Child protection experiences should count for something, says solicitor Melanie Senior

Child protection experiences should count for something, says solicitor Melanie Senior

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Cinque Oakley Senior Lawyers solicitor Melanie Senior
Cinque Oakley Senior Lawyers solicitor Melanie Senior

Melanie Senior is a solicitor, crochet enthusiast who 'yarn bombs' the odd tree when she gets the chance, and committed reformer with strong views on child protection that she puts to good use.

Pulling the threads together in order to create something special is a trait of Melanie’s that blurs the lines between her professional and personal life in the regional Victorian town of Ballarat.

The young people who need her help in the Children’s Court are both on her mind and in her neighbourhood. A woman she had represented more than a decade before once stopped her in the street to tell her: ‘I just wanted to say thanks because at the time I think you were the only person who listened to me.’

Conversations about societal fairness are the norm in Melanie’s household. Those around the dinner table include her husband, who also works in the justice sector, and their daughter, who joined their large family as a much-challenged pre-teen and is now in an advanced academic stream at school.

‘We always have massive arguments and debates about what constitutes justice,’ Melanie says with a laugh.

Experience makes for potent feedback on review

Now with Cinque Oakley Senior Lawyers, Melanie has been working in child protection for more than 16 years, deciding on it within months of beginning her career when a family law matter transferred into the Children’s Court.

‘Issues are much more complicated in the Children’s Court and the fact that children get to participate so routinely in the process is more in keeping with my personal views,’ she said.

Her commitment to making a difference is why she has worked with the Ballarat and District Law Association and the WRISC Family Violence Support organisation.

It is also why she contributed to our Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review and urged others to respond to our consultation and options paper. This looked at timely, consistent, high quality services that better support children, particularly those at risk of long-term disadvantage.

‘A lot of child protection work is done by private practitioners through grants of legal aid and yet in this area, their voices aren’t regularly heard,’ she said.

‘Responding (to the consultation paper) is actually a very good way of being heard and making that private practitioner experience count.’

What Melanie would like to see

According to Melanie, child protection legal aid services would be improved:

  • if small grants of aid for ‘pre-issue advice’ were to be given when the Department of Health and Human Services first identifies an issue and makes a request. This could have helped in the case of a father who initially refused to undertake a voluntary drug screen, ultimately drawing out the process and time in court. ‘My usual advice is “the sooner you cooperate on some level, the sooner they will get out of your lives,"’ Melanie said, adding however, that early advice might also centre on the reasonableness of the department’s requests in many circumstances
  • with greater flexibility in child protection cases when imposing the means test. For example, Melanie said, a family violence survivor who paid more than $20,000 for representation in custody hearings and who had managed to put herself through a degree to find work and get a deposit on a home risked losing it all to pay for further representation in child protection hearings where the protective concerns related only to the father
  • with provision of lists of preferred interpreters in regional areas to assure quality services. Melanie cited a case in which a mother had secured services through a centre but discovered, through their child, that the interpreter was deferring to the father’s view point.
  • with more training to bring lawyers in regional areas onto the child protection panel to ensure better access.

Key themes of submissions received

Submissions to our consultation and options paper closed on Wednesday 21 December 2016. They contained a great deal of useful feedback and suggestions about how our services might be improved.

Read more about the key themes of the submissions we received

View the snapshot of feedback

For an indication of the range of feedback we received, view the Sway presentation.

More information

For more information, see Child protection legal aid services review, email childprotectionreview@vla.vic.gov.au or call Child Protection Review Project Officer Siobhan Mansfield – (03) 9269 0298.