report

Working with Children Checks – Follow-Up

Audit finding – Assessing WWC Check applications is more efficient, but cases resulting in negative notices still take a long time

Overall, we found that the process to assess WWC Check applications has improved. Significant improvements have been made in the time taken to approve applications where a person does or does not have a criminal record. However, applications that result in a negative notice, can still take a long time to complete and we consider these pose the higher risk to children.

How long an application should take to complete is not simple to answer. The Royal Commission recommended that state and territory governments should process WWC Check applications in 5 working days, and no longer than 21 days for more complex cases. The State Government’s response stated that this recommendation needed further consideration to ensure the comprehensive behaviour assessment undertaken in WA is not compromised. Communities needs to monitor the risk resulting from the work on application provision. Where necessary, it should consider additional strategies, such as issuing interim negative notices, to mitigate the risk associated with the time it takes to complete some assessments.

Automated application processing has decreased processing time for those issued with a WWC Card

Since 2014, the Screening Unit has automated how it validates applications, significantly decreasing the time taken to issue WWC Cards. Better integration between the WA Police Force and the Screening Unit, and a more risk-based approach means applications are processed 52% quicker than in 2014.

Because people can work with children once they have applied for a WWC Check, the time taken to finalise an application is a key control in the WWC Check effectively reducing the risk to children. The biggest improvement in processing time since 2014 relates to applications from individuals without a criminal record, and we consider these people pose the least risk while working with children as their application is assessed.

All applications are screened against the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission database. The average days to approve an application from people without a criminal record has reduced from 20 days in 2013-14 to 4 days in 2018-19 (Figure 5).

The average days to approve an application from people with a criminal record has also decreased, from 39 days in 2013-14 to 24 days in 2018-19. Applications from people with a criminal record require more work to review the person’s criminal record, previous employment, references, and work history to ensure the person does not pose a risk to children.

Significant risk to children remains as issuing negative notices still takes a long time

Communities has reduced the average time it takes to issue a negative notice to 211 days in 2018-19. There was an increase in 2018-19 following successive reductions (Figure 6). Taking this long to issue negative notices poses a significant risk to children, as individuals ultimately deemed unsuitable can continue to work with children until issued with a negative notice.

In 2018-19, the Screening Unit issued a negative notice to 105 applicants who had not received an interim negative notice. It took between 81 and 384 days to do this. For 53 applicants, it took more than 200 days, or over 6 months, to issue a negative notice prohibiting the individual from engaging in child-related work (Figure 7). These 53 people were able to work with children for a cumulative total of 14,192 days. There is an inherent risk in permitting people to work with children once they have applied for a Card. We recognise that it takes time to assess applications and the need to afford applicants procedural fairness and natural justice. However, faster assessments, and the issue of interim negative notices, are the 2 controls available to Communities to improve the effectiveness of WWC Checks.

Reserving interim negative notices for applications with the highest and imminent risk can pose a risk to children

The average time taken to issue an interim negative notice has significantly decreased from 87 days in 2013-14, to 45 days in 2018-19 (Figure 8). The criteria set by Communities as to when to issue an interim negative notice resulted in only 20% of people who received a negative notice in 2018-19 being previously issued an interim negative notice. Eighty percent of people who received a negative notice worked or were able to work with children while their application was assessed. An interim negative notice temporarily prohibits an individual from child-related work while their assessment is finalised. It is a key control in mitigating the risk to children that results from permitting individuals to engage in child-related work after applying for, but before receiving, a WWC Card.

In 2018-19, 128 applications resulted in a negative notice, but the Screening Unit issued only 25 interim negative notices to applicants. Twenty-one of the 25 interim negative notices were issued in 50 days or less (Figure 9). This helps to reduce the risk to children from people who were subsequently prohibited from child-related work being able to work while their application is assessed.

The Screening Unit’s criteria to help determine if an interim negative notice should be issued are:

  • the serious nature of the person’s behaviour and relevance to child-related work
  • that children are likely to be exposed to an immediate risk of harm should the applicant continue or commence child-related work whilst a final decision is made.

These criteria reflect that the assessment of an applicant’s criminal record is not always straightforward, and an intention to avoid issuing interim negative notices unless the situation is clear. This can imply that the Department places excessive focus on procedural fairness to reduce the risk of incorrectly issuing an interim negative notice to adults seeking to work with children, rather than looking to reduce the risk to children that stems from allowing unsuitable people to work while their application is assessed.

We note that if the risk focus was reversed, as implied in the objective of the Act, the potential impairment on applicants’ ability to work with children would not be widespread. For example, even if all applicants who received a negative notice had also received an interim negative notice this would be 128 people, or 0.1% of applicants in 2018-19. The fact that only 2 of the 25 people issued with an interim negative notice subsequently received a WWC Card further indicates that Communities is conservative in its use of interim negative notices as a mechanism to reduce risk to children.

Communities needs to consider if use of more interim negative notices would be a better control to reduce the risk to children arising from allowing people to work while their application is assessed. In particular, we consider Communities should issue interim negative notices more readily in the relatively small number of complex cases that take a long time to complete. This would be more consistent with a precautionary principle approach that places greater weighting on the safety of children over the procedural fairness concerns of a minimal number of applicants.

Applications that result in a negative notice spend significant time waiting to be allocated for assessment, which poses a risk to children

In 2014, we recommended that Communities should have better systems to allocate and prioritise assessments based on risk. Since 2014, the Screening Unit has introduced a triage process that ranks applications according to risk and prioritises those that pose the greatest risk to children. Communities advised that, although the total number of applications unallocated for assessment had decreased in 2018-19, applications that result in a negative notice remained unallocated for an average of 46 days, an increase since 2013-14 (Figure 10).

Applications that cannot be immediately allocated to a screening officer are placed on a waitlist and considered “unallocated”. A number of these applications result in a negative notice, which presents a significant risk to children, as these applicants are able to engage in child-related work while their application is effectively “on hold”.

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