Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

Written on the 10 March 2016


8 March 2016


Second reading 

GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)


I am very pleased to rise to speak this evening on the Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016.

I do so because I believe that all members in this house would want to see the best possible outcomes for some of the most vulnerable members of our community. When looking at this particular piece of legislation we are really dealing with some of the most vulnerable children that reside within our community. I think it is with that intent that the legislation has been brought into the house. It is to improve the outcomes for children in state care who are potentially going to be under particular child protection orders from the courts. We know that this is becoming a regular occurrence for far too many children. As I said, I think it is the intention of all members that we give the most vulnerable children the greatest protection and enable them to be safe at all times.

This bill contains a number of technical amendments. The main purposes of the bill are to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 to improve the operation of the act and to amend the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012 in relation to disclosure of information under that act. I will speak a little bit further about the sharing of information, but the amendments to the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012 will enable the legal sharing of information by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services with the Commission for Children and Young People on serious adverse events involving young people within the out-of-home care and youth justice settings.

As we know, the former coalition government undertook significant reforms in relation to the child protection area. That followed two Ombudsman's reports and the Cummins inquiry, Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children, which was an extensive inquiry that had far-reaching recommendations. There were around 90 recommendations in the report of that inquiry, many of which have been implemented. We have made great advances in relation to protecting children and ensuring that agencies and those who look after children have safeguards in place so that adverse events are kept to a minimum or do not occur. We would like that to happen of course, but we know that is not always the case. There are very complex issues in relation to some of the children who come to the attention of the department or the courts, and much needs to be done to ensure their future and give them every possible chance to thrive using their own abilities.

As I said, the bill contains a number of technical elements. These go back to the 2014 legislation, which was brought into the house by the former minister, Ms Wooldridge, who undertook significant reform, as I have mentioned. This was a very complex piece of legislation. At the time of that legislation coming to the house there were a number of drafting elements. A lot of this bill relates to those issues and those technical amendments. Clauses 2 to 16 relate to inadvertent areas, such as those which make it possible for the secretary to prepare case plans or those which ensure that for court orders that have a cumulative period a transition occurs so that we are not having people, and children in particular, languishing in the system while a decision is being made.

Of course Ms Wooldridge, in relation to her piece of legislation, wanted to ensure stability for children in order to give them that security of having permanency, if you like. There was a streamlining effect that was to be undertaken with that piece of legislation to enable the department, the agencies and all those people looking after these vulnerable children to have that decision-making in place.

At the time that legislation was being debated the then shadow minister, Ms Mikakos, said she would reverse some of the issues in relation to the 2014 legislation. Last year we had the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Restrictions on the Making of Protection Orders) Bill 2015 come before the house, followed by an inquiry that was undertaken by the Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues. I have spoken about the report of that inquiry in the past. I want to again place on record my acknowledgement of and thanks to the members of that committee for thoroughly looking at the piece of legislation that was brought before the house last year, and I want to have a look at some of the issues that surround particularly the making of care orders and how that would apply, the concerns that various people had, the reinstatement of various sections in the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 and really look at how that piece of legislation might have an effect.

The various orders that I am referring to include family reunification orders, care by secretary orders and long-term care orders. There are also the permanent care orders, which are more frequently referred to. As I said, I think many of the technical aspects that we are debating in this legislation this evening possibly could have been addressed when that 2015 legislation was put into place. I think that demonstrates that there were a number of drafting errors in the 2014 legislation, and it was remiss of the government not to have picked up those errors last year when it brought before the Parliament the restrictions on the making of protection orders bill. It could have looked at those drafting issues and how that would have applied, and it possibly could have prevented a lot of the issues we are seeing with the 1 March commencement date.As we know, the 2014 legislation came into effect on 1 March. It is now 8 March, so it came into effect last week. A lot of this bill addresses issues around the transition of court orders during that time. We want to see that there is no interruption in those court orders. We want to make the system as smooth and workable as possible, and unfortunately, because that was not picked up last year, we are facing this situation here this evening. As I said, a number of the orders that did come into place on 1 March under the 2014 legislation need that continuity and ability to transition accordingly.

If you look at the bill, clauses 2 to 16 mainly deal with technical amendments, but clauses 4, 5 and 6 have elements that relate to care plans and the ability for a person who is caring for a child to have authorisation to make decisions. I think that is a very important aspect of the legislation. It provides for those people who have responsibility for these children the ability to make some of those decisions that might be going toward the day-to-day care of the child, whether that be a medical decision or some other decision that the carer needs to make on behalf of that child.

This is a common-sense element. It enables that carer to have that responsibility and to make those decisions in a timely fashion rather than having to go back to the various authorities and get unnecessary orders for such issues.

