About 100 vulnerable children died in New South Wales last year despite being known by the state justice’s system, according to a government report described as “absolutely appalling” by the national children’s commissioner.
Suicide among vulnerable children peaked to its highest level in five years while risk of significant harm reports have steadily increased for a decade, according to the NSW government’s annual report into child deaths.
Just over one in five of the 100 deaths were Indigenous.
It was the highest number of deaths found since 2011 and the third year in a row the case numbers had increased.
NSW Labor said the most vulnerable children in the state were being left behind and needed “urgent” state government support.
“Year after year the … government delivers platitudes instead of funding,” Labor’s spokesperson for family and community services, Kate Washington, said.
“It’s unthinkable that 90,000 children at risk of serious harm in 2020-21 were not seen by a caseworker. They have been let down by the system. This cannot continue.”
Of the children who died, 72 had a risk of significant harm (Rosh) report in the past three years, 23 had a sibling with a Rosh report, and five were in out-of-home care . Five had more than 25 Rosh reports and 37 had between three and five.
“Performance against this indicator is challenging,” the report said.
“The rate of re-reporting continues to hover around the 40% mark in 2020 to 21, and the trajectory is not approaching the target.
“Over the past decade there has been a consistent year-on-year trend of increasing Rosh reports, with many of these reports being re-reports. This increased level of community reporting places upward pressure on the re-report rate.”
The national children’s commissioner, Anne Hollonds, said extended lockdowns had been disruptive and a “serious concern” for at-risk children but the figures weren’t acceptable.
“We’re meant to have a system that protects children and we’re failing,” she said.
“Resources have never been high, it’s always ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. We need to look at upstream policy that identifies families struggling much earlier and wraps support around them.
“Deaths are symptoms of complex issues. There will never be enough caseworkers if that’s what we do … Is this the kind of Australia we’re prepared to live in?”
The report found Aboriginal children were represented at a disproportionately higher rate and were three times more likely to be taken into care than their peers.
As of June 2019, 39% of the children in out-of-home care were Aboriginal.
Hollonds said housing insecurity, domestic violence, a lack of services and upstream reform had all contributed to the crisis.
“It’s always been the case and we’ve made no progress,” she said. “The standout figure not being met is the removal of First Nations children from families – it went backwards last year. Children aren’t a priority and that needs to change.”
A Department of Communities and Justice spokesperson said the death of any child was a “tragedy” with far-reaching implications.
“This year’s report focuses on suicide and highlights the need for government agencies and non-government organisations to improve practice and better respond to information about children’s mental health.
“We will use the findings of this report to support caseworkers to respond to the challenges facing vulnerable children and families across NSW.”
The findings followed an ombudsman’s report in October that criticised the high number of children that were never seen by Family and Community Services caseworkers despite multiple reports, citing a lack of caseworkers as the reason children were falling through the cracks.
During NSW budget estimates last month it was revealed a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy spent more than 300 days alone in an apartment as part of “last resort” alternative-care arrangements.
Of 91 children living in alternative-care arrangements as of 12 October, 47% were Indigenous, the hearing heard. Some 36,524 children were seen by a caseworker in 2020 to 2021. But while this was the most children ever seen, 71% of reported children still didn’t have access to a caseworker.
The families, communities and disability services minister, Alisten Henskens, told the hearing he had not breached his duty of care and was receiving briefings weekly of “strategies to exit the longer-term children out of alternative-care arrangements”.