COVID-19 and child protection issues

COVID-19 and child protection issues

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), courts and child protection lawyers are still working during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, but the way things happen has changed because of new government rules on social distancing. This is necessary to stop the spread of the disease in the community.

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Why is DHHS contacting me about my child?

If DHHS has contacted you about your child it means they have received a report from someone who is worried your child is (or is at risk of) being harmed physically, emotionally or sexually, or being neglected. Neglect means a child is not receiving the care they need to keep them safe and healthy.

Based on the information they receive, DHHS will decide if they need to investigate the report to find out if your child is being harmed, neglected, or is at risk of harm or neglect

DHHS will not tell you who has contacted them about your children. Under the law the identity of a person who makes a report cannot be shared.

When they are investigating a report, a DHHS worker will usually speak to you, your child, and other people who know your child (like a teacher). DHHS does not need to get your permission to speak to your child or anyone else.

DHHS is asking me to sign something called a voluntary agreement, what should I do?

Often child protection matters can be resolved by DHHS and families working together to address concerns about a child being (or at risk of being) harmed or neglected.

DHHS may ask you to agree to certain things by signing a document called a ‘voluntary agreement’ or ‘childcare agreement’. It is important to get legal advice about a voluntary agreement before you sign. You can do this by contacting Victoria Legal Aid on 1300 792 387.

Do I have to go to court?

If DHHS are not satisfied that the concerns they have about a child have been addressed, or if they are concerned that a child is at immediate risk of harm, they can start a protection application in the Children’s Court.

If you have been served with a protection application by DHHS, the court date will be on the document that DHHS provide you.

The Children’s Court is still operating but court hearings are now held online to help stop the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus.

You can join a hearing from home using your phone or computer. Participating in the court case is still really important but you do not need to attend court in person due to social distancing rules. If you do not participate, decisions may be made without you having a say.

A lawyer can help you participate, by explaining what is happening in the court case and putting your views to the court. See ‘How can I get help from a lawyer’ below.

If you do not have a lawyer, call the court to find out how to join the online hearing. You should only attend court in person if you need face-to-face help from the court registry, or if you have been directed to attend. If possible, contact the court by phone first. Visit the Children’s Court website for locations and contact information.

If you are sick or have been diagnosed with coronavirus, or you have been told to self-isolate by a medical professional, do not attend court.

How can I get help from a lawyer?

If you already have a child protection lawyer, try to contact them first for help.

If you have to go to court for a new protection application and do not have a child protection lawyer, DHHS will ask for your permission to pass your contact details to Victoria Legal Aid. We will refer you to a free lawyer who will call you. The lawyer is independent and works for you, not DHHS.

Your lawyer will contact you by phone or video chat to discuss the case with you. Make sure you have access to your phone for the whole day of the court hearing as your lawyer may need to contact you several times.

You can also contact Victoria Legal Aid on 1300 792 387 for legal advice.

How should I prepare for my court hearing?

When your lawyer calls to discuss your case try to find a place that is quiet so you can concentrate and no-one else can hear you. If there is nowhere quiet in your home, try sitting somewhere like in your parked car. Have a pen and paper with you to note down important information.

Your lawyer will explain what will happen in court and will want to hear your side of what has happened with DHHS. Gather all the documents you have that are relevant to the case so you can explain them or send a photo to your lawyer. Relevant documents include:

  • all documents given to you by DHHS
  • any notes you have made about your contact with DHHS
  • any documents that show things you have been doing to address the concerns DHHS has (like letters from a counsellor, or drug screen results)
  • any other court orders you have, like family law orders or intervention orders.

It is important that you are prepared to tell your lawyer all the information they need. Any information you tell your lawyer is confidential and your lawyer will not tell anyone else without your permission.

Can my child be removed from my care?

DHHS can remove your child from your care either with your written agreement or by making a ‘protection application by emergency care’ to the Children’s Court. If DHHS has made a protection application, follow the steps listed above to get a lawyer to help you with your case.

Your children will stay where DHHS has decided until your case goes to court. At court, the decision about whether your child returns to your care or stays out of your care will be made by a magistrate. The magistrate’s decision will last at least until the next court date, which may be several months away.

