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It's time to give vulnerable Victorian families more help
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It's time to give vulnerable Victorian families more help

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It has been two years since significant changes were made to the laws for Victoria’s child protection system, writes Amy Schwebel.

Few would disagree with the objective of these changes — to provide timely decisions about safe and permanent care arrangements for children who, at the time of the government's involvement, are not safe at home.

We also assist the parents who have experienced significant family violence, who have mental health issues, who experience inter-generational disadvantage, who want to care for their children and want to provide a safe and supportive home, but experience challenges in doing so.

This work that we do with parents reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King jnr: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps".

Victorian law requires that decisions made about what is in the best interests of children “give the widest possible protection and assistance to the parent and child as the fundamental group unit of society”.

This means that safe and permanent care arrangements should, wherever possible, be achieved in the family home. It won’t always be possible, but parents caught up in the child protection system also need help to make it happen. This is particularly important when you remember that the outcomes for children aren’t necessarily good when they go into out-of-home care.

So, two years on, have the new laws driven the change intended?

This can sometimes be a difficult question to answer, but not in this case.

Late last year the government released an independent evaluation of the new laws completed by the Commission for Children and Young People.

The “…safe and wanted…” report has received disappointingly little public attention, but it is comprehensive, evidence-based and documents many concerning issues.

It clearly demonstrates that the changes to Victoria’s child protection system are not meeting the needs of our most vulnerable children and young people.

The changes have created inflexibility. There are now strict 12 and 24-month time frames for parents to address safety concerns before the Children’s Court can no longer reunite children with their parents. The commission found this has resulted in outcomes that are not in the best interests of children.

Yes, vulnerable children need safe and stable care arrangements and these care arrangements need to be secured as soon as possible.

But the community also expects that children are given the best chance of returning home when it is safe to do so.

Parents are wanting, and working hard, to address challenging issues. This includes mothers, for example, who have experienced years of family violence and are fighting to overcome trauma and rebuild their lives.

Families are not always given this chance.

The number of children (and their families) who hadn’t been allocated a government child protection worker increased by almost 60 per cent in the six months after the new laws started.

This means children and families are waiting for services relating to family violence, housing, mental health, drug and alcohol, among others. Yet the clock is now ticking on those strict timetables for reunification.

This is King’s “cruel jest” in Victoria in 2018. The result? An 11 per cent drop in the number of children returning to the family home.

The Commission found that the system’s inflexibility has been compounded by a significant lack of resources. Their recommendations for building adequate and sustainable funding for Victoria’s child protection system were welcome and it is good to see the government investing more in this year’s state budget.

But we also need to get the legislation itself right. The commission made a number of recommendations to improve the law, including changes which would give the Court discretion to give parents more time to respond to safety concerns in situations, for example, where the government has failed to provide parents with support services.

The government has been silent on this recommendation and others focused on law reform.

The result is cookie-cutter laws that do not recognise that every child in the child protection system is an individual with unique needs, and it means that those working and making decisions in the child protection system cannot respond to the needs of the child and the family sitting in front of them.

All of the Commission’s recommendations, including those to improve our child protection laws, need to be urgently addressed.

Amy Schwebel is Victoria Legal Aid’s manager of strategy in family, youth and children’s law.

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