The Tasmanian public servant who is the guardian of more than 1000 children has pointed to past poor record keeping and his lack of professional competence in child safety for his inability to explain specific failures in sexual abuse cases.
Department of Communities secretary Michael Pervan admitted he could not guarantee children in Tasmania's out of home care system were safe from abuse, but that he was "vigilant".
His department provided the Commission of Inquiry with examples where children in out of home care had experienced sexual abuse, prompting detailed questioning from counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard.
In one "incredibly recent" example, Child Safety Services had not taken action on two disclosures of abuse committed by one child in care against another, despite prior warnings, resulting in a third incident.
No therapy had been offered to the child demonstrating harmful behaviours, and a "deliberate decision" was made to wait until they could access NDIS services as an adult.
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When asked about how such a situation could occur, Mr Pervan said he was limited by poor record keeping, but Ms Ellyard said the case had attachments that could have assisted him in responding in more detail.
Mr Pervan said the questions would be better put to others in his department, as his role as the children's guardian was "a fully delegated service" and he did not know why certain decisions had been made.
"I can't comment on that senior quality practice advisor's practice because I am essentially a senior administrator. I'm not a social worker, psychologist or a risk assessor," he said.
"You may as well ask me why a surgeon used a particular device in a hip replacement when I was running a hospital."
Mr Pervan - whose role effectively makes him the "parent" for children in out of home care - said the nature of the system meant it was impossible for him to have confidence that every child was safe from abuse.
"I'm going to say, no, I'm not confident. And I'm happy that I'm not confident because it means that I'm vigilant," he said.
"It's a terrible thing to admit that there isn't a regulatory framework or a resource or a review that's going to eliminate that horrible and terrible side of human nature that there will be always sexual predators out there."
Reforms occurring, but clarity still lacking
The child safety system has been undergoing reforms in recent years, although practitioners last week pointed out how the sheer scale of continuous reform could be hampering responses on the ground.
Among recent changes was the introduction of a dedicated director of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service whose role included addressing risks for children in out of home care, and to improve access to CAMHS support.
Another case study was provided in which a girl in residential care had been purchased a ticket to travel interstate by a man who planned to exploit her, and she had left without the knowledge of Child Safety.
Her personal history meant she was at risk of sexual exploitation, but no therapeutic support had been provided.
Commissioner Professor Leah Bromfield asked Mr Pervan whether the girl would be eligible for support under the improved CAMHS, but he did not know for sure.
"To be honest, I'm not professionally competent to give you a reply," he said.
"Other than to say that I would assume that the trauma that we're talking about and its manifestations would be sufficient to get them access to that therapeutic intervention."
Poor historic data keeping appeared to hamper his ability to fully determine the cause of other case studies, including Child Safety missing two opportunities to investigate a child's abuse in the mid-2000s. She was not seen for an entire year by CSS and Mr Pervan described it as a "catastrophic outcome" but he could not determine "the experience [or] seniority" of the officers involved.
Mr Pervan became the department secretary in 2019, meaning not all of the case studies occurred while he was in the guardian role. He had previously been the Health Department secretary since 2015.
He said he was confident child in the out of home care system were "safer" now than when the case studies occurred due to better discipline in care planning and risk assessment. He apologised to victims of abuse in out of home care.
Communities staff raise concerns via survey results
Data provided to the Commission of Inquiry showed that 55 per cent of Department of Communities staff felt that senior management modelled the values of the organisation.
Other results were that 26 per cent thought significant change was well managed, and less than half felt confident they would be protected from "reprisals" if they were critical of the department.
Mr Pervan noted this had a "small sample size", but it had prompted "reflection" among management.
Child and Family Services director Claire Lovell had earlier described the way in which care concern issues were followed up after disclosures of abuse, including immediate notifications to police and establishing a care team.
Commissioner president Marcia Neave AO outlined how she was "not confident" that this process was consistent with one described by Mr Pervan in relation to harmful sexual behaviours and the role of carer disclosures.
Ms Ellyard said the evidence detailed the need for significant changes in Tasmania's child protection system.
"It's a poignant and painful reflection that if the secretary of the department - the person ultimately charged with the parenting of those children, albeit that he's assisted by his employees in doing so - if he quite frankly isn't able to say to you that he feels that the children in his care are safe, then clearly there's room for profound improvement in the system," she said.
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