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Children at risk -

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Children at risk

Broadcast: 09/02/2011

Reporter:

Victorian Police Minister Peter Ryan speaks with Heather Ewart.

Transcript

HEATHER EWART, PRESENTER: The Victorian Government has pledged to respond swiftly to revelations
that 700 children in the state had unsupervised contact with almost 400 registered sex offenders
over the past six years.

A damning report from the Ombudsman accuses state authorities of putting the rights of sex
offenders above those of vulnerable children and points to bureaucratic bungling and a failure to
share information.

The Police Minister and Deputy Premier Peter Ryan has promised to adopt all of the Ombudsman's
recommendations, including a boost to police funding to deal with registered sex offenders.

I spoke to him a short time ago in his Melbourne office.

Peter Ryan, how on Earth could this have happened?

PETER RYAN, VICTORIAN POLICE MINISTER: Well the first task of any government is to look after the
most vulnerable in our community, and clearly this report shows that in looking after these
children, who have been subject to all sorts of terrible events, we have not looked after those
children as we should. I think this has happened as a result of a number of factors. A confusion in
the actual chains of command as to who should do what to whom in terms of the various pieces of
legislation. But also, the police. They have not been properly resourced. In 2006 and then '07,
'08, '09 the police made bids to the then Victorian Government for additional funding to assist
them in this important area, and each of those bids was refused, and I think we're seeing all that
play out now.

HEATHER EWART: But can you take us through the process, because the Ombudsman is especially damning
of an arrangement between authorities not to share information regarding sex offenders. Now how
could an agreement like that exist? On what basis?

PETER RYAN: Well, the Sex Offenders Register requires that those who are convicted of relevant
offences go on to the register. There is then a system whereby there is a reporting to the
Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Services is able to acquire material from
Corrections Victoria. There's been a breakdown in relation to the transfer of that information
because of a concern on the part of Corrections Victoria, being fair, that if the material were
simply handed across to the department, material pertinent to the background of a lot of these
prisoners, those prisoners would be reluctant to participate in the very programs which are
intended to help resolve the problems that they have and which cause them to be in prison in the
first place.

The other problem that was seen to eventuate there was that if medical practitioners participating
in those programs knew there'd be an automatic transfer of that information they might also be
reluctant to be involved in those programs.

On the other hand, there was in the possession of the department a direction from the then minister
which would have enabled the department to hand that material straight across. I think we got
caught in the crossfire of those two competing forces, but I can tell you now it is about to be
resolved in favour of the basic issue here, and that is, the interests of these children is the
first of the interests to be observed. And in time to come there will be no doubt about how that
chain of command runs.

HEATHER EWART: So, in blunt terms, the way it was working was that the rights of sex offenders were
being put ahead of the rights of children?

PETER RYAN: I think if that's too broad, if I may say, due respect to the Ombudsman. I think the
problem was there's been a conflict in the way in which the legislation has been drawn, on the one
hand, against the pragmatics of how these programs were best seen to operate in a correctional
circumstance. We need to remove that uncertainty, and I intend to do it. I've today announced that
there will be a group of us as four immediately responsible ministers - and I will chair this group
- who will have oversight of making sure that the 10 recommendations that have been made by the
Ombudsman, all 10 having been accepted by the Government, they will be implemented. We will rid
ourselves of the apparent confusion which has existed up until now and the departments will know
with utter clarity what is required of them. I have ultimate control of how this will take shape
and I can assure you and all Victorians, and indeed all your viewers, this will be done around the
guiding principle that it is the interests of these children, these poor innocents, that is the
thing we need to first have regard to.

HEATHER EWART: And while that process is going on, what is going to become of vulnerable children
out there right now?

PETER RYAN: Well, there are ongoing investigations in relation to the 376 instances that form the
basis of this report. Those investigations are ongoing. There are, at the moment, five orders have
been made to remove children from circumstances where they may be, or are in fact, at risk, and
those orders have been made. There are something in the order of 68 files still under close
examination, and so we will err on the safe side and make sure that any risk that is there now for
these children will be removed. That risk will be acted upon as a matter of urgency and we will
also make certain, though, that in the longer term - in the shorter and the longer term, the actual
chains of command are made so very clear that no-one can be under any illusion as to their
responsibility in the way in which these important issues are dealt with.

HEATHER EWART: Now, of the 700 children reported to have come into contact with registered sex
offenders, one is known to have been sexually abused. Might there be more?

PETER RYAN: There might be. But they are matters for the police in their investigatory role. My
role on behalf of government is to make certain first that we have appropriate and clear chains of
command in this and that the relevant legislation is given effect; and secondly, that the
appropriate degrees of resource are provided to enable that to happen. The former government did
not do that. The police wanted more resource. Over four consecutive years made the case to the
Budget Review Committee as to why they wanted that resource available, and didn't get it.

Now, to the credit of the police in Victoria, Assistant Commissioner Geoff Pope was appointed to
the all-important task of oversighting the operation of the register, the sex offenders register
back in September, 2009. As the report from the Ombudsman today evidences, strategic changes have
been made, important advances have been made in the way in which that reporting is occurring.
There's a lot more to happen, though, around the implementation of the recommendations of the
Ombudsman, and I assure you that will be done.

HEATHER EWART: Should heads roll over this?

PETER RYAN: Not interested much in that. I want to deal with this on a basis that we get a system
here which pays due regards to the needs of these children.

I think there are people who have been involved in the administration of this whole area who have
unfortunately made decisions - I think often around, though, the confusion that exists with the way
in which the legislation is structured and the practical operation of it. We need to remove that
uncertainty.

I can tell you this, though: in time to come, anybody who does not comply with what this clear
direction will be, will not be making a mistake because of any degree of confusion. I have ultimate
responsibility now as the chair of this group of ministers which will be oversighting this. It will
be crystal clear as to what is required to look after these children, and I intend to make sure
that everybody involved in that process does what is required of them.

HEATHER EWART: Peter Ryan, thankyou for joining us.

PETER RYAN: Pleasure.