Report 15

Working with Children Checks

The Department’s assessment of applications is generally robust but the length of time it takes puts children at risk

The Department’s assessment of applications is generally robust

The Department’s assessment of the applications we reviewed was generally robust and appropriate as was its responses to updated criminal record information for card holders. However, in one case neither WA Police nor the Unit adequately resolved follow-up actions in response to the arrest of a card holder, resulting in a delay in considering whether an interim negative notice should be issued. Subsequent system improvements mean the chances of a similar case happening again are low.

The assessment reports for the applications we reviewed contained detailed information, evidence of review by the Unit’s legal staff where appropriate, a clear rationale for recommendations and suitable approval for all decisions. The reliability of the assessment process was evident from the low number of successful appeals. Of the 409 negative notifications issued up to 31 March 2014, 54 appeals had been lodged with the State Administrative Tribunal of which five were successful.

Our testing showed appropriate assessment and action was taken for almost all updated criminal record information provided by WA Police in respect of existing card holders. In one case WA Police informed the Unit in mid 2011 that a card holder had been arrested for indecent dealings and recording of a child under 16 years old. Within seven days of being advised the Unit twice requested WA Police issue the Unit a formal notification so that the suitability of the card holder could be reassessed. However, WA Police did not provide formal notification and the Unit did not continue to pursue the matter further. After 415 days, the Unit received formal notification from WA Police of the card holder’s conviction. On the day it received the notification, the Unit issued an interim negative notice prohibiting the card holder from child-related work.

Prior to the implementation of SAAM, manual systems were used to track offence notifications. Since the introduction of SAAM, notifications and all subsequent actions are automatically tracked and recorded. This reduces the risk of a similar mistake occurring in the future. However, there is a risk that similar mistakes could have occurred with notifications received between July 2011 and mid-November 2013 for card holders who had not yet gone through a card renewal process. The Unit needs to take a risk-based approach to a review of criminal record notifications received during this period to ensure they were appropriately actioned.

Some assessments take too long to complete and this puts children at risk

Between 1 July 2012 and 30 June 2013, 57 per cent of all 17 694 applications with any criminal record took the Department up to 30 days to make a decision on whether to issue a card. However, the Department can take a long time to reach a decision in more complex cases when criminal record information indicates that a person could be a risk to children.

We assessed the time taken to assess and issue negative notices to 28 new applicants who had Class 1 convictions and found that half took over four months to issue. The time taken to assess new information in respect of existing card holders and issue an interim or negative notice was also slow, with a quarter of the 186 cases we reviewed taking over four months.

The Unit advised that the delays arose from waiting to receive additional information from police and other external bodies or for submissions from applicants and existing card holders. Taking this length of time to issue a negative notice puts children at risk because people can work until they are issued with a notice.

The Unit uses interim negative notices as a means of responding to concerns about the immediate risk of harm to children of pending applicants and existing card holders while its assessments are being finalised. However, it is not clear that this objective is being achieved given that some assessments took over four months to issue an interim negative notice. Over half (67 per cent) of the 186 card holders we reviewed were issued an interim negative notice. Most of these (71 per cent) were issued within a month, but ten took over four months and one took up to nine months.

Applicants with either juvenile or adult Class 1 offences took between one day and 22 months to assess (Figure 3). Although seven took ten days or less, half of the 28 applications we reviewed took four months or more to assess, and the remaining seven were spread between three weeks and four months.Figure 3 Time taken to assess applicants with Class 1 convictions

Assessments for card holders issued with an interim negative notice or negative notice ranged from one day to 26 months to complete (Figure 4). Although the highest proportion (35 per cent) took ten days or less mostly for Class 1 and two offences, 25 per cent took over four months and 40 per cent between 11 days and four months. These were mostly for Class 2 and 3 offences.

Figure 4 Time taken to assess card holders issued with an interime negative notice

The Department has no timeframes for completing assessments making it difficult to monitor or assess their performance

The Department has developed new draft guidelines for assessing the identity and criminal record of applicants and card holders. However, this guidance does not provide timeframes for completing assessments or issuing interim negative notices. The lack of timeframes makes it difficult to monitor its performance or manage the risk of those applications which take longer to assess.

The Unit has significant discretion in making final assessment decisions and seeks to make its assessments robust given the impact on applicants and children. When assessing an applicant’s criminal record information the Unit is directed by the Act, its draft guidelines, relevant case law and specialist behavioural research and advice it commissions.

The Act requires the Unit to issue an interim negative notice and negative notice for all applicants with adult convictions for Class 1 offences. In issuing interim negative notices, the Unit is guided by the seriousness of a criminal record and the immediate risk of harm to children. All other applicants with Class 1, 2 and 3 offences must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

There are, however, no recommended or required timeframes to complete assessments or issue interim negative notices. It is also not clear from the draft guidelines the extent to which further information should be pursued in order to make a decision. This can lead to the Unit spending months in some cases seeking additional information to inform its assessments, which can delay final decisions. While this may make the decision more robust, the longer a decision takes the greater the risk that an applicant who should not be working with children has been able to do so.

Limitations in the criminal record information can result in extra work and time for the Department in completing assessments

The Department uses criminal record information from CrimTrac to assess the risk of applicants and information provided by the WA Police to monitor card holders. While the information is reliable in the large majority of cases, it has limitations and is not always complete or accurate and further work may be required to determine the classification and nature of offences. As a result, nine card holders were issued cards they may not have been issued had their full criminal record been provided to the Department at the time of initial assessment.

The accuracy of CrimTrac checks depends on correct information being provided in the application and on the completeness of criminal records provided by police from each state. Also, the information provided may not be up to date or as comprehensive as more recent records and may not include convictions prosecuted by non-police agencies.

Of the 214 applicants and card holders we reviewed, we found nine instances where the criminal record information provided through CrimTrac was incomplete. Seven of the nine were historic Class 1 or 2 offences, not identified initially by CrimTrac. The Unit issued interim negative notices or negative notices to eight of the nine card holders. The remaining case continued as a card holder because the offence was committed 42 years prior as a juvenile. The Unit regularly monitors card holders and pending applications using up-to-date criminal record information from the WA Police. Each card holder and pending applicant is automatically checked every 12 days and the Unit receives daily reports which show any changes to criminal records of card holders or pending applicants.

But there are limitations to this checking. For example, the Unit is unable to automatically match the identity and obtain information for card holders and pending applicants where certain data does not match. The Unit estimates that this situation applies to about 14 per cent of all card holders and pending applicants. For these card holders and pending applicants, the Unit relies on direct notification by the WA Police of any changes to their criminal record.

In one case we reviewed, some of the personal information recorded by WA Police did not match that recorded by the Unit, with the result that updated criminal record information was not provided to the Unit automatically before it issued an interim negative notice. The Unit needs to work with WA Police to improve the matching of applicants between the two information systems.

All updated criminal record information is checked by the Unit. Where new information about a card holder is not considered relevant to them working with children, it is reviewed and cleared by the Unit’s Compliance Manager or Screening Manager.

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