Sunday, September 03, 2006

Government child agency failed 'thousands'

This is something that government agencies are extraordinarily bad at. All such work should be contracted out to private agencies -- preferably church-based

The death of a 13-month-old boy has highlighted the cases of 22,000 abused children failed by a government child protection agency. Robbie Gillett was still in the womb when he was failed by the NSW Department of Community Services (DOCS) for the first time. After his mother, Rebecca Mann, presented at Campbelltown Hospital with an alarming pregnancy complication, she was offered support from DOCS. But despite advice that her growing baby could be at risk because she was leaking amniotic fluid, she refused point blank.

Robbie, of course, had no voice to speak for himself - and no one prepared to take up his cause. Like an estimated 22,000 children in NSW each year, he was known to authorities as being at risk of serious harm, but was repeatedly failed by those paid to protect him. Before he finally gave up the battle to live, the tiny blond boy with the haunted eyes endured trauma that has left even seasoned child-abuse investigators shellshocked.

While the cause of Robbie's death is yet to be confirmed, The Australian understands an initial examination of the one-year-old's body revealed internal injuries consistent with violent force inflicted by a blunt object. In the hours before he was discovered dead by his mother in the family's home in Claymore, in Sydney's southwest, on July 31, Robbie's bowel, liver, one kidney and an adrenal gland had been perforated, and his heart sac damaged.

Yesterday, the boy's maternal grandfather, Stephen Mann, joined detectives to plead for anyone with information about how the baby spent his days to come forward. "Robbie was a beautiful baby boy who brought so much joy and happiness to our lives," Mr Mann said. "This shocking event will haunt our family forever."

Alarm bells should have been tolling for Robbie Gillett long before this catastrophic ending. Within months of his birth the infant suffered a skull fracture - but investigating DOCS caseworkers deemed no further intervention was needed. Six months later, another DOCS notification was issued when Robbie suffered unusual damage to his testicles. His parents insisted one of his two older brothers had stepped on the baby during a nappy change. That excuse was apparently plausible: Robbie's DOCS case file was closed soon after, within weeks of his death.

But it was not just welfare workers who failed the little boy. The Australian has learned at least two family doctors, in Claymore and Campbelltown, are likely to face disciplinary action for ignoring mandatory reporting obligations that require health workers in NSW to report suspected child abuse. The doctors had separately examined Robbie in the months before his death and referred him to hospital for treatment of a number of injuries, including extensive bruising and what has since been confirmed as two fractured ribs.

But tragically, Robbie's case is not unique. If anything, his story is just the latest illustration of how beleaguered and dysfunctional the NSW Department of Community Services has become despite a $1.2billion funding boost in 2003. Calculations based on the department's annual statistics, released without fanfare in May for 2004-05, show almost half of all initial assessments deemed by DOCS Helpline workers to be worthy of further investigation were never followed up.

Notifications to DOCS have jumped dramatically in recent years - driven mainly by increased mandatory reporting obligations placed on health workers, teachers and police - to 216,386 in 2004-05. About 65 per cent of those notifications were referred to caseworkers or Joint Investigation Response teams made up of DOCS staff, police and health workers, for investigation of potential physical, sexual or psychological abuse, or cases of severe neglect. But roughly half of those recommendations for further assessment - or 65,975 individual reports - had no outcome recorded in 2004-05. The DOCS report gives no explanation as to why, but distinguishes them from cases where the investigation is continuing. With DOCS estimating it receives two reports for every child referred to the service, these figures suggest almost 33,000 at-risk children never received the department's recommended follow-up. But about two-thirds of all cases that did receive secondary assessment in 2004-05 confirmed actual harm to a child.


Significant Greenhouse backdown

The world's top climate scientists have cut their worst-case forecast for global warming over the next 100 years. A draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, obtained exclusively by The Weekend Australian, offers a more certain projection of climate change than the body's forecasts five years ago. For the first time, scientists are confident enough to project a 3C rise on the average global daily temperature by the end of this century if no action is taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The draft Fourth Assessment Report says the temperature increase could be contained to 2C by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are held at current levels.

In 2001, the scientists predicted temperature rises of between 1.4C and 5.8C on current levels by 2100, but better science has led them to adjust this to a narrower band of between 2C and 4.5C. The new projections put paid to some of the more alarmist scenarios raised by previous modelling, which have suggested that sea levels could rise by almost 1m over the same period.

The report projects a rise in sea levels by century's end of between 14cm and 43cm, with further rises expected in following centuries caused by melting polar ice. The new projections forecast damage by global warming, such as stronger cyclones, modest sea-level rises and further shrinking of the arctic sea ice.

CSIRO research predicts the biggest impact of sea-level changes of this scale would be to increase the effect of storm surges, particularly on Australia's tropical northern coastline. The forecast temperature rises would also result in lower rainfall over most of the Australian mainland and exacerbate the threat to the survival of coral reefs and shellfish by increasing the risk of bleaching and increasing the acidity of the ocean.

Australian Conservation Foundation energy program manager Erwin Jackson said theprojections required an urgent and immediate response from the federal Government to drive accelerated investment in low-emissions technology in Australia. "Every day we delay taking action, the problem gets worse," Mr Jackson said. "The Government keeps throwing up the costs of action but totally ignores the costs of inaction. "No one ever said that saving the planet would cost nothing - that's the bottom line."

