Accountability for child wellbeing and safety
Independent reviews and inquiries conducted in Victoria in the period 2011 to 2016 relating to child safety and wellbeing have consistently highlighted a lack of information sharing among service providers as a significant barrier to effective and timely support for vulnerable families, and especially children. Issues identified have included:
- development of a risk-averse culture to sharing information fostered by the complexity of multiple legislative frameworks
- inability of professionals to obtain a full understanding of a child’s circumstances when information held by other service providers is not shared, potentially delaying a timelier intervention and the possibility of avoided need for secondary and tertiary services
- difficulty in knowing whether a child is participating in universal or targeted services because this information is not readily accessible.
The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (2016) found that an uncoordinated approach to risk assessment and risk management of family violence cases had negative impacts that extended to women and their children. The Commission recommended a specific family violence information sharing scheme and the development of evidence-based risk factors specific to children for inclusion in a revised risk assessment framework.
At a national level, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) (the McLellan Royal Commission) also found that institutions with responsibilities for children’s safety and wellbeing did not share information with other institutions or organisations or failed to do so in a timely and effective manner. While existing legislation provided for a degree of information sharing to protect the safety of children, barriers to sharing information included complex rules and guidelines, concerns about privacy and confidentiality. A national information exchange scheme was recommended that provides for prescribed bodies to share information and included the establishment of an information sharing scheme within each jurisdiction. Victoria’s Child Information Sharing Scheme is modelled on the recommendations of the McLellan Royal Commission.
Consistent with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the first steps to build a better future for Victorian children, young people and families are set out in the Roadmap for Reform: strong families, safe children. The reforms seek to drive change in the child and family services system that emphasises early intervention, prevention and sharing responsibility. Information sharing is described as a key enabler for other reforms, including the identification of risk factors that are specific to children and the provision of specialist supports and services for children and young people. The Roadmap aims to create services that are coordinated and work together noting that:
…Child protection and family support services are not well connected to universal health and education services. Nor are they well connected to targeted adult services such as specialist family violence, mental health and drug and alcohol services. Poor communication between agencies delays active engagement of, and rapid responses to, families at risk..
The Roadmap reforms complement other key policies in Victoria including the Education State reforms introduced in 2015. These reforms aim to develop a quality education system that is available to all students regardless of their background or circumstances. The Education State Early Childhood Reform Plan is providing targeted support to disadvantaged children in realising a more ‘equitable and inclusive’ early childhood system.
Child Information Sharing Scheme
There are a range of existing information sharing permissions and obligations relating to the safety of children. The CIS Scheme expands the circumstances in which professionals and organisations can share information relating to the wellbeing or safety of children. The CIS Scheme is mandated under Part 6A of the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 to enable prescribed entities to share confidential information in a timely and effective manner in order to promote the wellbeing and safety of children. Part 6A was proclaimed in September 2018. Prescribed entities are referred to as information sharing entities (ISEs) that are authorised organisations and services including authorised frontline practitioners, specified by the Child Wellbeing and Safety (Information Sharing) Regulations 2018.
Under the CIS Scheme, ISEs are authorised to request confidential information from another ISE, and to disclose information to another ISE, either voluntarily or in response to a request if in their professional judgement they identify that the CIS Scheme threshold is met. The threshold or legal requirements of the CIS Scheme is made up of three parts:
- confidential information is being requested or disclosed to promote the wellbeing or safety of a child or group of children
- sharing confidential information will assist in making a decision, assessment or a plan, and/or the conduct of an investigation, and/or providing a service, and/or managing any risk to a child or group of children
- information being requested or disclosed is not known to be ‘excluded information’ under the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 (and is not restricted from sharing by another law).
ISEs must comply with requests for information that meet the three parts of the threshold.
Legislative principles in the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 provide guidance to ISEs in the application of the legislation. The principles include that ISEs should:
- give precedence to the wellbeing and safety of children over the right to privacy
- share information only to the extent necessary to promote the wellbeing or safety of a child, consistent with their best interests
- work collaboratively and respect the functions and expertise of other ISEs
- seek to maintain constructive and respectful engagement with children and their families.
Ministerial Guidelines relating to the operation of the CIS Scheme include how the principles are to be applied in practice by an ISE.
