Doing it for the kids

Doing it for the kids

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

While some lawyers are drawn to child protection work from the outset, Lawyer Alice Bewley is the first to concede that her child protection career wasn’t exactly planned.

‘It could be said that I fell into child protection work by accident,’ said Alice.

‘Like many young lawyers, I had not really considered much beyond family law, and was not aware that child protection was its own discrete and complex jurisdiction.

‘Fortunately child protection work found me, and provided the perfect avenue for combining my interest in human rights law with my love of advocacy.

Photo of Lawyer Alice Bewley
Lawyer Alice Bewley

‘I kicked off my legal career at Djirra (formerly the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service) and was the lawyer for Barwon South West, based in Warrnambool and covering a vast area between Geelong, Portland and up to Hamilton. It was tough and isolating work, but a wonderful way to start my practice.

‘In Warrnambool I was practising in child protection shortly before the 2016 permanency amendments, so I set myself the task of understanding the changes as well as I could. It felt like the only thing I could control in an otherwise confusing and demanding system. I think that time really equipped me with the tools to dedicate myself to working in this area.

‘Whilst working at Victoria Legal Aid was always a horizon goal, somehow the stars aligned early, and I found myself in my dream job far quicker than I’d ever thought possible.

‘I’ve been at the Ballarat office for nearly two years and have retained my child protection practice here. The volume of work and the exposure to advocacy is invaluable, and I’m still in awe of the experts we have working in this important area, and so grateful for their assistance and patience.

Pressed on what has surprised her most about the work, Alice is forthright.

‘I am often taken aback by the Department of Health and Human Services’s approach to some clients, the hardship and adversity our clients face and, most refreshingly, the strength of young people.

‘Maybe my idealism still burns too bright, but I believe working in child protection requires a certain level of openness. You wouldn’t survive if you assumed things about families and their circumstances.

‘I’m also in awe of the resilience, optimism and humour of the young people I represent, and it’s humbling to play a small part in their life journey.’

Whilst all child protection work is challenging, Alice believes country child protection lawyers face additional challenges.

‘Practising regionally is very rewarding, but it does come with unique challenges.

‘Our clients can experience disadvantage because of their regional postcode, and limited access to public transport, health services and housing can place them in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

‘An additional challenge of working in a regional area is that everyone knows everyone. It means you see you clients down the street, and relationships with prosecutors and court staff are very important. Balancing my role as an advocate whilst maintaining strong working relationships is definitely a challenge.’

Quizzed on what changes she would most like to see for her clients, Alice is unequivocal in her response.

‘Our priority clients need to be better understood and supported by the department.

Worryingly high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being removed from their families, often depriving them of important kinship connections. Equally, families in our newly arrived communities need to be understood in the complex context of settlement they live in.

‘The approach that sees parents with disabilities or mental illness lose their children also needs to shift. Living with disability or mental illness does not make you a bad parent, but it may mean you need more support structures in place to assist you.

‘Similarly, children residing in out-of-home care need to be given a voice and be better understood, especially where the department is their parent.’

Despite the emotionally taxing nature of her work, Alice feel the benefits make it all worthwhile, and some cases provide ongoing motivation to do her best for her clients.

‘One case in particular keeps me motivated,’ she says.

‘It involved a lengthy submissions contest late on a Friday. My client was a young Aboriginal woman (a child herself) who had just given birth. The department’s concerns were about her age and her own protective history. My submissions were desperate, and I was trying not to scream and cry at the bar table as the magistrate made the decision to remove her newborn baby. I was devastated, as was my client.

‘I thought I had lost her to her grief and that she might disengage from the whole process. However, she was so committed to having her baby returned, she presented on Monday having secured accommodation, and self-referred herself to a range of support services. I was thrilled.

‘We filed our own application for a new interim accommodation order on the Monday and were successful in having her baby returned. Ultimately, the department withdrew their application entirely.

‘She is a remarkable young woman and I have caught up with her since her matters finalised. After spending time with her and her baby, it was very hard not to cry when I got to cuddle her child.

‘It is cases like this that keep me going. The wins might be few and far between, but when they happen, they make it all worthwhile.’

More information

For more information on how we can assist you with your child protection matter, see Get help with child protection.

Read about National Child Protection Week 2018.

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