Explainer – Why children, young people, parents and carers need earlier help with child protection

Explainer – Why children, young people, parents and carers need earlier help with child protection

All children are entitled to grow up in a safe and loving environment. As a community, we have an obligation to help children achieve these goals.

The needs of children, young people, parents and carers in crisis are complex. But the current child protection system does not work as well as it could in responding to these needs.

This is largely because not enough of the right kind of help is available at the right time, or in the most appropriate settings.

Why is earlier help with child protection matters important?

  • It helps people understand what is happening, and to be involved in the important decisions that affect them.
  • It reduces the need for cases to go to court. Where they do go to court, it reduces the time it takes to sort it out.
  • We shouldn’t wait until things are at crisis point before providing help.
  • It improves the way decisions are made about what services are needed and when.

How does the child protection system work?

Victoria’s child protection system is governed by the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005.

This Act makes it clear that the primary objective of the child protection system is to protect the best interests of children. This means protecting them from immediate harm and promoting their long-term welfare and development. The law recognises that the best place to promote the well-being of children is within the family, and that families should be supported to achieve this.  

The Department of Health and Human Services responds to reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. It carries out investigations and, if an allegation is substantiated, it acts to reduce the risk to the child or young person.

This may include taking a matter before the Family Division of the Children’s Court (hosted by Magistrates’ Courts in regional areas) to obtain a court order. This order can enable the Department to place the child under formal supervision or remove the child from the family.

Children at risk of being removed from their families by the Department are often only able to get legal advice once the Department initiates court action.

Legal services have a central role to play in ensuring that decisions are made in the best interests of children and young people. We fund this legal advice and representation for matters that come before the court.

For more information see Child protection.

What are the problems?

The system is under pressure

Child protection is a complex area of work and people are working hard under pressure.

The number of matters reported to child protection services, together with the number of substantiations and orders, has been increasing over recent years. The cost of child protection has also increased.

The increase has been driven, in part, by a greater awareness and response to family violence.

Approaches are too short-term in focus

Child protection laws are designed to promote positive, long-term outcomes for children and young people who need protection. Pressure on the system has led to a focus on the immediate safety of children. This is clearly important but has left little opportunity to work toward also securing the best long-term outcome.

The importance of family and culture to the long-term wellbeing of children and young people means that steps need to be taken to ensure that children can have a safe home environment.

The system needs to support families to achieve this.

We are especially keen to see this happen because we know from our own research that children in child protection are at much greater risk of needing more legal aid help as adults.

High removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people

Several reports have highlighted the poor outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people involved in the child protection system.

The number of children removed has increased dramatically and Victoria has the highest rate of removal of Aboriginal children.

All agencies in the child protection system need to acknowledge how the child protection system has failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and families. We need to work together to improve outcomes.

What are the possible solutions?

The child protection system can have a profound and lasting impact on children, young people, parents and carers. So it is important to get things right. 

These are some of the solutions we look at in our Final report.

More client-focused and timely approaches

The way child protection legal services respond to a family in crisis needs to change to provide better supports that also maintain a child’s cultural connection with their family.

Legal services need to have a more client-focused approach. A client-focused model recognises the need to empower clients at all stages of the child protection system – to understand what is happening and to participate in the process.

We need to move to providing more timely support. This includes providing services and assistance before matters escalate to court.

Shifting focus away from the court

The Children’s Court of Victoria plays an important role in the child protection system. However, we should try to reduce the number of cases that need to go to court.

Where that is not possible, we still need to shift the focus away from the physical court as the site of all activity.

More needs to be done to ensure that cases are prepared and that discussions between lawyers and their clients, especially children and young people, can take place away from the pressured court environment.

What do we want to happen?

These are some of the things we say need to happen in our Final report.

Children, young people, parents and carers need more opportunities for greater involvement

A better child protection system that truly protects the best interests of children and young people must include the voice of children, young people, parents and carers in all stages.

We need to work better together

There are many things Victoria Legal Aid can do better in this child protection space. For example, we can provide clearer information about the child protection system, increase support before cases go to court, and improve access to legal help for people who are currently missing out on assistance.

But we cannot do these alone.

We need all agencies and service providers to work together to achieve better outcomes for children, young people, parents and carers in the child protection system.

This includes the Children’s and Magistrates’ Courts of Victoria, the Department of Health and Human Services, private practitioners who do legal aid work, Aboriginal legal services and community legal centres.

We must acknowledge our respective roles and commit to building a better understanding of each other’s roles.

Read our final report

Read Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review final report (docx, 7.95 MB)

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