Child information sharing reforms also provide for the establishment of a web-based Child Link Register under Part 7A of the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005, proclaimed in February 2019. The Register is currently under development and will streamline access by authorised professionals to information about participation in government-funded programs of children born in or resident of Victoria.
It is expected that the child information sharing reforms will:
- Improve early needs and risks identification and support, by permitting professional and respectful sharing of information early
- Change a risk averse culture in relation to information sharing, in part by simplifying the legislation
- Increase collaboration and integration between child and family services, promoting shared responsibility across organisations that provide services to children and families
- Support children’s and their families’ participation in services to which they are entitled.
The CIS Scheme operates alongside family violence prevention initiatives introduced for a similar purpose of supporting effective sharing of information between organisations. The Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme (the FVIS Scheme) and the Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management Framework (MARAM) are provided for under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008. The FVIS Scheme enables information sharing to facilitate assessment and management of family violence risk to children and adults, and the MARAM guides information sharing under both information sharing schemes where family violence is present. Where family violence is believed to be present and a child is at risk, information sharing entities will use the FVIS Scheme to assess and manage family violence risk to both children and adults, as well as the CIS Scheme to share information to promote the child’s wellbeing and/or other aspects of their safety.
Consistent with the recommendation of the McLellan Royal Commission, a phased approach has been adopted to introduction of the CIS Scheme with the intention of minimising the burden of organisational change and maximising organisational readiness. The first tranche of workforces prescribed under the CIS Scheme was proclaimed on 27 September 2018, referred to as Phase One, and comprised approximately 28,000 workers representing around 700 entities primarily within the secondary and tertiary sectors. Phase One information sharing entities generally already had high level permissions to share information about children and families and the impact of extending these permissions under the CIS Scheme was expected to be minimal. Exceptions included services working predominantly with adults such as statutory mental health services, alcohol and other drugs services and housing. Phase Two will extend the CIS Scheme to key primary and universal services in education, health and justice sectors and will commence on 19 April 2021. As for Phase One, this next phase will include information sharing entities prescribed under both information sharing schemes. The Phase Two expansion is estimated to involve an additional 370,000 workers in 7,500 prescribed entities.
Governance arrangements for the CIS Scheme reflects a multi-agency approach consistent with the legislative intent and responsibility for the suite of information sharing reforms. Initial oversight for the implementation of the reforms, including the CIS Scheme was provided by the Information Sharing and MARAM Framework (ISMARAM) Steering Committee supported by an Interdepartmental Committee and a Working Group. New governance arrangements came into effect in July/August 2020 disbanding the ISMARAM Steering Committee and establishing the Child Information Sharing Scheme (CISS) Steering Committee. Representation on the CISS Steering Committee, convened by DET, includes DHHS, FSV, DJCS, VicPol, Courts Victoria, Department of Treasury and Finance and Department of Premier and Cabinet. The new arrangement provides a strengthened focus on CIS Scheme implementation for a significantly expanded group of professionals and services in 2021. With disbandment of the ISMARAM Steering Committee, Family Safety Victoria (FSV) has established the MARAM and Workforce Directors Group.
1.2 Purpose of this review
An independent review of the operation and any adverse impacts of the CIS Scheme within two and five years of commencement is required under section 41ZN of the Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005. This review represents the two-year review of the CIS Scheme covering the period September 2018 to September 2020.
The two-year review was required to:
- Determine to what extent the CIS Scheme has been implemented effectively.
- Identify key enablers and barriers to implementation.
- Determine to what extent the CIS Scheme is achieving its intended outcomes.
- Consider and identify any adverse impacts of the CIS Scheme.
- Assess the success of the prescription of Information Sharing Entities.
- Assess impacts on diverse and disadvantaged communities.
- Include recommendations (as necessary) on any matters addressed in the review.
1.3 Baseline report
As part of the Two-Year Review, a baseline report was produced for the purposes of assessing any change in information sharing attitudes and practices associated with implementation of the CIS Scheme in the first two years of operation. The baseline report, compiled in the latter half of 2019 and delivered in December 2019, focused on the extent of information sharing among prescribed workforces related to the wellbeing and safety of children and young people prior to introduction of the CIS Scheme. It also considered record keeping systems in place for information sharing and the implementation support provided to prescribed workforces by peak/lead bodies.
As the CIS Scheme had been in operation for approximately 12 months at the time of collecting baseline information, stakeholders were also given the opportunity to provide feedback on their early experience of adjusting to the CIS Scheme.
