New child protection laws will be a challenge

New child protection laws will be a challenge

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

It will take some parents longer than others to establish a safe home for the return of children who have been removed for reasons of neglect or abuse, but Victoria Legal Aid believes it is worth supporting the longer journey.

‘Safety is always the priority, and it won’t be possible or appropriate in all cases where child protection orders apply for children to return home’, Director of Family, Youth and Children’s Law Nicole Rich said.

‘But closing a door on a child’s relationship with their parents is a significant decision, so where a parent or parents can be supported by services in order for a child to safely return home, we should make an effort to sustain that support for a reasonable time.’ 

How the law is changing

'Under changes to the law coming into force in March 2016, if a child has been out of a parent’s care for more than two years, the court will no longer be able to make or extend a reunification order,' Senior Advocate for Family and Children, Robyn Hamilton explained.

'What this means is that the child will be placed on an order that has no provision for conditions such as ongoing contact or support services for the parents,’ she said.

‘While the Department of Health and Human Services can still decide to reunite the family after this time, in practice the absence of such conditions is likely to significantly diminish the prospects of a child returning to their parent’s care.’

Nicole noted that while the reforms were intended to ensure children were placed in stable permanent care as soon as possible, ‘in reality there are unfortunately many children for whom a permanent carer cannot be found and who are ultimately placed in state residential care.

'With the new legislation, the court will have no say in this, even in circumstances where the child’s parents are addressing the original concerns,' she said.

Who this will affect most

‘We are concerned that the time restrictions could particularly impact on mothers struggling to behave protectively in abusive households because they are a victim of family violence,’ Nicole said.

‘With the right supports around her, it can still take a significant period to build the resilience and capabilities of a victim of abuse but that doesn’t mean that children should lose the opportunity to be raised by their mother.’

According to Robyn, 'teenage parents, who may have been neglected or abused themselves, are also more likely to need extended time to access and engage with services to improve their parenting skills. 

‘When you have a 15-year-old mother, when it’s not safe for her to live at home because of violence and drug use and she’s using cannabis herself, it will be a challenge for that mother to be able to address these issues within a short time frame, particularly when we know that there are long waiting lists for services,’ she said.

The time to act

When the amendments come into effect, the role of lawyers in advocating for families to get access to early support services will be even more important, the lawyers said.

‘If we can assist children and vulnerable families before the matter escalates, we can play a more effective role in ensuring safety and stability,’ Nicole said.

More information

Read what Nicole Rich said in her witness statement to the Royal Commission into Family Violence on Day 15 (paragraphs 70 – 77).

Read our submission to the parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to child protection laws.

Read about how we helped parents reunite their two young sons

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