Keeping Children and Young People Safe


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A shared community responsibility

A guide to reporting child abuse and neglect in the ACT

The purpose of this guide is to provide you with information about reporting concerns of child abuse or neglect that occurs within a family to Child and Youth Protection Services (CYPS).

Specifically, this guide will tell you about:

By providing this information we aim to help you understand how the child protection system works in the ACT, and the important roles we all play in identifying and appropriately acting on suspicions of abuse and neglect so we can best work together for the benefit of Canberra’s children and families.

Important:
If you believe the child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation, please contact the Police immediately by calling 000.

Children and young people

In reading this guide, the terms ‘child’ and ‘children’ also refer to ‘young person’ and ‘young people’. Concerns of child abuse or neglect can be reported regarding any child under 18 years old who usually live in the ACT.

Message from the Director General

We live in a great community where every child deserves to grow up in a safe and loving environment. For some children sadly, this is not the case. Child abuse and neglect are serious and complex problems that can occur in the lives of children. There is no simple explanation for why child abuse or neglect happens, rather, many factors can converge to increase a child’s risk of being harmed.

The ACT Government is committed to keeping children safe and Child and Youth Protection Services (CYPS) is the agency we have tasked with this important role. However, CYPS cannot do this alone. Keeping the children in our community safe is a shared responsibility.

Anyone in our community, whether a teacher, doctor, childcare worker, relative, friend or neighbour, can play a significant role in preventing child abuse and neglect, and therefore make an enormous difference in a child’s life.

By paying attention to the warning signs of abuse and neglect, early intervention with families who may be struggling can prevent serious harm from occurring and ensure the needs of these children are put first.

In the ACT, we are fortunate to have access to a range of valuable services that specialise in supporting families in need. These services, together with CYPS, provide multiple avenues for children and their families to get the right kind of help they need.

I thank the community and our mandated reporters who on a daily basis put the best interests of our children first. By working together, I am confident we can support all children to have the opportunity to grow up strong, safe and connected.

Michael De’Ath
Director General, Community Services Directorate

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Keeping children safe: a shared responsibility

Child abuse and neglect are serious and complex problems that can occur in the lives of children. While CYPS is the ACT government agency responsible for child protection, it relies on members of the community for early identification of those likely to be at risk. CYPS relies on:

Child abuse and neglect can be difficult to detect and a child’s behaviour can be the symptom of any number of things happening in their life – abuse or neglect may or may not be one of them. It is important then that any person considering making a report of suspected child abuse or neglect has a reason for their belief or suspicion before doing so.

Regardless, a child’s behaviour can be a call for help.

This guide aims to help you, whether you are a community member or a mandated reporter, make informed decisions when you are concerned about a child’s situation. It will help you determine whether you should:

Photo of a young girl smiling

The role of Child and Youth Protection Services

CYPS is responsible for investigating the wellbeing of Canberra’s children who may be at risk of abuse or neglect by a family member or guardian. CYPS is part of the Community Services Directorate.

CYPS receives, records and responds to all allegations of child abuse or neglect that occurs within a family. Such allegations are recorded in a Child Concern Report that can be made by anyone in the community.

CYPS relies on its community partners – including schools, health professionals and services, childcare providers and all those who work with families – to help identify early families who may be in need of support and children who may be at risk. In doing so, it is possible to provide appropriate interventions to reduce future risk to the children involved.

The Children and Young People Act 2008 (the Act) provides CYPS with the legal framework to carry out its responsibility to receive and respond to Child Concern Reports. If you would like to read the Act, it is available online from the ACT Legislation Register at ACT Legislation Register.

CYPS is also required to work in a way that is consistent with the Human Rights Act 2004, and you can access it at ACT Legislation Register.

More broadly, CYPS works with a number of services and programs in the community sector, other ACT Government directorates, the Police and the courts to help children and their families get the right kind of help they need at the right time. Everyone involved in the protection and care of children must always have the best interests of the child at the centre of their decisions. With this in mind, CYPS makes no prejudgement of any child or family.

While CYPS is responsible for investigating child abuse or neglect that occurs within a family context, reporting of child abuse or neglect outside the family environment must not be ignored. Such allegations should be reported to the Police who have the appropriate authority to investigate.

