Children Legislation Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2017
Victorian Parliament - 21 February 2018 - Ms KEALY — I rise to speak on the Children Legislation Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2017. This bill has a general purpose of assisting to share information with the intent of providing a framework which will hopefully reduce the risk of harm to children. I understand the intent of this; it is about making sure that we overcome some of the issues that have occurred in the past. These were issues that were identified through the Family and Community Development Committee’s inquiry, which was undertaken under the previous government, and its report, Betrayal of Trust, particularly in relation to how we can ensure that we have a more robust information‑sharing system when it is necessary in relation to child services and development. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also made two recommendations in relation to information exchange schemes. They were recommendations 8.6 and 8.7. It has also been covered in numerous reviews and inquiries that have been undertaken, which have all had the intention of bringing the abuse of children to an end.
All too often we see news stories or read in the newspapers of horrific times when children or younger people are mistreated by adults who use them for their own sexual advantage or where children are physically abused, suffering from horrific injuries, which can cause disability or even death in some instances. Obviously we need to take all steps possible to reduce or eliminate the incidence of those offences in the community. The difficulty with opening up pathways to sharing information is that you need to get the pathway right to ensure that that information cannot be misused, and that is a concern that has been raised with me regarding the safeguards around the sharing of information as have been outlined within this legislation. I will go into those details further in my contribution.
Firstly, I would like to give an overview of the purpose of the bill, which is to establish a scheme for specified entities to share information to promote the safety and wellbeing of children and to establish Child Link, a register of children born or residing in Victoria, to improve the wellbeing and safety outcomes of children and to monitor their participation in government‑funded programs and services. The bill also makes a number of other changes in regard to the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, the Health Records Act 2001, the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014, the Health Services Act 1988 and the Freedom of Information Act 1982 to allow for the provisions of the sharing of information and to expand the circumstances in which an authorised officer may direct an information holder to provide information.
Outside of the chamber, the main clause of interest in relation to this bill is clause 8, which inserts new part 6A to establish a child wellbeing and safety information‑sharing scheme that will enable specified entities to share information in a timely and effective manner to promote the safety and wellbeing of children. An example that has been put to me where there has been concern is that this may not always be something that is managed appropriately in relation to information about the child, such as their mental health status. If there is a history of family violence — a child may have been removed from such a situation — it will remain on that child’s record until the end of time. Is the child therefore at risk of being discriminated against or treated differently because of this history, which is included on the record, which may be shared reasonably openly amongst people who are providing their direct care and support? It may include information such as their sexual preferences or practices, political interests or even how they identify their gender.
There is a lot of very personal information which could be sought through this legislation. It could be information shared from a teacher to a treating psychologist. It could be information provided from a health professional, such as a clinician involved in paediatrics or their local GP, to a kindergarten. It could be between police. In general terms, when we think about how this should operate it should not be misused in any way, shape or form. However, the whole reason we have to have this legislation is because we cannot always predict how people will operate. The bill does not have any checks and balances in terms of approvals about whether the sharing of this information is appropriate and whether this information should be provided to an individual who has a link to the child, and they need to be in place. I do not believe that those safeguards or checks and balances in terms of an approval process have been included within this legislation.
I would like at this point in time to thank the many organisations that are involved within this sector. Looking after our children, ensuring their wellbeing and safety, is critical, and it is something that we all rely upon quite heavily. As the mother of a five‑year‑old boy who has been through child care and kindergarten and has now entered his first year of primary school, I know I put a lot of reliance on educators and other people within the community. I will note that my darling little boy was student of the week in his first week of school, so he is doing exceptionally well.
I would like to thank all of the teachers, educators, police, GPs, medical teams and mental health teams out there, and the Department of Health and Human Services and the child and adolescent mental health services. They do a fabulous job of nurturing and looking after our kids, but most importantly they are always there when a child is in crisis. They are the ones who see horrific injuries and hear awful stories, but they do not flinch. They are always there for Victoria’s children when they need it most. I cannot imagine the horrors that some of the people in these roles see, and in living through that seeing your own children and not transferring it to your own environment would be incredibly demanding and mentally difficult. Thank you for your efforts — it does make sure that we have a safer community.
In relation to Child Link, there is a concern that has been raised around keeping a register of children born or residing in Victoria that this may actually be a way of a government controlling information about a child and that it may be misused in the future. We would not want government organisations or people employed within the system to ever abuse the access to that information; however, as has been previously stated, we cannot guarantee that everyone will play by the rules and respect that information.
We have also seen hacking of many databases — whether in Australia or around the world — of very sensitive information, and I would hate to think that information related to children, vulnerable children in particular, could put those children at risk because we did not get the security right, all because we wanted to keep this register. Yes, we do need to make sure that we have better sharing of information to protect children, but we need to make sure that there are appropriate approvals in place so that people do not wrongly access and distribute this material, and we also need to ensure that if we are keeping a register of children, it is maintained in a responsible way, because government does not always get it right, and releasing very sensitive information about children, putting their reputations at risk and in some instances putting their lives at risk, would be very much an unintended consequence of this legislation. So I do support the positive elements and the intent of it, but I do have concerns around those privacy matters and sharing of information.
I will also note that I do not believe the privacy commissioner was consulted in relation to this bill prior to it being introduced. I think that was an oversight. I would ask the government to take on board some of the comments of my colleagues today to ensure that those safeguards are ramped up and that we do everything we possibly can to protect our vulnerable children.
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