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New NT child commissioner rolls up his sleeve -

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New NT child commissioner rolls up his sleeves

The World Today - Monday, 8 December , 2008 12:38:00

Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: Back home now and the Northern Territory's first children's commissioner says he does
anticipate some disagreements with the Territory Government which appointed him.

But Dr Howard Bath says his primary goal as commissioner is not to apportion blame but to protect
the children of the Territory.

In appointing the clinical psychologist, the Territory Government has fulfilled one of the
recommendations of 'The Little Children are Sacred' report which exposed horrific abuse of children
in remote communities.

I spoke to Dr Bath a short time ago.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Bath, you've just spent several months travelling through the Territory finding
out more about the challenges of your job as children's commissioner. How big a task is it?

HOWARD BATH: Oh, I think it is a very big task as outlined in 'The Little Children are Sacred'
report. There is a whole lot of issues that really do need to be addressed on an urgent basis.

The appointment of the children's commissioner was just one part of the response from the Northern
Territory Government in dealing with the issue of sexual abuse and the broader issue of the
well-being of children generally throughout the community.

ELEANOR HALL: What are the most urgent problems that need to be addressed? What are the most urgent
things that you need to do?

HOWARD BATH: Well, the children's commissioner is not operational in the sense that he goes out and
actually provides protective services. My role essentially is to provide an oversight and
monitoring role to make sure that the new Act is achieving what it set out to achieve.

The other major function which is actually coming into play today, on December 8th, is that the
commissioner, as part of the role of protecting children, is starting to receive complaints about
services to protected children across the Territory.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, you have been appointed by the Northern Territory Government but you are meant
to be an independent advocate for children. Is there a conflict there? I mean, how do you see your
role?

HOWARD BATH: I am an independent advocate but overall my role is to ensure the protection and the
well-being of protected children. Our goal is actually to resolve complaints not just to determine
who is right or wrong in a particular situation.

ELEANOR HALL: Presumably the complaints that you receive, or many of them, will be about the
adequacy of government services. So how do you negotiate that? I mean, will you be an advisor to
the Northern Territory Government or a critic?

HOWARD BATH: That is a really good point. My role is to ensure the protection and the well-being of
protected children. From time to time that might mean that there are some difficult times as we
sort of try and work out how the situation can be improved and if that requires from time to time a
little bit of, I guess, a difficult exchange of ideas, well that might be the case.

Our goal is to try and resolve them, not necessarily to apportion blame. But where necessary the
Children's commissioner speaks out and tries to improve the lot of children.

ELEANOR HALL: You said that it was a big challenge. As you travelled around were you surprised at
the scale of the problems?

HOWARD BATH: I've got to say that I have been in the past but because I have been involved in the
last few years and particularly last year in auditing government services, I have had a fair idea
of some of the very difficult issues.

Like everyone else that has had a look around and knows what has been going on, it is a very
troubling situation.

ELEANOR HALL: So what is your assessment of the effect of the Federal Government's intervention?

HOWARD BATH: Travelling around the community, we do know that there is almost universal acceptance
that some of the measures of the intervention are making a difference, and in particular I can
point to things like the alcohol restrictions.

There does seem to be in some communities, quite a dramatic decrease in the incidents in alcohol
related incidents and I don't think anyone could argue that that is not a good thing.

The other thing, of course, is the increase in police presence in some of the communities. Some of
which had no police presence at all. And it is universally felt that increased police presence is
bringing a higher level of safety for community members right across the Territory.

ELEANOR HALL: And the permit system - the Federal Government wants to reinstate it. What is your
view?

HOWARD BATH: The issue of permits, I know it is a very difficult situation and there are very loud
voices on either side of the argument there. But in terms of the actual protection of children,
there have been, from time to time, reports that in the absence of a permit system, sometimes abuse
can happen in situations of secrecy.

But we still do not know the exact facts around, you know, whether the permit system has increased
the risk or has decreased the risk. My particular perspective has been, I am looking specifically
at the outcome for children.

ELEANOR HALL: So has the health and safety of children improved significantly since the
intervention?

HOWARD BATH: It is very hard to say how significant that improvement is. We have to believe that
there is an improvement in a situation. Not all situations have been materially improved and I
think it is going to take quite some time before everyone that is involved can be satisfied that we
really are achieving the goal of making it a safer Territory for vulnerable young children.

What we can say is that certain of the measures, and I point particularly to things like the use of
opal petrol, have made a dramatic difference in the well-being of young people. But we also know
that there are still very, very difficult situations in many of the communities across the
Territory.

ELEANOR HALL: Well what was your reaction to the announcement last month from a doctor at one
remote Aboriginal community who said he was leaving because he was frustrated by the health
department and that despite the problems there, he wasn't able to help as much as he would have
like to.

HOWARD BATH: You can only sympathise with the despair that is reflected in the words from that
doctor. It is really, in many cases, the same story of problems with alcohol abuse and the
attendant problems of domestic violence and child abuse and these are a long way from being
completely fixed.

ELEANOR HALL: Of course, these problems have been around for a long time. There are entrenched
difficulties in many of these communities. Will your appointment, as children's commissioner, make
a significant difference?

HOWARD BATH: I certainly hope so. The goal is to ensure the well-being of these children and I
expect very strongly at the end of four years, which is the term of the appointment, that I will be
able to look back and be able to say that the lives of the children that I have been charged to
monitor and to support are materially better than they would have been otherwise.

The fact that there is now someone that children and their advocates can complain to is a major
difference from what was the case in the past. There is now an independent advocate for children
and where things are going wrong, there are mechanisms now in place to ensure that children are
getting the services that they need and deserve.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Bath, thanks very much for joining us.

HOWARD BATH: Thank you.

ELEANOR HALL: That is the new children's commissioner for the Northern Territory, Dr Howard Bath.