The role of the community and mandated reporters

The ongoing wellbeing of children in our community is a shared responsibility. The Children and Young People Act 2008 allows for any member of our community to report to CYPS a ‘belief or suspicion’ that a child may be at risk of abuse or neglect, or an unborn child may be at risk after they are born. In making a report, you are not required to prove abuse or neglect has occurred, just that you have reasonable grounds for your belief.

Types of reporting

There are two types of reporting: voluntary and mandatory.

Voluntary reporting allows any person who is concerned about a child or unborn child to make a Child Concern Report to CYPS if you believe or suspect a child is:

Voluntary reporting also includes reports of unborn children who you believe or suspect may be at risk after birth. This is called prenatal reporting.

As a voluntary reporter, you should always provide CYPS with the basis for your belief or suspicion honestly and without recklessness. Knowingly providing false or misleading information is an offence under the Act and you can be charged.

Mandatory reporting is a legal requirement under the Act for certain professionals to make a Child Concern Report to CYPS if, through the course of your work, you believe on reasonable grounds a child is:

There are certain situations where mandated reporters are not required to make a report. These are when you believe the:

When making a report, you are required to provide CYPS with the basis for your belief honestly and without recklessness. Knowingly providing false or misleading information, or failing to report as soon as practicable after forming a belief is an offence under the Act and you can be charged.

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Who are mandated reporters?

Mandated reporters are groups of professionals who, because of their work, have unique access to and expertise to identify abuse more readily than the general community. These groups are mandated under law to report to CYPS their concerns regarding potential physical or sexual abuse when they come across it in their day-to-day business. Mandated reporters can also choose to make a voluntary report concerning risk to an unborn baby, or suspected neglect or emotional abuse of a child.

You are a mandated reporter if you are a:

Mandated reporters are well placed to understand the particular circumstances of an individual child and their family. If you are a mandated reporter, you are likely able to provide important information to CYPS about a child and their family when concerns are raised.

Remember:

Anyone can report concerns of child abuse or neglect to CYPS. If you believe a child has been, is being or is at risk of being abused or neglected don’t stay silent. See ‘What should be reported to CYPS: recognising child abuse and neglect’ for tips to identify possible abuse and neglect.

What should be reported to CYPS: recognising child abuse and neglect

Each year, CYPS receives approximately 16,000 reports about the safety or wellbeing of children in our community. Many of these reports relate to children and families who could have been better served by reporters offering to help them access services relevant to their needs, such as parenting or behavioural programs, counselling, or dealing with isolation, or other home issues.

The majority of reports made to CYPS do not lead to an appraisal or further investigation. Early assessment of these reports by CYPS often leads to referrals to other services. As a reporter, you are able to make referrals to other agencies to provide support to families who are unlikely to receive a service from CYPS. Many families will find this less distressing than being reported to CYPS. If you are unsure what services are available, contact OneLink at 1800 176 468.

When making a Child Concern Report to CYPS, it is important you have clear reasons and information to support your belief or suspicion that abuse or neglect is occurring. The more detailed your information, the better CYPS is able to review and assess the situation. Think about the circumstances and context of the child and family. See ‘Supporting families: other ways you can help’.

CYPS can receive Child Concern Reports relating to:

A child can suffer one or more of these. Each kind of abuse has a range of possible warning signs, or indicators, though just one sign on its own may not suggest abuse is happening.

While the term ‘parent’ is generally used in this guide when referring to an alleged abuser, it is important to understand CYPS is to be notified of alleged abuse by any person who has parental responsibility for the child – that is a parent, guardian or carer.

What is physical abuse?

Physical abuse is the non-accidental injury of a child by an adult. An injury can be caused by a single act or repeated acts. Examples include hitting, shaking, burning, excessive physical discipline, attempted suffocation.

Some indicators of possible physical abuse may include but are not limited to:

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What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is any sexual act or threat impacting on a child, including unwanted sexual acts on a child over the age of consent (16 years old). Sexual abuse includes comments, physical contact, exposure to adult sexual activity and exposure to or involvement in sexual imagery.

Sexual abuse is difficult to detect because it is often surrounded by secrecy. Children are threatened or coerced into remaining silent and are frightened of what might happen if they tell someone about what has happened. Children who do tell someone often deny the abuse later on because of fear or because of how the person they told reacted (see ‘Responding to a child who discloses abuse or neglect’). There may be no physical signs to indicate sexual abuse. Instead, signs are likely to be emotional or behavioural.

CYPS becomes involved when a parent or carer are implicated in the abuse or are failing to adequately protect the child. Most cases of sexual abuse by a stranger or non-family member are responded to appropriately by parents and therefore do not need to be reported to CYPS. The Police, however, should always be informed.

