Over the last decade, many independent inquiries and reviews have recommended reform to Victoria’s child information sharing laws, as a lack of information sharing has contributed to negative outcomes for the wellbeing and safety of Victorian children. The CIS Scheme was developed by the Victorian Government, starting with the Act, in April 2018. As mentioned in our previous article, the Act establishes a framework for professionals across a range of organisations, including teachers, to share information about children in order to promote their safety. The Act will commence at the end of 2019, if not otherwise proclaimed.
Background to Reform
Since 2011, several government reviews and inquiries from the Commission for Children and Young People, the Victorian Coroner and the Victorian Auditor-General identified that a lack of information sharing had contributed to negative outcomes for the wellbeing and safety of Victorian children. Recurring themes relating to child information sharing in these reviews include that:
- Victoria’s multiple legislative frameworks for information sharing create complexity and contribute to a culture that is risk-averse to sharing information, which has not adequately supported child safety and wellbeing outcomes
- the capacity for professionals to form a holistic picture of a child’s circumstances is compromised when information is not shared across services, inhibiting the timely delivery of early intervention and prevention programs to children at risk and contributing to an over-reliance on secondary and tertiary services
- there are difficulties in determining whether children are accessing and participating in universal or targeted services, and improved access to this information might assist to identify and protect vulnerable children
- there are restrictions on data-linkage between government-funded programs, including the impact of children’s interactions with universal and targeted services, which limits the ability for government to design responsive policy and programs, perform evaluations and plan in accordance with patterns of service engagement.
Royal Commission Recommendations
The Royal Commission delivered its recommendations on 15 December 2017 and made a number of recommendations related to improving information sharing and record keeping practices in Volume 8, including for the establishment of a national information exchange scheme between a range of prescribed entities that have responsibilities related to children’s safety and wellbeing. In recommending improvements to information sharing, the Royal Commission identified New South Wales’ Chapter 16A model in the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 as providing the most promising model for a national information exchange scheme for children’s safety and wellbeing. The Royal Commission also identified a number of key elements to enable an effective national information-sharing scheme, including:
- enabling direct exchange of relevant information between a range of prescribed bodies, including service providers, government and non-government agencies, law enforcement agencies, and regulatory and oversight bodies, which have responsibilities related to children’s safety and wellbeing
- permitting prescribed bodies to request, provide and voluntarily share information related to the wellbeing and safety of children with other prescribed bodies
- explicitly prioritising children’s safety and wellbeing over laws which might otherwise prohibit disclosure of that relevant information
- providing safeguards and other measures for oversight and accountability to prevent unauthorised sharing and improper use of information.
The importance of improved information sharing to assess and manage risks to children experiencing family violence context was also specifically highlighted in two key Victorian reviews, the Royal Commission into Family Violence and the Commission for Children and Young People report Neither seen nor heard: Inquiry into issues of family violence in child deaths.
Key Features of the CIS Scheme Act
As mentioned in our previous article, the CIS Scheme will create a broader and more permissive legislative regime for sharing information to promote child wellbeing and safety across health, education, child, family and community services.The CIS Scheme will improve the quality and quantity of information sharing, to ensure that entities working with children and families have access to relevant information to promote the wellbeing and safety of children.
The Act is intended to support the operation of the CIS Scheme by enabling specified government agencies and service providers to share information that will:
- improve early risk identification and intervention
- change a risk averse culture in relation to information sharing
- increase collaboration and integration between child and family services
- support children’s and their families’ participation in services.
Consultation on the Draft CIS Scheme Regulation
The objective of the Regulations is to enable Phase One of the CIS Scheme by prescribing:
- Information Sharing Entities (ISEs) that will be authorised to voluntarily share relevant information with one another for the purposes of promoting child wellbeing and safety (and will be obliged to share that information in response to requests from other ISEs).
- Record keeping requirements that ISEs must comply with. This includes the type of information required to be recorded by an ISE when sharing information in accordance with the CIS Scheme (or where refusing a request to share information).
- Certain secrecy and confidentiality provisions in other laws that are proposed to be overridden/displaced when sharing in accordance with the CIS Scheme – that is, while those secrecy and confidentiality provisions will continue to apply outside the CIS Scheme, they will not prevent an ISE from sharing information in accordance with the CIS Scheme.
Under Section 5 of the proposed Regulations, and under Section 41R of the Act, prescribed ISEs have been targeted based on their criticality and existing capacity. Importantly, non-government schools are not included in the list of prescribed ISEs under the proposed Regulations. Under the assumption of a phased approach, further ISEs including key child service providers like government and non-government schools would be added to the Regulation in Phase 2 implementation of the CIS Scheme.
The consultation process on the Regulations will continue until 15 June 2018 with one of the questions asking about the staged approach to involvement of ISEs in the CIS Scheme. Schools should be aware that if the preferred implementation option is accepted by the majority of initial stakeholders, Phase 1 implementation will involve over 713 government and non-government organisations, however, Phase 2 (proposed to be implemented in 2019) will involve all government and non-government schools across Victoria. Schools can begin preparing now by increasing their understanding of information sharing and reviewing their record keeping policies in light of the recommendations from the Royal Commission.