Serious flaws in Victoria’s Working with Children scheme: OmbudsmanDate posted:
The Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into a former youth worker’s access to Victorian Government information about children and young people has exposed serious shortfalls in Victoria’s Working with Children Check scheme. The report, Investigation into a former youth worker’s unauthorised access to private information about children, outlines why the screening authority, Working with Children Check Victoria, was unable to consider relevant and highly concerning police and child protection intelligence to assess Alexander Jones’s suitability to work with children.
In February 2021, Jones was convicted of sexually assaulting a child known as ‘Zack’. After his conviction, the media reported that Jones had misused credentials provided by his former employer, Melbourne City Mission, to access sensitive information about children, including Zack.
Jones was the subject of serious interstate child protection concerns at the time he joined Melbourne City Mission. He had been investigated in relation to multiple alleged sexual offences. Although he was arrested and interviewed on one occasion, he was not charged and therefore the allegations were not disclosed to Melbourne City Mission during routine background checks.
The allegations also did not prevent Jones from obtaining a Working with Children clearance, which permitted him to work with vulnerable children and young people. In Victoria, information provided in police record checks obtained by Working with Children Check Victoria is generally limited to criminal charges laid by police. Even if Working with Children Check Victoria had received information about the prior investigations into Jones, this could not have formed a basis to refuse his application for a clearance.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said in her report the powers of Victoria’s screening authority are among the most limited in Australia. ‘Reforms to the legislation are needed to bring Victoria in line with other states and territories, and to promote the rights of children and families enshrined in Victoria’s Human Rights Charter’ Ms. Glass said.
Melbourne City Mission failed to deactivate Jones’s access to the Victorian Government information system, unintentionally providing him continued access to sensitive information about vulnerable young people. Ms. Glass observed, ‘They have apologised both publicly and privately and taken meaningful action to address all the risks highlighted in this case, which I commend’.
The Department of Health and Human Services also managed some aspects of the data breach poorly and incorrectly informed Zack’s mother that Jones had accessed information about Zack and her family.
Ms. Glass said: ‘The impact on the family was huge. Zack’s mother was not only dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault on her child but was also concerned about Jones’s access to Zack’s information. She was given inaccurate and contradictory information about Jones’s access to her son's information, which resulted in significant safety concerns and upheaval for her family.’
The report found the data breach by Jones was facilitated by inadequate privacy measures put in place by the department and that it failed to regularly audit access to the information system, despite multiple warnings about the need to improve privacy oversight. In addition, the department did not inform some of the people whose data had been breached until years after the fact. The department has accepted recommendations made by the Ombudsman to improve its privacy practices.
In tabling the report, the Ombudsman called on the Attorney-General and the Department of Justice and Community Safety – which administers the Working with Children Check scheme to consider much-needed amendments to Victoria’s child safety screening laws to ensure Working with Children Check Victoria is able to consider all relevant information relating to a person’s risk to children.
As Ms. Glass says ‘Some painful lessons have been learnt. For the safety of our children, more needs to be done’.
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