Children, Youth and Families Amendment

MR DIMOPOULOS (Oakleigh) — That was a hard act to follow. The member for Pascoe Vale’s knowledge and contribution to the debate on this bill was very good, and I agree with her remarks.

It is a pleasure to speak on the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Restrictions on the Making of Protection Orders) Bill 2015. I am proud that this bill not only fulfils a Labor commitment but that it also retains the Children’s Court’s oversight of service provision by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), as contained in section 276 of the Children Youth and Families Act 2005.

The bill fulfils this commitment and enables the court to retain its current discretion as to whether or not to make a final protection order based on the services provided by DHHS, which is vital. I am also proud more broadly of Labor’s commitment and delivery in this budget of a whole range of services for vulnerable children and families. The budget includes $257 million over four years in child protection, out-of-home care and family services. There is a 17 per cent increase for child protection and family services compared to the previous year’s budget. In total, additional funding for the families and children portfolio is $615 million over five years and 110 new child protection staff. These are vital reforms. A wonderful organisation in my electorate, Waverley Emergency Adolescent Care, along with others, keeps me abreast of the pointy end of service provision in this portfolio, and I know that money will be put to very good use.

It is reprehensible that the previous government even moved into the space where it moved these provisions, particularly after such a high-profile case was brought to light. Members have heard a bit about that case, but I want to refer to an article by James Campbell in the Herald Sun in relation to it:

The case concerned a brother and sister aged under 10 who were taken into care in 2011 after allegedly suffering physical abuse at the hands of their mother.

The children were placed in two residential units run by community agencies on behalf of DHS. According to a news report, the Children’s Court later heard that while in these ‘resi units’, as these houses are known, ‘the girl was sexually assaulted by a boy six years older than her on at least two occasions … and she and other children were also allegedly sexually abused on numerous occasions by another boy, while the boy ‘was allegedly groomed and raped by an older boy and also witnessed a girl living in the unit having sex with older men outside the unit’.

This was all happening under the aegis of the department. The article continues:

The abuse came to light after the children’s mother went to court to fight a bid by the DHS to keep them permanently.

In refusing the DHS’s application, the court found the department’s secretary, Gill Callister, was in ‘fundamental breach of her duty of care’.

There is no doubt that the Department of Health and Human Services has a very difficult job. This bill is not about the department; it is about what is right and what oversight exists over the executive arm of government, whether it is represented by DHHS or any other department. After news of this case broke, the previous government moved to restrict the power of the Children’s Court to have that kind of oversight, which is absolutely reprehensible. Today we are seeking to address one of the worst aspects of the former government’s legislation. This bill requires DHHS to provide services to vulnerable families before orders and arrangements are made to remove their children for good. That is a very good outcome.

Like the member for Pascoe Vale, I am encouraged by the commitment of the Minister for Families and Children to hold a review about elements of the earlier bill — I have a range of concerns — which will come into force in March 2016. In her contribution the member for Pascoe Vale did an excellent job of explaining the rationale or hierarchy of the inalienable rights of the child.

We need to go back to the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. The best interests principles of the child is enshrined in that act, as are some other provisions about what constitutes best practice. Section 10(3) in division 2 states in part:

… in determining what decisions to make or action to take in the best interests of the child, consideration must be given to …

(a)    the need to give the widest possible protection and assistance to the parent and child as the fundamental group unit of society and to ensure that intervention into that relationship is limited to that necessary to secure the safety and wellbeing of the child …

These are really important points:

(b)   the need to strengthen, preserve and promote positive relationships between the child and the child’s parent, family members and persons of significance to the child …

As the act also states, there are obviously things like:

(f)    the desirability of continuity and stability in a child’s care …

I understand that was the stated motivation behind the previous government’s moves to change this area of the law. It is important to bear those principles in mind because they guide implementation of policy in this space.

To be frank, other aspects of the earlier bill are also offensive. I want reconsideration of those aspects to be in the review that the government has proudly committed to undertake next year. Those issues revolve around the role and integrity of the Children’s Court of Victoria, the rights of biological parents in relation to their children and the new permanent care order arrangements that have been spoken about. They are the arrangements that will operate to provide permanent non-parental care arrangements for the child up until the age of 18, and they may include conditions that the child have contact with the parent up to a maximum of four times per year. Additional contact is only to occur with the approval of the permanent carer. The child’s parent can only make an application to vary or revoke the permanent care order in the initial 12 months and then the door effectively closes. There is a small proportion of parents who can make a request after the first 12 months, but after two years there are can be no more requests.

Despite the Department of Health and Human Services now offering assistance with our government’s changes, it is not good enough to say to our most disadvantaged families that the door will close on them and their children after 12 months. That absolutely needs to be reviewed next year, and I look forward to that. I want to see consideration in that review of that specific limitation, but I also want to see other elements covered off — for example, the family reunification orders that last for 24 months. We should not be sitting here in the Parliament believing we have the capacity to predict every eventual context or situation. As the member for Pascoe Vale said, ‘Every situation is different and let us be careful what we do in the name of child protection’. It is my fundamental view that in any civil democratic society the courts are the final arbiters. Anything that starts hinting at restricting the court’s ability to make decisions based on the facts it has before it is of grave concern. That is why I would like to see a review of the integrity of the oversight provided by the Children’s Court on DHHS. In this context it is DHHS, but it could be any department, or any executive arm of government.

In the upcoming review the Children’s Court should have the ability to extend those reunification orders for longer than 12 months, up to 24 months depending on the context. There is a range of things I would like to see in the review. Also raised has been the issue of adoption in the hierarchy of permanency arrangements ahead of what are more sensible options. I want to be clear that this bill is not about DHHS. DHHS has many hardworking staff who do a terrific job under very difficult circumstances. This bill is about we as a government, through the authority of the Parliament, not telling parents and children that we will make decisions about removing them from each other’s lives ahead of the actual circumstances of a case based on what we think might be true at this point in time. That is where I want to head with the review we undertake next year.

I am proud of this bill, and I am proud of the fact that we addressed the most negative features of last year’s bill. The sector and the community rightfully applaud this approach. I would like to see next year’s review consider other negative elements of the earlier bill. It has given me pleasure to speak on the bill, and I commend it to the house.

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