Death of current or former client - advice

This advice provides additional information regarding child protection’s role when a current or former client dies.
Document ID number 2353, version 6, 17 July 2020.

See procedure Death of current or former client for tasks that must be undertaken.

In the event of the death of a client (case is open) or a former client where the case had been closed within 12 months of the death, independent review and analysis occurs in accordance with the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012. The Commission for Children and Young People manages the child death inquiry process, which considers services provided to the child and aims to promote continuous improvement and innovation in policies and practices relating to  the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children and young people.

Support available for practitioners in distress

Departmental work can be difficult, challenging and distressing. Where staff are exposed to an incident that has affected or has the potential to affect their emotional wellbeing or physical health, the department provides access to an incident stress management system to help minimise the negative impact.

Critical Incident Response Management service (CIRM)

The CIRM service assists employees to work through the emotional effects of workplace incidents. CIRM is a first response service which offers confidential demobilising, defusing, debriefing, individual, or group peer support. Each division has a CIRM service coordinator and a team of employees who are trained as support workers and de-briefers. Staff can contact the service coordinator to arrange support.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

The EAP is a personal and confidential counselling service which provides a limited number of counselling sessions to help clarify situations with a focus on problem solving and solutions. The EAP is provided by an independent external organisation.

It is recommended that debriefing be offered at the earliest opportunity to those staff and clients affected by the death of a client or former client.

Risk to other children

In addressing issues of potential risk to other children, the imperatives of any criminal investigation will need to be taken into account and liaison with police will be important.

Whatever the cause of death of a current or former client, consideration should be given to the impact the death will have on the parents' capacity to respond to the needs of other children in their care. Practitioners should consider what additional supports or intervention might be needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the other children.

Incident response

Where the death of a current client becomes known, or a client where the case had been closed within the twelve month period preceding the death, a category one incident report will be required in accordance with the incident reporting guidelines. A copy of the critical incident report must be provided by the division to the Commission for Children and Young People and the Office of Professional Practice.

The division will provide a ten day ministerial briefing including analysis of practice.

The child death inquiry process is initiated by the Office of Professional Practice following notification from the Coroner's Court, receipt of an incident report or advice from a division.

The child protection practitioner will also notify the Children's Court to advise of the death where the child was subject of a current Children's Court order or application to initiate withdrawal of the order or application.

In the event of the death of a former client where the case had been closed for more than 12 months prior to the death, senior management should consider what action may be required. Relevant factors to consider include:

  • the length of time elapsed since child protection involvement
  • the extent of child protection involvement
  • the sensitivities of the case
  • the potential for public, political or legal scrutiny
  • the particular facts and circumstances.

Consultation should occur amongst senior divisional and central branch staff wherever required. Divisional management will determine further action required, including briefing requirements. See Department of Health and Human Services incident reporting system.

Coronial matters

Reportable death under the Coroners Act 2008

Under the Coroners Act, reportable death includes, among other things, the death of a child:

  • for whom the Secretary has parental responsibility
  • who was placed in emergency care
  • appears to have been unexpected, unnatural or violent, or resulted directly or indirectly from accident or injury.

Reporting a death to the Coroner’s Court

Upon receiving advice of a reportable death of a current or former client, as described above, the area operations manager/director, child protection (or equivalent or more senior) must notify the Office of Professional Practice, who will report the death to the Coroners Court unless it is confirmed that a coroner has already been informed.

When child protection is first to respond to a death

In most instances the police will be in attendance and will manage matters in relation to coronial requirements. In the unusual event that the first response falls to child protection, the Coroners Court  will provide information as to how the body is to be dealt with, and what medical documentation will be required.

It is essential practitioners understand — and communicate as appropriate — that the body of the deceased is not to be moved. Emergency services should be contacted and the area should be cleared of other persons immediately. The body may be moved to a more private area only in exceptional circumstances where approval from either police or a coroner has been obtained. In no other circumstances should the body be moved.

In all cases where the body of the deceased is taken to the Coronial Services Centre, it is important that all medical records are provided to the coroners office immediately. Where possible the records should accompany the body.

Reviewable death

Under the Coroners Act, a reviewable death is the death of a second or subsequent child of a parent. A 'parent' is broadly defined under the Act and includes, a step-parent, an adoptive parent, a foster parent and a person who has custody or daily care and control of a child.

Whenever a current or former client dies, child protection must consider whether the death constitutes a reviewable death. The area operations manager/director, child protection (or above) must notify the Office of Professional Practice, who will report the death to the Coroners Court unless it is confirmed that a coroner has already been informed.

A coroner has the power to investigate a reviewable death and to refer the death to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine to investigate the health and safety of any living sibling or the health of the parent of the deceased child.

Considerations for good practice

Emotional reactions

When a client dies, it is likely that everyone involved will experience significant emotional reactions. Particularly where a death occurs suddenly, unexpectedly or in traumatic circumstances the situation can feel overwhelming. Feelings of confusion, fear, anger, guilt, and numbness are common. This is relevant for family and friends, and also for other clients, as well as for carers, placement providers, child protection practitioners, and other involved professionals. Reactions are likely to vary widely. It would be unwise to make early judgements, as grief reactions are unpredictable. However, should someone's reaction raise concern it may be helpful to consider offering additional support or assistance.

Supporting the family

Practitioners should consider other children affected by the death and their needs for support in relation to grief and loss.

If there are no other clients in the family, child protection's legislative powers and obligations cease. However, practitioners could consider what assistance or support can be offered until the family receives alternative services.

Coordinating role

With the death of a current client, child protection has a coordinating role and one aimed at assisting affected individuals to be informed and supported. There may be many relevant parties.

Consider who needs to be informed and how to manage this. Someone in the family may take the lead within the child's family and social network, and perhaps even with some involved services. Some families may require considerable assistance with this process. The news may spread quickly through much of the client's network. Child protection can assist by keeping track of those who have been informed, and filling any gaps. The pattern and intensity of relationships surrounding the client will vary widely with the circumstances of the case and will influence who is affected, and how, by the death, and therefore what assistance or support may be required.

Client network

In considering who needs to be informed, be aware that anyone within the department who has had past or indirect contact in relation to a current or former client who dies is likely to want to know. The extent of their connection may not be known so the information should be conveyed in a sensitive and timely manner, preferably in person in a purposeful conversation, rather than by phone or in writing. It can be upsetting to hear of the death of a current or former client 'in passing' or well after the event. Consider whether there are past contacts outside child protection who would wish to be informed.

Aboriginal clients

ACSASS should be advised of the death of all current or former Aboriginal clients. ACSASS will be able to provide advice regarding the particular sensitivities for the family and the Aboriginal community, and how best to approach the situation.

The extent of social relationships in the Aboriginal community is very broad so the effects of a death are likely to extend widely throughout the community. There is likely to be some cross over between family and professional boundaries for Aboriginal workers involved. They may be dealing with personal as well as professional connections to the client and community.

The death of an Aboriginal client is likely to impact on existing working relationships between Aboriginal families and community service organisations and child protection. For example, it would not be appropriate to contact professionals or families within the affected community on the day of the funeral. The Aboriginal community commonly experiences a sense of fear and distrust of child protection arising from the quite recent history of widespread forcible removal of Aboriginal children by welfare authorities. Such feelings are likely to be heightened at this time.

Ongoing impact

As well as initial emotional reactions and early responses and activity that occur following the death of a client, there may be far reaching and ongoing impact on some of the people and systems within the client's network. Maintaining awareness of the potential for ongoing effects, and reflecting on implications over time may be beneficial.