During recent weeks, a series of articles by The Australian has shone a spotlight on the deaths by suicide of two teenage girls from Maryborough – both aged 16 – in 2009. Their deaths in such sad circumstances and at such a young age are, of course, a tragedy and our sincere sympathy is extended to their families and friends.
The articles published by The Australian serve as vivid reminders of the complexity of child protection work, the high and often life-threatening stakes involved in delivering child protection services and the onerous responsibilities held by both Government and non-Government organisations and their staff in exercising their roles to the best of their abilities.
A clear message that can be obtained from the reporting of their deaths is to always remain vigilant in looking beyond what may be perceived as difficult behaviours of young people and hearing their underlying pain and cries for help. This underlines the need for a properly qualified, knowledgable and skilled workforce who are professionally supervised, challenged and supported in their decision-making and work with young people.
The contentious questions
Beyond this essential message arising from the tragedy of these girls’ deaths, an area of contention highlighted by The Australian articles concerns the ways in which:
· the deaths of children and young people are to be properly investigated
· organisations and individuals can be held accountable for their decisions and the actions they take in affording children and young people the protection they need, and
· the transparency with which the findings of such investigations can or should be made known to the families of these children as well as the general public.
As reported within The Australian, the Minister for Child Safety, Phil Reeves has been resistant to making any public comment and was reluctant to release findings of the three inquiries conducted in relation to the deaths of the two girls. In response to calls by Tracy Davis, the Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Child Safety, to make public the investigation findings including any disciplinary proceedings or procedural changes instituted as a result of these findings, Minister Reeves has argued that legislated privacy provisions have prevented him from doing so. It is noted that in response to the ensuing impasse, Premier Anna Bligh has recently requested that Minister Reeves re-visit his refusal to release the investigation findings and the Department’s Director-General has been instructed to arrange a meeting with the mothers of these girls to inform them about the investigation findings.
PeakCare’s view is that Minister Reeves was correct in giving importance to the privacy and dignity of the two girls – even in their death. However, it is also PeakCare’s view that Tracy Davis, the Shadow Spokesperson was also behaving appropriately in asking what lessons can be learned from this tragedy. The contention surrounding this issue appears to be one of degree – to what extent can or should the findings of investigations of this type be made known publicly in the interests of accountability and transparency and to what extent can or should levels of information be withheld from public scrutiny for reasons of respecting the privacy of children who have died, their families and/ or other parties.
What Munro would say
In considering the ways in which these issues may be best balanced and managed, it is beneficial to consider recommendations made by Professor Eileen Munro in her recent review of the United Kingdom’s child protection system.
Professor Munro highlighted the shortcomings of reactive responses to a number of investigations of child deaths within the United Kingdom that focussed on identifying and blaming “professional error”. The Munro recommendations set out a challenge to look beyond “professional error” and ask the more and difficult and challenging questions about the characteristics and features of the system that allowed for the “professional error” to occur.
These are not questions for the Government only – they also concern you!
It should not be regarded that the ethical and moral dilemmas likely to be encountered in answering the questions about the best ways to conduct investigations and manage their findings are ones to be wrestled with by Governments only. Similar dilemmas may also be encountered at any time by a non-Government organisation.
For example, in the sad event that a child who has been a client or residing in the care of your service, dies:
· What responsibilities may be held by your organisation to commission its own investigation?
· How will the interface between your organisation’s own investigation and those which may potentially be undertaken by the Police Service, the Department of Communities, the coroner and/ or the Child Death Review Committee be managed and by whom?
· To whom will your organisation disclose the findings of its own investigation, how will this be managed and what will be the extent of information that should be provided to certain parties (such as members of the child’s family or the general public)?
· Does your organisation have articulated policies in respect of the above and to what extent are they driven by a fear of litigation or by other ethical considerations?
· To what extent are your policies focussed in identifying and blaming “professional error” or conversely, focussed on addressing the systemic issues that may have enabled or contributed to “professional error”?
Subject to your interest in further exploring these questions and arriving at the best answers, PeakCare would be pleased to organise a forum where relevant issues can be discussed and “expert advice” from guest presenters provided.
If you have an interest in participating in such a forum, please indicate your interest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is by honestly and openly dealing with the challenges posed by questions raised in The Australian articles that we can honour the two Maryborough girls whose lives tragically ended in 2009.
Lindsay Wegener – Executive Director, PeakCare