Some indicators of possible sexual abuse may include but are not limited to:

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is when a child repeatedly experiences events that cause significant harm to their wellbeing or development. Constant yelling, belittling, ignoring and ridiculing are some examples.

Emotional abuse also occurs when a child has been, or is being exposed to family violence and that exposure has, is, or would cause them significant harm (see ‘Family violence’).

Emotional abuse can be difficult to recognise as the signs are usually behavioural rather than physical. It is also possible that emotional abuse is a sign that other forms of abuse are occurring in the child’s life.

In recognising emotional abuse, it is important to consider the behaviour of the child’s parents or carers as there can be many reasons why a child may be struggling emotionally that are not related to any form of abuse or neglect.

Some indicators of possible emotional abuse may include but are not limited to:

Family violence

Emotional abuse also occurs when a child has been, or is being exposed to family violence and that exposure has, is or would cause them significant harm. This exposure includes:

Indicators of possible exposure to family violence include many of those described for other forms of abuse and neglect. Other examples include but are not limited to:

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What is neglect?

Neglect happens when a parent, carer or person with parental responsibility fails to provide a child with life’s basic necessities causing significant harm to the child’s wellbeing or development. Examples include failure to provide food, shelter, clothing or health care.

Neglect can be episodic and related to a particular event in a family’s life, or it can be persistent where the parent repeatedly fails to meet their child’s needs and protect them from harm. Neglect can have serious, detrimental effects on the child’s social, psychological, educational and physical development.

Evidence of neglect is built-up over time and can cover different aspects of parenting. Some indicators of possible neglect may include but are not limited to:

In forming your belief that abuse or neglect may be happening, remember to consider the context of the behaviour or information you have seen, as a single indicator may not imply abuse or neglect. Often there are multiple signs that abuse or neglect is happening.

If you are unsure whether what you are seeing is abuse or neglect, contact CYPS to discuss your concerns. CYPS staff will advise you if your concerns are consistent with the legal definitions of abuse and/or neglect. See ‘Contacts’ for details.

Remember CYPS only has authority to act on suspected child abuse and neglect that occurs within a familycontext. Abuse that occurs outside the family environment is to be reported to the Police.

What about other types of abuse?

Self-harm?

Self-harm is a complex matter. It happens when a child deliberately hurts their body and is often done in secret as their way of coping with difficult emotions or stressful events. Types of self-harm include cutting, burning or punching the body, or picking skin or sores.

Self-harm can be reported to CYPS on a voluntary basis if the child is a danger to themselves or others and there is no parent willing and able to protect the child from harm.

In these situations, CYPS may respond by working with community partners to provide a support service to the child and family, rather than conduct an appraisal. The aim is to uncover why the child is self-harming and to help them change their behaviour. See ‘How can CYPS act on a report’.

Danger to self or others

Each year, CYPS receives a large number of reports relating to children who may be engaging in risk-taking behaviour that poses a risk to themselves and the broader community. This can include unsafe sexual practices, drug and alcohol abuse or driving a car unlicensed.

While such concerns can be reported to CYPS on a voluntary basis, it is often better for other support services to be used first – including speaking with the child and their parents and suggesting relevant support programs.

Reports made to CYPS may result in a support service being provided to the child and family, rather than an appraisal being conducted. See ‘How can CYPS act on a report’. If you know the family, you may be better placed to discuss your concerns with them than a Child and Youth Protection worker they do not know.

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Responding to a child who discloses abuse or neglect

If a child tells you they have been abused or neglected it is a clear message they want the abuse to stop. It is important you take their cry for help seriously as it took a lot of courage for them to tell you in the first place.

It is important you remain calm and in control of your feelings – you may feel a sense of outrage, disgust, sadness, anger and sometimes, disbelief. You need to set your emotions aside to reassure and support the child.

Talking about abuse and neglect is difficult. When talking with children, be mindful of their potential distress and confusion. Questioning can be confusing or even intimidating for a child who may feel they have done something wrong, or that by letting others know their parents may get in trouble. Avoid specific questioning. Instead, broadly invite the child to talk about how they are going, is anything bothering them, how are they feeling, and so on. Leading a child through specific questioning can jeopardise information that may have otherwise been useful evidence in a court process. Seeking information from children about abuse and neglect is the role of the Police and CYPS.

