Northern Territory Second Reading Speeches

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Ms McCARTHY (Children and Families): Madam Speaker, I move that the bill be now read a second time.

This bill amends the
Care and Protection of Children Actspecifically section 26 which sets out the mandatory obligations which require all Territorians to report suspected or actual harm or exploitation of our children. This section has not been without controversy since its commencement in December 2008.

The current provision makes it an offence for any person with a reasonable belief that a child has suffered or is likely to suffer harm or exploitation, or is a victim of a sexual offence, to fail to report that belief. The primary function of section 26 of the act is to ensure that any person who reasonably believes that a child is being harmed or exploited must report those concerns. Harm and exploitation of children occurs in many forms: physical violence, emotional abuse, neglect, maltreatment and sexual abuse are reportable under section 26. We want our children to be safe, and if they are not safe we want to know about it so we can respond.

It has been well publicised that certain sections of the community have concerns about mandatory reporting requirements relating to children and sexual offences. Sexual offences encompass a number of different crimes, many of which can be committed against both adults and children. Some sexual offences are specifically directed towards protecting children from sexual predators.

Most people in the community are aware that it is unlawful to engage in sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16. The reasoning behind this law is simple: children are not equipped either physically or physiologically to deal with the very confronting issues a sexual relationship brings.

At the same time, the government recognises that many adolescents under the age of 16 - the legal age of consent – do, in fact, engage in sexual activity. This is the reason government sought a review of section 26 of the
Care of Protection of Children Act. In doing so, we are seeking to refine the balance between the need to protect our children from all types of harm and exploitation - including sexual harm and exploitation - with the need to ensure that our young people feel confident they can seek medical, psychological, and other support services they require in relation to their sexual health. This bill is about getting the balance right. I am confident the refined section 26 achieves that aim.

I turn now to the provisions of the bill. First, the bill does not remove mandatory reporting obligations on all persons in the Territory, to report to the Department of Health and Families or police any reasonable belief that a child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, harm or exploitation. This obligation is mandatory, and failure to report carries a hefty fine. The fine could be as high as $22 000. We are serious about protecting our children from physical violence, neglect, maltreatment, and sexual abuse. This obligation to report has been clarified with respect to the commission of sexual offences against children. All persons must continue to report a reasonable belief that a child has been, or is likely to be, a victim of sexual offence, where the child is under the age of 14. I believe everyone agrees that children under the age of 14 are simply not equipped, physically or emotionally, to participate in and deal with the consequences of sexual activity. As a society, we are required to investigate all instances of sexual activity involving children under the age of 14.

I turn now to special care relationships. The bill maintains a requirement on all persons to report a reasonable belief that a child under the age of 18 has been, or is likely to be, the victim of a sexual offence pursuant to section 128 of the
Criminal Code. Section 128 of the Criminal Code relates to special care relationships. Although the age of consent is 16 years, there are some circumstances where we say it is unacceptable for an adult to engage in a sexual relationship with a young person aged 16 or 17 years. These circumstances are determined by the nature of the relationship between the adult and the child. Examples of the special care relationship are step-parents, sporting coaches, teachers, or other adults who have developed a relationship of trust with a young person, where there is the potential for a power imbalance to exist between the adult and the child. Hence, there is a mandatory obligation to report any reasonable belief that this type of sexual offence is occurring.

Next, I turn to modifications made to section 26 with respect to health practitioners. Health practitioners, by virtue of their profession, are often brought into contact with children and young people in a structured environment which enables and, at times requires, them to make appropriate inquiry and assessment of any potential harm and exploitation. This includes children who are 14 or 15 years of age. For this reason, it is considered appropriate that health practitioners should have particular obligations to report harm and exploitation and sexual offences in relation to children and young people. The bill creates additional mandatory reporting obligations for health professionals, if they reasonably believe that a child aged 14 or 15 has been, or is likely to be, a victim of a sexual offence, and the age difference between the child and the sexual partner is greater than two years. This new provision means that health practitioners do not have to report sexual activity in adolescents aged 14 or 15, where the age difference between sexual partners is two years or less; that is, the sexual activity is occurring between adolescents of a similar age.

The bill envisages that certain other persons may also be given the same reporting obligations as health practitioners. These other persons will be clearly set out in regulation. It is envisaged that only specific types of employment will be included in the regulation. They may include those who, by reason of their profession, employment or business operation, come into contact with children.

Importantly, the additional reporting obligations to help practitioners in relation to 14- and 15-year-olds do not apply to parents, extended family, friends, or other member of the community. Parents, extended family, friends, and other members of the community are still required to report a reasonable belief of sexual offences, including under age sex, where the victim of the sexual offence is under the age of 14 years, or where a relationship of special care exists between the young person and the adult committing the sexual offence. Of course, we are all also still required to report harm or exploitation of children of any age.

I also wish to say something about how people can find out more about their reporting obligations, and how they can make a report to the police or the Department of Health and Families. The Department of Health and Families has been working to put together a series of guidelines for health practitioners, people who work with children, or who work in or operate child-related services. These will be rolled out across the Territory and will be supported by education and training programs. Information about the legislative changes will be available to the public via the department’s website, community health centres, hospitals and government offices. Health practitioners will receive letters and brochures clarifying and explaining to them the changes to this very important law.

In an effort to provide information to as broad a range of the community as possible, letters will also be sent to schools, non-government organisations, private service providers, and peek body organisations, in particular youth focused organisations.

I commend the bill to honourable members and table a copy of the explanatory statement.

Debate adjourned.


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