Victoria Legal Aid

An apology waiting to happen

We must make changes to improve the lives of kids in state care.

Wednesday 10 April 2024 8:00pm

This opinion article by Executive Director Joanna Fletcher from our Family, Youth and Children's Law team, was first published in the Herald Sun newspaper.

In February, the Victorian Parliament delivered an historic, bipartisan apology to those who were abused and neglected while in the state’s care from 1928 to 1990.

The apology acknowledged that the state failed those in institutionalised out-of-home care and committed the government to 'doing more and doing better' to protect children in the present and future.

At Victoria Legal Aid, working with parents and children going through the child protection system each day, we welcome these sentiments.

But we ask how this commitment to doing better is being realised for children living in state care right now?

Waiting for action

Last week, the government agreed to action just two Yoorrook Justice Commission recommendations for change to the child protection system, around publishing data and training for child protection workers.

Our nation’s first truth-telling commission, Yoorrook called for many evidence-based changes, including more oversight of residential care, an expanded role for the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People and to restore greater flexibility in the law for families to reunify.

But these are among recommendations which only have ‘in principle’ acceptance or are ‘under consideration’.

While we wait, children living in ‘care’ continue to experience grievous harms.

Let’s start with residential care.

These units are supposed to provide a home-like environment when children can’t be with family due to abuse, neglect or trauma and a foster care placement is not available.

Children and young people tell us that residential care is often no better than the environment they’ve been removed from. A few years ago, a young woman we spoke to said simply ‘it’s bad because you don’t get love there’.

Evidence-based based recommendations for child protection reform continue to sit on the shelf. While we wait, grievous harms are happening to children living in state care - Joanna Fletcher, Executive Director, Family, Youth and Children's Law

Compared to young people in other out-of-home settings, such as kinship or foster care, kids in residential care are more likely to disengage from schoolExternal Link , be targeted for sexual exploitationExternal Link and be funnelled into the youth justice systemExternal Link .

Like the care-leavers to whom the parliamentary apology was made, they too are ‘bright children full of life, who could have done anything, been anything…’ but we are not doing enough to help them realise this potential.

Four years ago, we welcomed the signing of a framework to reduce criminalisation of young people in residential careExternal Link – an agreement between key government agencies and residential care providers. The aim was to make contact between children in care and police a last resort.

Unfortunately, this is not what we see on the ground. Four years on, we know children in care continue to be criminalised. Our data shows half of our clients placed in residential care will seek help with a criminal matter within two years of their placement.

While we sometimes see improvements in practice, there is insufficient reporting to tell us if the framework is having an impact. These issues need urgent attention if the framework is to fulfill the promise of its name.

Helping families staying together

Problems in child protection go well beyond residential care.

With its roots in colonial policies of child removal, failures of the contemporary child protection system still fall hardest on First Nations children, who are 22 times more likely than non-indigenous children to be removed from their families, the highest in the nation.

Yoorrook spent months examining systemic injustice in the child protection systemExternal Link , including the impact of legislative changes known as the ‘permanency amendments’.

Along with other legal services, we have repeatedly raised concerns about the amendments, which were introduced in 2016 to drive quicker decision making in child protection and reduce children’s time in care.

In practice, these laws do not cater for the complex needs of families, who struggle to get the help they need in time to meet strict timelines for reunification.

There is also no convincing evidence that the permanency amendments have improved the lives of children.

More children have been put on two-year Care by Secretary Orders which transfer all major decision making to Child Protection without independent oversight from courts and remove the certainty of contact with family.

These children often live in residential care, without a sense of long-term stability or safety.

At Yoorrook hearings in May 2023, government representatives acknowledged the permanency amendments were a ‘blunt instrument’ and committed to a review.

Almost a year later, we are still in the dark about what improvements will be made.

Child protection is a complex policy area and it’s important to take time to get things right.

But, to truly live up to its commitment to protecting Victoria’s children the government must take the steps we know will help now, rather than waiting for another generation to apologise to.

More information

Read the opinion pieceExternal Link at the Herald Sun website

Read our latest data on the continued over-criminalisation of children in care

Learn more about our child protection reform asks

Reviewed 10 April 2024