What to do

What not to do

Remember:

The child is likely to be distressed. Your role is to support and listen to them and to get them the help they need.

What should not be reported to CYPS

Many of the reports CYPS receives and assesses do not meet the criteria for an appraisal (further investigation) to occur. CYPS will only become involved if the parents or carers are responsible for the abuse or neglect, or if they are not providing adequate care and protection for the child once the allegation becomes known.

Some examples of situations where a Child Concern Report is unlikely to proceed to an appraisal include:

Often in these situations, offering other forms of support is more appropriate. This can be a formal support service, such as counselling, or as simple as a caring conversation with the child and/or their parent. See ‘Supporting families: other ways you can help’.

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Before making a report

Sometimes a child’s circumstances can have a negative effect on their wellbeing, however this does not necessarily mean the child is being abused or neglected. Before making a report to CYPS, consider if involving the child protection system is the most appropriate response, or if perhaps there is a better solution for you to ensure the child and family is okay.

Before making a report to CYPS, it is good to:

Important:

If you believe the child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation, please contact the Police immediately by calling 000.

Factors that increase vulnerability to abuse and neglect

Abuse and neglect is complex and typically involves many connected factors. A child’s exposure, or risk of exposure, to these factors increases their vulnerability to abuse and neglect. Such factors include:

Checklist

The following checklist will help you decide whether you should make a Child Concern Report to CYPS:

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How to make a report

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation, please contact the Police immediately by calling 000.

If you are worried about the safety or wellbeing of a child and have seen some of the signs mentioned in this guide, use the online portal from the Access Canberra or Community Services Directorate websites to make your Child Concern Report.

When making a report, you will be asked to provide information about:

Be as detailed as possible. The information you provide is central to the decision making process. The more information you can provide helps CYPS make a timely and informed assessment of what further action should be taken and for the child, and family, to receive the necessary help as soon as possible.

If you are unsure of what you are seeing is abuse or neglect, contact CYPS to discuss your concerns. CYPS staff will advise you if your concerns are consistent with the legal definitions of abuse and/or neglect. See ‘Contacts’.

If you do not have access to a computer, you can also call CYPS to make your report.

Protection of reporters

When you make a Child Concern Report to CYPS, the Children and Young People Act 2008 provides you with certain protections. This includes protection of your identity and protection from prosecution.

Protection of your identity

When you make a report, your identity is protected under law from being disclosed to any other person, except in certain exceptional circumstances. This applies to both voluntary and mandated reporters.

Information that identifies people who have made a Child Concern Report to CYPS and the contents of the reports and subsequent investigations are exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act 1989.

Protection from prosecution

When you make a report, you are required to be honest and to act without recklessness. If after investigating your allegations CYPS determines the child is not at risk, you cannot be held legally or professionally liable if you have acted honestly and reasonably. However, it is an offence to knowingly make a false or misleading report.

After a report is made

How can CYPS act on a report?

When CYPS receives a Child Concern Report, they are legally required to find out more about the child’s situation to determine if they may be ‘in need of care and protection’. To do this, a ‘Child Concern Assessment’ is carried out to analyse the child’s exposure to risk and their potential needs. At this point, the focus is whether the reported behaviour meets the criteria of abuse or neglect as required by the Children and Young People Act 2008.

Where the assessment indicates there is a reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect, CYPS then considers whether there is a parent both willing and able to protect the child. To establish this, CYPS reviews information it already has about the parents and contacts other parties for relevant information – such as schools, doctors and even you, asking for your experience and opinion of the parents.

After conducting the assessment CYPS will determine if:

An appraisal is broader than an ‘investigation’ of the report. An appraisal looks at the circumstances of the child and usually the child, parents and other important figures in the child’s life are interviewed. CYPS visits the child’s home and information is typically shared with a range of agencies. This process helps CYPS decide whether further intervention is necessary. Critical decisions are usually made in consultation with the child, family and other agencies.

A support intervention is typically used when CYPS determines the child is not at risk of abuse or neglect but believes the child or family would benefit from some form of help. This may include assistance by CYPS with a specific issue, such as a housing or parenting problem, or referrals to a support program run by another agency. Support interventions are voluntary – families do not have to accept the support.

If CYPS determines the child is not at risk of abuse of neglect and no specific issues exist requiring support, CYPS closes the report and takes no further action.

