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South Australia’s child protection minister has ordered a review of cases involving the removal of newborn babies from their mothers at public birthing hospitals, following damning whistleblower claims of “inhumane” practices.

In an interview with ABC News, Katrine Hildyard said she had tasked the Department for Child Protection chief executive, Jackie Bray, to conduct the review, with the inquiry expected to take weeks.

“I’ve asked her [Ms Bray] to very carefully examine cases of removal [of babies] over the last couple of years to make sure that we are undertaking these terribly heartbreaking removals in the best possible way,” Ms Hildyard told Stateline.

“I dare say it will be difficult to make any details of cases public because, of course, the detail will be about particular families and infants.”

It comes after a South Australian government whistleblower told ABC News last month that child protection workers sometimes enter hospital delivery rooms to issue removal notices to new mothers deemed at-risk, before they have even delivered the afterbirth.

SA Health policy states that “infants are not to be separated from their mother (other than for medical reasons) until section 41 [legislative powers authorising the removal of a child] has been invoked”.

But the whistleblower said in some cases, the Department for Child Protection asked hospital staff to find a “pretext” to take a baby out of a ward, so the infant was already separated from the mother before the notice was served.

The public servant described the way in which the department removes newborns as “inhumane”.

Ms Hildyard declined the ABC’s initial request for an interview in April, when the whistleblower’s claims were first published.

Speaking to ABC News three weeks later, Ms Hildyard said the removal of newborns from hospitals only occurred in “really heartbreaking circumstances”.

“Nobody wants to remove babies [and the] state government certainly doesn’t want to remove babies,” she said.

“It’s my expectation that when that really difficult decision to remove a child is made, that removal is undertaken in a way that is compassionate, that affords dignity and respect.”

The department’s chief executive Jackie Bray will conduct the review.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Last financial year, SA’s Department for Child Protection removed 105 babies, aged under one month, from their mothers.

About one third of those were Aboriginal, and most were removed before they were one-week-old.

Mothers whose babies are removed at birth can be accused of being unfit to parent, living in inappropriate housing, not showing up to antenatal appointments, or misusing drugs and alcohol.

The removals often take place in public birthing hospitals after members of the public file so-called “unborn child concerns” — notifications to the department during a woman’s pregnancy.

SA nearing a record 5,000 children in state care

Latest Department for Child Protection statistics show that, on March 31 this year, 4,883 South Australian children were in state care — an increase of 0.4 per cent from the month prior.

Of those, 4,101 were living in foster, kinship or family day care, while 727 were living in residential care.

“One in three children in South Australia are in contact with the child protection and family support system at some point during their childhood,” Ms Hildyard said.

“We have a system that was built decades ago to respond to incidents of physical harm.

“What we are now seeing is intergenerational trauma, patterns of neglect and cumulative harm and we absolutely need to reform — in fact, transform — the system so that it is fit to empower children and families who are grappling with these difficult issues.”

The rate of children entering care continues to climb each year, in part due to an increase in the population, with the state on the cusp of a record 5,000 children under the guardianship of the chief executive of the Department for Child Protection.

‘System needs to change’

Between June 30, 2022 and June 30, 2023 — while the Malinauskas government was in office — an additional 124 children entered care.

But Ms Hildyard said the growth rate of the number of children entering care was slowing.

An additional 124 children entered care from June 2022 to June 2023.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

She said the government had established a “direct experience group” of people with a care experience and parents who may have had children removed, as well as a “carer council” comprising foster and kinship carers.

The minister said the government had also “significantly increased” the number of at-risk families who are offered family group conferencing — a program offered to families to address concerns about children’s safety.

“I am absolutely facing up every day to challenges in the child protection and family support system,” Ms Hildyard said.

“I am being very, very open about the fact that our system needs to change.”