UP to 197 babies have been taken from their parents in the past three years in North Queensland hospitals, hours after their birth, a child protection inquiry has heard.

The state-wide inquiry, designed to review the effectiveness of the child protection system, was told yesterday that the actual number was not known but it could be as high as 197 between July 2009 and June 2012.

The review area includes Townsville, Mount Isa, Mackay and Bowen.

Acting regional director for Child Safety Services, Nicola Jeffers, was drilled after saying the figure was “not readily available” and that a “manual audit would have to be taken”, the Townsville Bulletin reports.

“By not giving responsive answers, it could be, it could be as bad as 197,” counsel for commissioner Michael Copley said.

“It’s probably and hopefully substantially less than that, but until we know the actual figure it’s potentially as many as that.”

Ms Jeffers’ evidence started the first day of the inquiry in Townsville, as it is being held around the state in a bid to help shape the Department of Child Protection for the next decade. The court heard Ms Jeffers said she was “uncomfortable” with making public the report which outlined the child removal figures in the region but commissioner Tim Carmody ordered it to be published online.

The 197 figure came from the number of admissions for “out of home care” in that period. But that figure may not include five “very young” indigenous children who were removed from their mothers in the past week alone.

She said removing children was a “last resort” and that several steps preceded it.

The inquiry resumes at 2pm today.