If your child is unable to safely stay with you at the moment and you have ideas about who is best placed to care for your child – for example, a relative – make sure you give this information to your lawyer.

I don’t have a phone or enough phone credit, how can I participate in my court case?

Try to borrow a phone if you can do this safely, or ask the DHHS child protection worker if this is something they can help you with.

If you don’t have enough phone credit or data to join the online hearing, the court may be able to ring you so you can participate

What will happen when my court case is heard?

The DHHS lawyer will tell the magistrate (who is like a judge) why they think your child is in need of protection and what they think should happen to keep your child safe. 

The magistrate will take what the DHHS lawyer says very seriously but will also listen to what lawyers for parents and children have to say. Lawyers for parents and children will be able to say what they think should happen. If you don’t have a lawyer, you can say your views directly to the magistrate. The magistrate will then decide what will happen, including where your child will stay and any rules about their care and who they can see.

Usually, the court case will not finish on the first court date. The case only finishes if all parties agree about what should happen. If the court case does not finish it will be adjourned (put off) to another date. Due to court delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the next court date may be up to three or four months away.

Make sure you note down when the next court date is.

If my child is out of my care can I see them?

If your child is removed from your care one of the things that the court will decide is what contact you can have with your child.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has meant that extra care needs to be taken in making arrangements for contact, in order to protect children, parents, carers and workers from the spread of disease.

Whether you can see your child in person or speak to them by phone or video chat will depend on things like whether contact with your child needs to be supervised and where it can occur. Make sure you talk to your lawyer about your ideas for how contact with your child should happen, so they can tell the court what you want.

If you have a court order which allows for in-person contact with your child, make sure you carry the order with you when travelling to and from contact visits in case you are stopped by police.

If you have a court order or case plan that allows for contact, and DHHS have told you that this can no longer occur due to the coronavirus pandemic, contact your lawyer or call Victoria Legal Aid on 1300 792 387 for legal advice.

Can I leave home for drug screens or other appointments?

If you have a court order that requires you to do drug screens, or undertake other appointments, it is important to meet these obligations wherever possible. First, call the services you are accessing to see if they are still open and how they are operating. Some services like counsellors are working remotely so you can speak to them over the phone or video chat.

If you need to leave home for an in-person appointment like a drug screen, make sure you carry a copy of the court order with you to show you are away from home for an essential reason. Show this court order to police if you are stopped while travelling to or from your appointment.

Can I get an extension on the time for reunification with my child?

The law in relation to child protection orders has not changed in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. This means the same timelines apply for court orders, and the court only has the option to extend a reunification order up to a maximum of 24 months in care for a child. If reunification has not happened in this timeframe, the court must make a decision placing the child in the care of DHHS or with a permanent carer. 

If your child is ordered into the care of DHHS, DHHS can still work with you towards family reunification but you will not be able to seek a different decision in court if you disagree with DHHS.

If you are having difficulty in accessing services or meeting obligations under a court order, contact your lawyer or call Victoria Legal Aid on 1300 792 387 for legal advice.

I’m a carer and I want to participate in child protection proceedings, how can I do this?

Carers, grandparents or other third parties who want to participate directly in court proceedings need to make a request to the court to join proceedings as a party. Usually you can do this in person on the court date, but due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic court hearings are now online and you should not go to court in person. 

Instead, you should send an email to the court before the court date seeking to join the proceedings. Give reasons for your request and ask that the email be placed on the court file. It is a good idea to copy in the DHHS child protection worker to your email so that they are aware of the request.

Follow up your email to the court with a phone call to make sure that they received the email and that it has been placed on the file. 

Find court contact details at the Children’s Court website.

More information

For more information about the government rules in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus visit the DHHS website.

If you think you or your child may have the COVID-19 coronavirus

If you think you or your child may have the COVID-19 coronavirus call the hotline on 1800 675 398. It is open 24 hours, 7 days per week.

Support with family violence

If you need support with family violence during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic see People affected by family violence.

Get help with legal issues

Learn more about legal issues and COVID-19 coronavirus.

Get help for children and young people

Children and young people aged between five and 25 years can contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 for free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling.

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