The key points from the baseline report are provided at Appendix A.
Analysis of data collection from prescribed workforces obtained in the latter half of 2020 focuses on feedback from those who also completed the baseline data collection enabling an understanding of how sentiments and attitudes changed following commencement of the CIS Scheme. Perceived progress, new developments, and any continuing issues for Phase One prescribed entities was also obtained from follow-up consultation with peak/lead sector bodies and key informant government agencies. Further information about the review methodology is provided in Chapter 2.
1.4 Impact of COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic and associated restrictions to manage the transmission of the virus in Victoria coincided with the final round of data collection for this review. The impact on the community and service providers has been profound affecting service delivery and placing significant pressure on many of the secondary and tertiary services involved in operation of the CIS Scheme that are in the health, human services, justice and police sectors. The review methodology was adapted to accommodate the changed circumstances and the need for a longer research period to enable stakeholder engagement. These changes minimised the impact on engaging stakeholders in the review, with the exception of young people.
However, there has been disruption to initiatives to continue to embed the information sharing reforms into organisations and services while other priorities have required attention. This review also highlights sector concern that the health and economic impact of the pandemic is having a real impact on children and young people that will require a collective response to keep children safe.
1.5 Two-Year Review of the Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme
An independent review of the FVIS Scheme overlapped with this review of the CIS Scheme, both in terms of timing and prescribed organisations and services. The FVIS Scheme review covered the first two-years of operation of the FVIS Scheme which involved an Initial Tranche of entities prescribed in February 2018 and Phase One entities prescribed in September 2018. The review was tabled in Parliament in August 2020. Many of the recommendations of the review, whilst seeking to ensure effective future expansion of the FVIS Scheme, resonate with findings of this review and could be expected to also benefit application of the CIS Scheme by both Phase One and the planned Phase Two prescribed organisations and services. These recommendations address shared issues such as:
- clarifying privacy issues
- monitoring impacts of the information sharing reforms on Aboriginal people to avoid any adverse effects
- providing additional support for the work of Aboriginal organisations to enable appropriate application of information sharing reforms
- ensuring timely delivery of quality training to workforces to be prescribed under Phase Two
- facilitating application of the information sharing reforms through use of case studies
- continuing the information sharing Enquiry Line and sector grants.
It is noted that all recommendations arising from the findings of the FVIS Scheme review have been supported in full or in-principle by the Victorian Government.
Generally, where there was evidence that the subject of these recommendations have or are to be addressed (such as timing of training for workforces to be prescribed, improving understanding of privacy issues), they have not been pursued further in this report as specific recommendations.
1.6 Structure of this report
The review report is structured around the key areas of inquiry set out under the above section 1.2. A series of indicators provided the context for exploring these areas and were set out in an evaluation framework developed for the review. The context guiding discussion of each of the areas of inquiry introduces the relevant chapters.
 Includes reports from Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, Commission for Children and Young People and Coroners Court of Victoria
 Roadmap for Reform: strong families, safe children. State of Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services, April 2016. p.12
 ‘Child’ is defined as a person who is under the age of 18 years and an unborn child that is the subject of a report made under section 29 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 or a referral under section 32 of that Act.
 Information sharing entities may also be referred to in this report as prescribed professionals and services, and prescribed workforces.
 Child Information Sharing Scheme Ministerial Guidelines. Guidance for information sharing entities. State of Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services, September 2018.
 In this report, reference to ‘child information’ is used in the context of sharing information to promote child wellbeing and safety. Information shared may be about an adult or a child.
 Child Information Sharing Reform Background and Overview. Department of Education and Training. Victoria State Government.
 Department of Education and Training (2019). Child Information Sharing Scheme Regulatory Impact Statement, Amendment Regulations 2020. Victoria State Government.
 For the purposes of this report, ‘prescribed workforces’ refers to workforces in agencies, organisations and services prescribed under the CIS Scheme
 Only 58% of prescribed workforces surveyed in 2020 responded that there was no change to child information sharing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 McCulloch J., Maher, J., Fitz-Gibbon, K., Segrave, M., Benier, K., Burns, K., McGowan, J. and N., Pfitzner. (2020) Review of the Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme Final Report. Report to Family Safety Victoria. Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Faculty of Arts, Monash University.
Reviewed 30 March 2021