re­sult. But she said she hoped the in­ves­ti­ga­tions would re­veal the facts.

Queens­land Teach­ers Union pres­i­dent Kevin Bates said child pro­tec­tion was the num­ber one is­sue for teach­ers and prin­ci­pals.

“If any child has been left in an un­safe sit­u­a­tion be­cause of that then it’s ob­vi­ously some­thing that would cause all teach­ers and prin­ci­pals and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity great con­cern,” he said.

“We would be hope­ful that in­ves­ti­ga­tion will come up with a set of rec­om­men­da­tions to make sure this sig­nif­i­cant fail­ure by sys­tems won’t hap­pen again.”

The LNP was in gov­ern­ment when the sys­tem was im­ple­mented. Op­po­si­tion ed­u­ca­tion spokesman Tim Man­der ques­tioned why the er­ror was not picked up sooner. “For this IT fail­ure to have gone un­de­tected for six months is deeply con­cern­ing,” he said.

ED­U­CA­TION Min­is­ter Kate Jones yesterday de­scribed a mal­func­tion­ing data­base that left more than 600 re­ports of po­ten­tial child abuse in limbo as a “sys­tem fail­ure”.

Epic fail­ure would have been a bet­ter choice of words.

This is not to sheet the blame home to a clearly an­gry and dis­tressed Ms Jones, but rather re­flects the dis­be­lief most Queens­lan­ders would feel to learn that such a sen­si­tive sys­tem would ap­par­ently go live with­out first be­ing tested.

It sim­ply beg­gars belief that 644 re­ports to po­lice from con­cerned state school prin­ci­pals – most of them re­lat­ing to pos­si­ble sex­ual abuse of chil­dren – ba­si­cally slipped through the cracks. The “glitch” was only dis­cov­ered af­ter one con­cerned prin­ci­pal fol­lowed up an ear­lier com­plaint.

The bot­tom line is that hun­dreds of Queens­land chil­dren have been left at risk, as al­le­ga­tions of abuse sat un­no­ticed in the ether gath­er­ing elec­tronic dust.

Ba­sic com­mon sense would dic­tate that when you in­stall new soft­ware or op­er­at­ing sys­tems, the process is checked and rechecked to en­sure ev­ery­thing is func­tion­ing prop­erly be­fore you go live. That com­mon sense was clearly ab­sent.

Such rudi­men­tary rea­son­ing should al­ready be etched deeply into the minds of all Queens­land se­nior bu­reau­crats in the wake of the Queens­land Health pay­roll de­ba­cle, a bun­gled in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy up­grade that is now cost­ing an es­ti­mated $1.2 bil­lion to fix, and was it­self the sub­ject of a de­tailed and damn­ing in­quiry.

Right now, this is not about pol­i­tics or play­ing the blame game. In fact, Ms Jones was not even a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, let alone the re­spon­si­ble min­is­ter, when the sys­tem went live on Jan­uary 22 this year dur­ing the care­taker pe­riod pre­ced­ing the Queens­land elec­tion.

It is, how­ever, all about get­ting to the bot­tom of the bun­gle; as­cer­tain­ing just how so ba­sic a process could be so badly stuffed up, and why it took six months to dis­cover that the sys­tem was not work­ing.

To cut to the core, the well­be­ing of pos­si­bly hun­dreds of Queens­land chil­dren has been en­dan­gered through mon­u­men­tal in­com­pe­tence.

Firstly, the sys­tem – a key rec­om­men­da­tion of the Car­mody In­quiry into child pro­tec­tion – must be fixed.

Se­condly, all the al­le­ga­tions that have been left unat­tended must be in­ves­ti­gated, and in­ves­ti­gated thor­oughly, as a mat­ter of pri­or­ity. There are, quite lit­er­ally, young lives at stake in this equa­tion.

Af­ter the in­ter­ests of those most vul­ner­a­ble have been served, then we might think about re­crim­i­na­tions for what is in­ex­cus­able mis­man­age­ment.

Just how many ex­am­ples of ad­min­is­tra­tive in­com­pe­tence, ne­glect and waste – and how many in­quiries into the mess such fi­as­cos leave be­hind – does it take?

QUES­TIONS:

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Kate Jones (left) is de­mand­ing to know how the er­ror oc­curred; child abuse cam­paigner Hetty John­ston

(be­low).

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