More work needed to achieve safe and certain homes for Victorian children

More work needed to achieve safe and certain homes for Victorian children

Monday, 2 November 2020

A new Victoria Legal Aid report shows changes to Victoria’s child protection system, designed to give more kids in out of home care a permanent home or to allow them to go back to their families as soon as is safe, are not always working as intended.

Four years since the ‘permanency amendments’ came into effect we are releasing a new report, ‘Achieving safe and certain homes for children’, based on a comprehensive review of our data to understand the impact of the changes for our clients.

‘The intention of the amendments is to give children timely, safe and permanent homes, and provide families at risk with prompt support,’ said Amy Schwebel, Acting Executive Director, Family, Youth and Children’s Law.

‘But our report shows this was not being consistently achieved before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated existing challenges for parents seeking to be reunited with their children.’

Our report includes several examples where COVID-19 restrictions are preventing parents from having face to face contact with their children or accessing the support services necessary to demonstrate they have addressed the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) safety concerns.

‘We are pleased to see the Government has recognised these risks and included an extension to the reunification timeframes in its COVID-19 Omnibus Act until April next year,’ said Amy.

‘But we are concerned COVID-19 will impact families beyond the 6-month extension provided in the Omnibus Act. We also see the benefit of making longer-term changes to enable the amendments to operate as intended.’

The permanency amendments created rigid 12 and 24 month timeframes for parents to address concerns before the Children’s Court can no longer permanently reunite children with their parents.

They also reduced the Children Court’s discretion and oversight of decisions by the DHHS.

‘Our data shows that there’s only been a slight increase in the use of orders which place children on a pathway to remaining or returning to the care of their parents, or to another permanent care arrangement,’ said Amy.

‘But at the same time, there’s been an increase of approximately 50 percent in the proportion of care by Secretary orders, despite this being the least certain and permanent outcome for a child who needs to be in out of home care.’

Changes designed to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care are connected to their community and culture are showing positive results when they are complied with, but we often see delays to cultural support planning or inadequate plans being developed.

Our data also shows that a disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be on care by Secretary orders compared to non-Aboriginal kids in the community.

‘This is particularly concerning given this is the only type of long term out of home care order that doesn’t specify a carer,’ said Amy.

‘This presents obvious risks that Aboriginal children will lose connection to their culture and community if they are removed from their family, and there are delays in preparing cultural support plans.’

We make four overarching recommendations to ensure the amendments act as intended:

  • Amend reunification timeframes to allow the Children’s Court to make decisions in the best interest of the child.
  • Improve court oversight and discretion to enable better outcomes for children.
  • Expand and strengthen measures to address the disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care by Secretary orders.
  • Provide adequate resources to expand access to services, including family violence, public housing, drug and alcohol services parenting support, mental health and culturally safe services to support parents to reunify with their children safely and quickly.

To prepare this report we reviewed the data of all legally aided child protection grants of assistance between 2014–15 to 2019–20, including where we represented children and where we represented parents. We also interviewed child protection lawyers across Victoria to understand their experiences of the permanency amendments.

We look forward to continuing to engage with the DHHS and the State Government to achieve the best outcomes for children and families who need support.

Media enquiries

Acting Executive Director, Family, Youth and Children's Law, Amy Schwebel is available for interview. Please contact media@vla.vic.gov.au for enquiries.

More information

Read about our 2016 submission to the Commission for Children and Young People’s initial review of the permanency amendments.

Get help for child protection.

 

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