If you would like more information about how CYPS can act on a Child Concern Report, please see the ‘Working together for kids’ guide Child Concern Reports available from the Community Services Directorate website.

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Will I be informed of the outcome or continue to be involved?

Once CYPS has conducted the initial assessment of a Child Concern Report, and decided what should happen next (see ‘How can CYPS act on a report?’), you may be contacted and told about the action taken. CYPS is not required by law to advise you of the outcome. However, if you work with the family you may be contacted as part of any follow-up by CYPS. Mandated reporters may also receive a letter from CYPS stating the outcome of the report.

If CYPS becomes involved with ongoing work with the family, you may be contacted under the information sharing provisions of the Children and Young People Act 2008. You may also be invited to a ‘Case Conference’ (a form of meeting) to discuss ways of helping the child and family.

The special role of schools

A significant proportion of Child Concern Reports are made by school staff. Children spend a lot of time in school and often form important relationships with their teachers and other staff members. School staff have insights into child development and observe changes in a child’s presentation that may not be apparent to others. Schools are also well placed to provide children with a safe and supportive environment. For these reasons, schools can be an important place and source of information for CYPS during the appraisal process.

The Children and Young People Act 2008 allows CYPS to privately interview or visually examine a child at school for the purpose of an appraisal. This tends to happen when a parent is likely to be responsible for the alleged abuse or neglect and CYPS wants to interview the child without their parents being present. Parents will often be informed about the appraisal before the interview occurs, however the Act also allows CYPS to interview children without parents first being notified or agreeing under specific, legally defined circumstances. In these situations, parents will be informed by CYPS as soon as possible after the interview.

Typically, a parent will not be told in advance about an interview if the person alleged to be responsible for the abuse or neglect lives in the same home as the child. Also, if CYPS has reason to believe the child may be put at greater risk by interviewing them at home, another setting, such as a school, will be used.

In situations where interviews are to be conducted at a school, CYPS will let the school know when the parents will be informed. Telling a parent about an interview too early may increase risk to the child and can make appraising the circumstances more difficult. School staff should only discuss appraisals with parents when CYPS has given permission for this to happen.

Any interview can be stressful for a child. To reassure and support them, it can be helpful to have a trusted and familiar adult with the child during the interview. This can be a teacher or other staff member. In arranging an interview with a school, CYPS will discuss having a support person available for the child.

Supporting families: other ways you can help

There are many ways you can provide help and support to children and families you are worried about.

OneLink

OneLink provides easy access to support services in the ACT. It can give you advice about the types of support available and how to access them. OneLink staff will talk with you about what support you think may be helpful for the child or family and help link you with the best services that will meet their needs. OneLink can connect you with services including:

OneLink is a free service. It is a good place to start when you are unsure of where to go. Children and families can also access OneLink directly. You can find out more about OneLink at:

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Child and Family Centres

Child and Family Centres are an excellent place for families to start if they need parenting advice and guidance. Parents can talk with trained professionals free of charge about a range of issues including:

Child and Family Centres aim to positively influence the lives of children by building the capacity and resilience of families to best support their children. You can find more information about Canberra’s Child and Family Centres

Important:

If you have significant reason to believe a child is being abused or neglected, you should go directly to CYPS and make a Child Concern Report.

Reportable Conduct Scheme: holding employees accountable

On 1 July 2017, the ACT Government introduced the Reportable Conduct Scheme to oversee how organisations prevent and respond to allegations of child abuse and misconduct. The scheme focuses on the behaviour of employees. It does not focus on child protection matters that occur within a family (unless the parent is also a teacher, doctor, childcare worker or any other profession covered under the scheme).

Under the scheme, certain organisations that work with children are required to report to the ACT Ombudsman any reportable conduct involving an employee – this can also include certain volunteers and contractors. Reportable conduct includes allegations, offences or convictions relating to child abuse or misconduct including:

The following organisations are covered by the scheme and required to report to the ACT Ombudsman:

The Reportable Conduct Scheme does not interfere with reporting obligations to CYPS or the Police. If child abuse or neglect within a family is suspected, organisations will report to CYPS. If criminal conduct is suspected, organisations will report to the Police in the first instance.

Further information about the Reportable Conduct Scheme is available on the ACT Ombudsman’s website

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Contacts

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or in a life-threatening situation, please contact the Police immediately by calling 000.

Child and Youth Protection Services

To make a Child Concern Report use the online portal.

You can also make a report using the contact details below:

OneLink

Child and Family Centres

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