DHHS faces questions after senior worker at child protection unit charged with abuse

The allegations relate to a boy in custody at the Melbourne Juvenile Justice Centre.

A government department responsible for protecting Victoria's most vulnerable children has been accused of ignoring serious child abuse allegations involving a senior staff member and a boy in her care more than 20 years ago.

Fairfax Media can reveal a 50-year-old woman, who works for the child protection division at the Department of Health and Human Services, was charged with two serious sex offences last week.

The state government responded on Friday by ordering an independent investigation of the department, which has been accused of covering up the alleged abuse in 1995.

The disturbing allegations were reported to law enforcement last year after a whistleblower inside the DHHS turned over evidence about the incident to the royal commission into child sex abuse, which referred the matter to Victoria Police.

Retired Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent will oversee the inquiry.

The criminal charges stem from an allegation first reported to the department in 1996 that the woman, then a youth detention officer, molested a 16-year-old boy in custody at the Melbourne Juvenile Justice Centre.

Documents obtained by Fairfax Media show a DHHS internal investigation in 1996 found the woman had engaged in some inappropriate conduct but senior department officials decided not to take any action against her.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, continued her career and was eventually promoted.

The department's handling of the complaint is now the subject of an independent investigation, after Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos appointed former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent on Friday to oversee the inquiry.

Mr Vincent was legal counsel to the Betrayal of Trust inquiry and former principal commissioner for Children and Young People.

The investigation is likely to focus on how the department handled information two decades ago about an act of alleged child sexual abuse that appears sufficient to warrant criminal charges today.

In 1995, the youth detention officer allegedly initiated sexual contact with a 16-year-old boy, visiting his room at night and performing sex acts on him in the facility's toilets. The conduct allegedly escalated after he was released from the Melbourne Juvenile Justice Centre.

A unit manager at the centre who became aware of the allegations reported them in 1996 to the then secretary of the DHHS in a written complaint accompanied by signed witness statements from the alleged victim, other youth officers, and a YMCA worker.

"She was always after me," the alleged victim wrote. "She bought me a lot of presents: JAG watch, Nike runners, facial stuff. [She] used to come and see me every night [in the unit] after she knocked off work."

The department's internal discipline and investigations unit launched an inquiry, but the outcome – and the treatment of the unit manager turned whistleblower who exposed the allegations – has proved to be controversial.

"An MJJC staff member was formally counselled in relation to matters found to be proven in the investigation. There is no action required," according to a memo from a senior DHHS manager obtained by Fairfax Media.

But the juvenile justice centre unit manager who reported the abuse alleged his job was threatened and he was transferred, a move he spent years fighting. The disclosure was made before Victoria passed its whistleblower protection legislation.

In 2015, the unit manager turned whistleblower again and sent the abuse complaint file to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

"As the reporting of these allegations has cost to me financially and personally over the years, I believe the greater cost was to the community, as my colleagues at the centre watched the retribution handed out by DHHS sending a very clear message to anyone else thinking of doing the same," they wrote.

"Based on my previous experience [I] will expect some sort of retaliation from the organisation regarding my approach to the royal commission."

The commission forwarded the file to police.

Detectives from the sexual offences and child abuse investigation team have charged the woman with sexual penetration of a child 16 or 17 years old under her care, supervision or authority, and committing an indecent act with a child 16 or 17 years old under her care, supervision or authority.

The woman has now also been stood down from her job.

A DHHS spokeswoman said the department was unable to comment further because the matter was before the courts, but noted that internal records from that time claim the allegation was initially reported to police in 1996.

A police spokeswoman said a report was made at the time but the alleged victim did not respond to police attempts to contact him.

The former unit manager said he was not interviewed by police before 2015.

The charges are the latest in a series of scandals to hit the state government's child welfare department, including numerous privacy breaches that have resulted in the addresses of children in protection being handed over to abusive parents.

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Source : http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/victoria/dhss-faces-questions-after-senior-worker-at-child-protection-unit-charged-with-abuse-20160903-gr80in.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

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