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January 02, 2009
MANDATORY reporting of child sexual abuse has come into force in Western Australia amid warnings that the child protection department is not prepared and there could be a repeat of the experience in NSW, where the system was swamped with reports.
But Child Protection Minister Robyn McSweeney is playing down the concerns, saying the NSW model involved the reporting of all forms of abuse, not just sexual, and that a much wider range of people were mandated to report problems.
As of yesterday, West Australian doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers and midwives were required by law to report in writing suspicions of child sexual abuse, or risk a $6000 fine.
It is similar to the Victorian model, in which police, doctors, nurses and teachers must make a report when they believe physical or sexual abuse is occurring.
In NSW, people who deliver healthcare, welfare, education, children's and residential services or law enforcement to children are required to report concerns that a child under 16 is at risk of harm.
But a report in November by retired judge James Wood recommended an end to the practice in NSW, saying only cases of "serious risk" of harm should be reported to the main welfare hotline.
The state's Department of Community Services had been overwhelmed, with a hotline receiving a call every two minutes, on average. Only 13 per cent of those reports resulted in a home visit by a DOCS officer.
Ms McSweeney said she did not believe that would happen in Western Australia, where the reporting was in a written form and not to a hotline.
"Sexual abuse is very hard to detect, so I don't think there will be a huge spike in the system," she said. "When you have to write your suspicion down, you have to really think about what you're writing.
"It really is a system you have to think very carefully about before you report."
It is a view shared by Michelle Stubbs, from the advocacy group Adults Surviving Child Abuse. "I'm sceptical we're going to see a dramatic increase in the numbers of child protection notifications in WA," she said. "We're talking specifically about child sexual abuse ... it's not often a very obvious form of abuse."
The state Government has allocated $68 million towards the introduction of mandatory reporting, with 31 extra staff for the reporting service and 53 more field officers.
Thirteen non-government child sexual abuse services have had their funding boosted by 90per cent to cope with any increased demand and three new regional services have been established.
But Trish Lee, chief executive of Perth's Wanslea Family Services, a not-for-profit organisation that provides about 45 foster carers, questioned whether the system was ready.
"Making it mandatory, I think, is going to cause an overload in the system," Ms Lee said. "I'm not sure there's been sufficient resources put into the system to pick up the likely increase in reporting." Her organisation had received no extra funding and would have to prioritise its workload.
Ms McSweeney wants to eventually broaden mandatory reporting to include physical and psychological abuse, as well as the neglect of children.
Opposition child protection spokeswoman Sue Ellery said that was risky.