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Public interest determination application from UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide

 

 

[UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide logo]

13th September 2011


Privacy Commissioner
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
GPO Box 5218
Sydney, NSW, 2001

 

To the Privacy Commissioner

RE: Application for Public Interest Determination - Information Sharing Guidelines for Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of Children, Young People and their Families

I am writing to seek a Public Interest Determination under Part VI of the Privacy Act 1988, to allow for the implementation of the Information Sharing Guidelines for Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of Children, Young People and their Families (ISG) (SA Government 2008).

The ISG provides a framework for the disclosure and collection of personal information without consent to address circumstances where children and young people are at risk of serious harm to current or future wellbeing and where seeking consent would increase the risk of harm. We consider that sharing information in this way in accordance with the ISG may breach the organisation's obligations under the National Privacy Principles.

We believe that the implementation of these Guidelines hold substantial public benefit, and benefit for the children, young people and families, with whom our organization works, through its provision of youth and family services.

We are seeking a Public Interest Determination to exempt the organization in a limited and structured way, from complying with National Privacy Principle 2, regarding Use or Disclosure of Personal Information, and specifically NPP 2.1(e). Additionally, we seek a PID in relation to NPP 10, regarding the collection of sensitive information, due to service delivery events where it would place a child or young person at risk to seek consent to collect certain types of sensitive information.

Situational Background to Application

The South Australian Government has sought to implement the ISG due to confusion and inconsistencies of human services practices around information sharing when children and young people are at risk of significant harm. This confusion often leads to inappropriate disclosure of information or inaction that contributes to escalated risk of harm, abuse and neglect for individuals and in some cases results in a risk to public health and public safety.

In our understanding, the Government has sought to enable a preventative and early intervention approach, rather than a reactive approach to harm. In particular, the ISG has sought to provide a consistent and structured framework, with appropriate checks and guidelines, to enable human services to overcome the perceived restrictions in the Privacy Principles, which have been understood to severely restrict information provision, except in those cases where immanent risk of harm can be demonstrated. This is felt to be restrictive on two important grounds:

Ground 1 – Assessing Future Harm to Wellbeing

In our work, the organization encounters situations where it is clear that for vulnerable families the future wellbeing of children and young people is at risk if appropriate interventions are not put into place as early as possible. While a child or young person may not be at risk of immediate harm, the pattern of their family interactions, behaviour of parents or guardians, or the peer relations and social/physical situations of their lives, are clearly putting their future wellbeing at serious risk.

Ground 2 – Involvement of Multiple Agencies or Organizations

Many children and young people who are at risk, or their family members, have involvement with a variety of agencies and organizations. These organizations may support a number of essential aspects of life such as education, family support, housing, etc. Information held by one of these agencies may hold significant importance for the work of another. A full picture of the circumstances of the young person or adults they relate to may only emerge if these agencies can share relevant information.

Our organization has practical experience of the difficulties the current situation creates in our attempt to respond to the best interests of the child or young person. There have been instances where we have felt constrained in supplying information to other trusted organizations who are seeking to promote the best interests of our clients, and times when we have been unable to obtain information that we believe would have improved our ability to respond in an appropriate manner and potentially prevent an adverse event occurring.

Examples of the need for a workable model of Information Sharing

Unitingcare Wesley Adelaide (UCWA) operates a comprehensive range of services to assist people. This includes homelessness services, domestic violence and sexual abuse, disability and mental health, residential support, alcohol and other drugs, poverty and unemployment. People who access our services often have a multiplicity of specific needs as well as social and economic disadvantage which in combination place them at serious risk and at times pose a risk to public health and safety.

An example of work in our Street-level Youth Health Service would be a typical service event where a young couple with children are abusing alcohol and other drugs. Our service offers medical assistance, housing support, drug and alcohol counselling, and assistance with parenting. An instance arises where concern is expressed by staff about a young child's cognitive development. When the staff attempt to arrange an assessment, the couple refuse to engage and cease their contact. Subsequently, another agency that the couple has been in contact with rings to request our workers attend a case conference where they will be asked to outline our organization's work with the couple and their children. However, our service is unable to get the couple's permission as they have broken off contact.