A recent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics report on the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions estimated Australians would incur a fall in real wages of about 20 per cent if the nation was to unilaterally cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.

John Howard this week said that sort of scenario would have an "enormously damaging" effect on the economy. "I accept that climate change is a challenge," the Prime Minister said. "I accept the broad theory about global warming. I am sceptical about a lot of the more gloomy predictions. "I also recognise that a country like Australia has got to balance a concern for greenhouse gas emissions with a concern for the enormous burden to be carried by consumers ... of what you might call an anti-greenhouse policy. It's a question of balance."

Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell said the draft IPCC report was still undergoing a thorough review process before its approval by the panel next year. "It highlights the need for an effective global response to climate change as Australia alone cannot alter the pattern of world emissions," Senator Campbell said. "We are taking a leading role internationally to achieve effective engagement by all major greenhouse gas-emitting countries."

The new projections are based on the results of 23 climate models, developed by government climate scientists from IPCC member countries. According to current climate change models, stabilising global greenhouse gas levels to 400parts per million offers a good chance of avoiding 2C global temperature increases. This would require global emissions to be 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

CSIRO recently concluded that the goal of 60 per cent reductions might be considered the minimum needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Any further reductions in global temperatures would require cuts in emissions of about 80-90 per cent in industrialised countries by 2050, which would require a faster transition to near-zero emissions technologies.


A negligent NSW public hospital

A father who lost his son to meningococcal disease is suing a South Coast hospital after it allegedly twice sent him home with his sick child. Nicholas Constantini, 5, died 48 hours after his father first took him to the Shoalhaven Memorial District Hospital in January last year. Yesterday his father, Roy Constantini, of Nowra, sued in the NSW District Court, claiming damages for psychiatric injury he has suffered since his son's death.

In a statement of claim filed with the court, he alleges the hospital was negligent in its treatment of his son, and in the advice given to him about his son's symptoms. Among its alleged failures were a failure to follow public health and NSW guidelines for the early treatment of meningococcal disease, a failure to administer intravenous antibiotics and failure to conduct appropriate tests. "Had Nick been provided with adequate treatment he would have survived," said Mr Constantini's solicitor, Stephen Thornton.

Speaking from his home yesterday, Mr Constantini said he and his sister had first taken Nicholas to the hospital about 10am on a Thursday. He said the hospital administered some tests, and gave him Panadol. They were told they could all go home about 3pm.

Mr Constantini said after leaving hospital his son began to vomit, so he returned to the hospital at 6pm, and was told the boy had an allergy. By the next morning he said his son had difficulty breathing and walking. He took him back to the hospital at 10am where, not long after, he convulsed and went into a coma from which he did not wake.

Mr Constantini said his son was flown to Sydney that night but died on Saturday morning. "I was angry. I was in shock. I had a sick child and I trusted the doctors, too. I believed them," he said. "I want everybody to know about this. I don't want it to happen to another child."


Reasons for low teacher quality

The teaching profession has been shoved into the spotlight by a disturbing new study that finds the quality of teachers has plummeted in the past 20 years. It also has reignited debate on the mounting pressures teachers face. The Australian Nation University study released this week found that in 1983 teachers were in the top 26 per cent of high school graduates in terms of literacy and numeracy. By 2003, they were only in the top 39 per cent. Even more alarmingly, the number of very high achievers had halved, while the ranks of poor performers had doubled.

Both federal Education Minister Julie Bishop and her Opposition counterpart Jenny Macklin are looking at performance-based pay incentives as a means of halting the decline. During a visit to Brisbane this week, Ms Bishop said that teachers in better-off schools would not benefit at the expense of those in "tough" schools. She said a suitable formula for measuring teacher performance could be found despite the vastly different challenges faced by teachers in a variety of different schools.

Unions and parents' groups are sceptical, however. "Mention that (performance bonuses) to a teacher working with a class of special education students and they'd laugh in your face," Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan said.

The ANU study concluded that falling wages relative to other professions was a key factor behind falling standards. "Compared with non-teachers with a degree, average teacher pay fell by more than 10 per cent during the period 1983 to 2003," it said. But the ANU researchers conceded that attracting the best school leavers was about more than money.

Serving and retired teachers contacted by The Courier-Mail listed student discipline, fears of false sexual harassment claims, workloads and lack of resources as reasons for the difficulty in enticing quality recruits.

Surprisingly, the No.1 complaint was a perceived drop in their status. None of them agreed to speak on the record for fear of upsetting Education Queensland or private employers, but their claims and other evidence suggested verbal abuse and assault by students was a major concern. In the four terms to mid-2004, for example, an average of four students a day were expelled from state schools for breaches of discipline and school rules.

Staffing levels continued to play on their minds despite recent recruitment drives. Despite all those woes, tertiary cut-off scores showed "good" courses still managed to attract quality graduates. Griffith University has managed to buck the trend to lowering entry scores for teaching places, which it puts down to a reputation for quality training. Dean of education Claire Wyatt-Smith said the market voted with its feet. "While the course content is heavily informed by education research, it has a strong practical component," Professor Wyatt-Smith said. "Students spend a day a week in classrooms early in their training."


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