Recent changes to the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 will dilute the role of the Children’s Court, with negative consequences for child protection, according to the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV).
The amendments, passed by the previous State Government, make it more difficult for children removed from their parents to return home safely, according to the LIV.
The new legislation, which came into effect on 1 March, invests more authority in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and strips away the powers of the Children’s Court.
The LIV, the Office of the Public Advocate and child welfare lobby groups are calling for full oversight and review powers of the Children’s Court to be reinstated.
"[These reforms are] against the best interests of Victoria's most vulnerable children,” said LIV president-elect Belinda Wilson.
The legislation was promoted as a response to children’s need for a permanent stable care arrangement, according to the LIV.
However, the backlog of up to 3,000 DHHS cases mean that many families have no allocated case worker.
This means that families must resolve issues of concern identified by child protection within 12 months to avoid having children removed, but do not get access to support services to help with the process.
The changes also limit the power of the Children’s Court to order that a child be reunified with a parent, said the LIV.
“Children as young as two could be placed in state care on long-term care orders until they turn 18 with no independent authority [currently the Children’s Court] able to place conditions on their care arrangements and review [the situation],” said the LIV.
Julian Pocock, a director at child welfare group Berry Street, said the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted how critical it is that child welfare systems are subjected to independent judicial review.
“Many survivors have made the point to the Royal Commission that while in state care they were forgotten and vulnerable to exploitation in a system where the child welfare department had unfettered powers over their care,” he said.
“It is not in the best interests of any family or child in Victoria for us to be returning to a discredited child welfare model that invests too much control in the department.”
Muriel Bamblett, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, said Aboriginal children will be particularly affected by the change.
As of 30 June 2014 Aboriginal children in Victoria were 12 times more likely than other children to be placed in state care.
“For Aboriginal children [removal from their families] means separating them from their Aboriginal culture and identity,” said Ms Bamblett.
“The changes wind back the clock 30 years to a discredited welfare model that was guilty of some of the worst treatment of Aboriginal children and disregard of Aboriginal families.”