Now with the ISG, organisations can share information without consent and no longer need to wait until the risk to the children reaches a mandatory notification threshold before information can be exchanged. The ISG guides appropriate consideration of the potential risk to all family members, decisions to share without consent are approved by staff with supervisory or management responsibilities and documented in secure client files, and coordinated service responses are actioned.

One important area of practice the ISG is impacting is discussing the limits of professional confidentiality with clients and seeking informed consent. One of the strengths of the ISG is that it promotes privacy by ensuring informed consent is sought in all cases where it is possible and safe to do so. This actively engages clients and ensures they understand who their information will be shared with, why and what service coordination may occur as a result of the disclosure.

Our Implementation of the ISG Pilot Project

In mid 2009 UCWA participated in a pilot project lead by the South Australian Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People (GCYP) to develop organisational procedures necessary for implementation of the ISG. There are prescribed ISG procedures that each organisation is required to develop (see A Guide to Writing an ISG Appendix at www.gcyp.sa.gov.au). This enables a consistent state wide approach to the treatment of client information, as outlined in the ISG, whilst ensuring each individual organisation develops procedures that are responsive to the context and operational systems of their own organisation. UCWA approached the implementation in six stages:

1 Policy and Procedure development

A range of Policies and Procedures were drafted to outline the Organization's Approach to ISG, and related organisational policies and procedures mapped and amended to clarify the place of ISG in the broader Privacy commitments of UCWA. Procedures for managing and recording requests for information were also drafted.

2 Training of staff

Staff training seminars were developed. Particular focus was placed upon the approval procedures and delegations of authority for disclosure without consent and when refusing to share information. Emphasis was also placed on the fact that consent for sharing information was always the first requirement, and only in a very limited and defensible number of circumstances, for example where a child is placed at risk through the actual act of the service seeking consent from a potentially abusive parent or guardian, should information be shared without seeking written consent.

3 Supervision

Heavy emphasis was placed upon the Professional Supervision of case work practice in relation to information sharing. A number of internal ISG Advisors were established to provide a point of discussion and advice for Supervisors where they encountered difficult or complex cases.

4 Data Collection, Checks, and Audits

Strict data collection of all requests and processes for the recording of any instance of information sharing were developed. Processes for checking/auditing these were developed.

5 Development of Information for Clients and Consumers

Pamphlets and information displays were developed to inform clients and consumers about the ISG, their rights regarding privacy, and complaints mechanisms.

6 Reviews

A process of Annual review of the Policies, Procedures, and any instances of Information Sharing was proposed to place the system under regular review. The Senior Privacy Officer was also required to include ISG requests in the current internal system for Privacy Auditing in service delivery areas.

We have attached copies of Guidelines, Procedures, and Information Pamphlets that outline the work that has gone into preparing for implementation of the ISG. These procedures promote the safety and wellbeing of children and young people, while at the same time, ensuring a strong focus on the privacy of individuals and families.

It is our belief that the potential of the ISG to impact on effective early intervention through improved service coordination and collaboration between government agencies and non government organisations is significant. The simple step by step approach of the ISG provides clear direction to staff about appropriate information sharing practice. The organisational procedures that operationalise the ISG ensure attention is given to the promotion of privacy and seeking informed client consent whilst ensuring due consideration to safety and wellbeing. The ISG clarifies circumstances where there is a duty of care to seek or share information without consent and guides practitioners in how this should be done.

At the most fundamental level, it is not possible to undertake effective early intervention work if organisations are required to wait for risk of harm to be imminent before information can be shared. The cost of failing to intervene early to support individuals and families at risk are substantial. Successful early intervention will reduce costs to government and is in the public interest.

I have attached various documentary examples of Information Provision, Policies, Procedures, Consent Forms, and Record Forms, that we have develop to guide appropriate practice.

The ISG is a workable model being implemented by all relevant SA government agencies. To meet our state government contractual obligations to implement the ISG and to work in partnership with other agencies it is necessary for organisations such as UCWA to be able to also implement the ISG.

Should you require any further information or clarification of any point raised in this letter, please contact, Chris Talbot, Executive Manager, Information and Knowledge Management, Unitingcare Wesley Adelaide.

I am very happy to make myself available to discuss these matters with any of the Commission's staff.

Yours sincerely,

[signed]

Simon Schrapel
Chief Executive