EDITORIAL: Plight of ‘at risk’ children 

IN Newcastle Coroners Court on Monday, Deputy State Coroner Elaine Truscott began an inquest into the tragic death of a morbidly obese 10-year-old boy.

The child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, died three years ago this week.

Counsel assisting the inquest, Ian Bourke, told the inquiry that on four occasions between 2008 and 2010 the Department of Family and Community Services closed the ‘‘risk of harm’’ reviews it had opened about the boy in order to pursue the needs of other children deemed at greater risk.

The reviews were prompted by concerns over the boy’s weight and other issues, including his parents’ drug use. Despite the threat of criminal action over poor school attendances, he had missed about 100days of education a year for the final three years of his life.

Ms Truscott may well find that the department did its job properly, and that no blame attaches to the state government in the circumstances, or anyone else.

But it might turn out this case evokes memories of earlier tragedies, including tiny ‘‘Ebony’’ at Hawks Nest and Wyong toddler Tanilla Warrick-Deaves.

As well, months of parliamentary controversy over the department and its minister, Pru Goward, have done little to instil public confidence.

After the leaking of an Ernst & Young audit into the staffing of caseworkers, the government was forced to admit that staffing levels were well below those claimed by Ms Goward, and the opposition led calls for her scalp. Several weeks later, the minister remains in her job but the latest figures acknowledged by the government seem to confirm the concerns of her critics.

Just one in four children from the Hunter and Central Coast regions deemed at risk of significant harm are assessed face-to-face by caseworkers. In turn, the Hunter and Central Coast have the equivalent of 267 full-time caseworkers, 34 down on the full complement of 301.

With the numbers of notifications running at more than 17,000 a year, an 11per cent shortfall in caseworkers can only make a bad situation worse.

Full face-to-face assessments of all of these notifications may well be impossible, or even unwarranted, but the children involved are among our society’s most vulnerable members and they surely deserve better attention than they are apparently receiving.

The government may well say it doesn’t have the budget to do more but this is one situation where prevention will be much more cost-effective than any cure.

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