Second Reading: Children, Youth and Families Amendment Bill 2015

I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Restrictions on the Making of Protection Orders) Bill 2015, and I welcome it as someone who has worked in the community sector and for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). I have a good appreciation of the complexities and challenges in providing an effective child protection system in Victoria. 

When you man the complaints line, as I did, in the northern and western regions for the Department of Health and Human Services, you get a really good appreciation of the personal stories. You would often spend hours with a complainant on the phone, and even if their complaint was not upheld, you would get a strong understanding of the effects on parents, carers and relatives. When you receive and report on endless numbers of critical incident forms coming in from around the regions and around Melbourne, you get a good understanding of the challenges and issues faced by children at risk.

The bill reverses one of the many changes made in 2014 to the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. Most of those changes come into effect in March 2016. Without the amendment proposed in the current bill, from March next year the Department of Health and Human Services will no longer need to satisfy the Children's Court that it has taken all reasonable steps to provide services necessary to enable a child to remain in the custody of their parent before the court can make a protection order effectively removing the child from their parent's care.

The Greens are in favour of the amendment proposed in this bill, but we would like to see many of the other concerns surrounding last year's changes addressed. Last year's changes brought into effect the recommendations of the Cummins report — that is, the Report of the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry. Many of last year's changes were based on the Cummins report, but some of those changes were not, including those that restrict the powers of the Children's Court.

I will go to the report, which has several recommendations. There are concerns in three areas. First, there are concerns around the number of court visits for each child protection case. Second, the report notes that the average length of time — five years — between a child's first report to DHHS and the making of a permanent care order is too long. Third, there are concerns the Children's Court is perhaps too involved in the case management of decisions, which should be the role of DHHS, and is too adversarial. There are some legislative recommendations, including that the existing range of care orders be simplified and consolidated, which was achieved with the 2014 changes.

There are also recommendations specific to DHHS internal policy and procedures. The report recommended that DHHS identify and remove barriers to achieving the most appropriate and timely form of permanent placements. It appears that DHHS identified the court and aspects of the legislative framework as barriers to achieving permanency, where Cummins wanted DHHS to modify its policies and procedures within a less radically amended legislative framework. From March 2016 the legislative framework will reflect DHHS's preferred policies and procedures by, in part, effectively removing the Children's Court from its role as scrutineer. This was not Cummins's intention.

Last year's bill was described as essentially wiping out half the jurisdiction of the Children's Court in the area of child protection. Unless further amendments are made in addition to this bill, the court will be restricted in acting in what it determines to be the best interests of children. I am sure that at the time the government thought it was acting in the best interests of vulnerable children, but there was no consultation with the sector or other affected parties in relation to last year's changes. There will be a number of unintended, adverse consequences unless those aspects of last year's changes are not reversed or significantly amended.

The Minister for Families and Children, who was the shadow minister for children in the previous Parliament, raised more than a dozen specific concerns during her contribution to the second-reading debate on last year's bill. As the shadow minister she promised to restore the obligation on the department to satisfy the Children's Court that families are getting access to services to allow reunification to be effected where possible. This bill delivers on that promise. She also promised that a Labor government would ensure that the Children's Court would properly oversee the department, but this bill does not deliver on that promise.

The department has been the subject of a number of reports in the media, but there have also been independent reports regarding its failures in respect of vulnerable children in its care. Last month the Victorian Auditor-General's Office released a report entitled Early Intervention Services for Vulnerable Children and Families. The report is heavily critical of the massive system failures of management and accountability in the department. The changes made in last year's bill reduced the level of scrutiny applied to the department by the Children's Court, and this bill does not address those concerns in any substantive way. Just as there was a lack of transparency and accountability over last year's changes, there is a lack of accountability around this bill.

It is essentially a broken promise. Labor promised to ensure that the Children's Court would properly oversee DHHS to ensure that there are proper checks and balances in place to ensure that children are looked after and vulnerable children are protected. This bill restores the court's powers only in respect of section 276 of the principal act. It does not restore the court's powers to further effect efforts at reunification. The bill is also ineffective. We are concerned that last year's changes will not work to achieve permanency, especially for older children. Simply fast-tracking children on to permanent care orders does not guarantee permanency. As we know, many so-called permanent placements break down for all sorts of reasons. Simply ordering permanency does not achieve it.

At a time when the rates of removal for Aboriginal children are higher than ever and when there is already a huge shortage of foster carers, the bill does not address the overwhelming concerns that last year's changes made it easier for the department to remove children and more difficult for families to be reunified.

Essentially the Greens support this bill, but we want many more amendments included. The current bill makes a vital and necessary amendment to section 276 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, so we will be supporting it. I note the bill has been referred to the Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues, which is good because it will allow for the consultation with the sector and the community that did not happen last year. That said, the Greens will be supporting the bill.