Members might also remember that in 2012 the former government brought in the Carers Recognition Act 2012, which addressed many of the issues that I am describing now but also many of those other things that carers undertake that sometimes go unrecognised. Certainly when an individual has responsibility for a child in kinship care or foster care those aspects then it is really important that they have the ability to make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

Looking further at the bill, clause 9 is really looking at if a child is in the care of a parent, much can be disregarded when calculating the cumulative period when the new orders take effect. As I said, they took effect on 1 March, and we want the bill to have some ability to enable the practicalities of what people are dealing with to have that continuity so that if there is a reunification order, the calculation of time can be disregarded when calculating the cumulative period of time, if a child has been in out-of-home care, when determining the reunification order. Of course a reunification order does apply when:

The court has decided that a child is in need of protection and cannot safely stay in their parents' care while the protective concerns are being addressed. This order grants parental responsibility for the child to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services with the limitation that parents' agreement is needed about major long-term issues. It will usually include conditions. The child will stay in out-of-home care and the objective is for the child to be reunified with their parent/s once this has happened, and within 12 months, or up to 24 months where permanent reunification is likely by then.

That is the definition on the Department of Health and Human Services website. I think the intention is always that a child is reunified with a parent where possible, and certainly one would always want that to occur because clearly it is in the best interests of the child and all involved if that reunification can occur. Unfortunately, as I said at the outset, that does not always happen. Far too many children are continually neglected or abused, and there is a need for the authorities to step in and remove those children on a permanent basis to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

I will not go into the ins and outs of every single order, in the interests of time, in relation to these clauses that the majority of the bill is addressing. Suffice to say that I think it is pretty clear that when orders have been made, given this period of time we are talking about, the 1 March date, it is very important that we have continuity, as I have previously mentioned, so that those orders can transition across from the new commencement date.

Going on to a number of other clauses in relation to what the bill is speaking to, there are other definitions around parental responsibility and refining the definition of the parent having sole responsibility. There are some other elements around how that might be interpreted across in other jurisdictions. Certainly I think that is important when we are dealing with children who might be under the care of a carer or a parent who has the sole responsibility.

When I was receiving the briefing from the department and I thank them very much for their input into an explanation of what the bill entails they did say that there was a house amendment that needed to come in that they had not yet finalised. That was obviously delivered in the Legislative Assembly.

The amendment relates to clause 22, and the clause deals with the consequential amendments to allow a cohesive transition where there are particular areas around long-term care orders and other orders allowing courts and agencies to have consistency, I suppose. It is quite technical in nature, and I will not go through it, but I am sure that we could ask about that in the committee stage if there is anything that I have not been clear on. The intent of the amendment, I was told, is that it would not make very much difference; it is just to clean up and review inadvertent errors in the drafting of this legislation.

With that having been said, I think it is pretty clear that the bill is coming to a more final position, and the only other point I really want to make is in relation to the courts. I know the bill also addresses concerns raised by the Children's Court, which needed to have clarity around the ability for the Children's Court to make rulings. The bill gives the court the power, if you like, to allow for electronic filing, and that brings the family division of the court into line with the rulemaking powers of the criminal division. It seems a very commonsense provision, to my mind, to enable that electronic data sharing to occur.

The area that I spoke about at the start, and it is dealt with in one of the main provisions of the bill, is the sharing of information between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Commission for Children and Young People. If you look at the definition on the commission's site, you see that one of its core functions is:

Conducting inquiries into service provision or omission in regard to:

the safety and wellbeing of an individual or group of vulnerable children and young people

I think that is very important in relation to what we have seen today with the riots that have occurred in the youth justice centre, where there are some very vulnerable children who have engaged in some serious activity. It appears from the answers we got today in question time that there was an incident on Sunday, but we do not know how long the facility was in lockdown. There were serious elements around what actually happened with those young people in that facility who got hold of some very dangerous tools, and the situation could have been a lot more serious than it was.

In looking at this bill and at a serious incident such as that which occurred over the last two days and indeed the other incident in the past three or four months we have some real concerns about the information that is being provided to the community and certainly the information that is going between the department and the Commission for Children and Young People. I note that the minister's media release of 9 February, headed 'New oversight powers for Commission for Children and Young People', states:

New oversight powers for Victoria's commissioner for children and young people will strengthen transparency and oversight of Victoria's child protection and youth justice system.

That is a very positive move, if that is actually what is going to occur. That is what I am most concerned about with this bill, because we do have the commission and on the record I note the work of acting principal commissioner the Honourable Frank Vincent, who has been undertaking that role since the retirement of Bernie Geary and obviously we have a new commissioner coming into that position, I think, in early April. I wish her well, and I look forward to working with her. I am sure that she will undertake her role in a very independent manner and that she will be a very fierce advocate for these vulnerable children that we are speaking about. It is incredibly important that this commission have full independence and an ability to conduct inquiries such as I have referred to, as it is a core function.

I note that under the previous government it was very much about giving the principal commissioner the powers to conduct independent inquiries. Of course last year we had the ' as a good parent would ' report handed down by the previous commissioner, Bernie Geary, which did demonstrate what is happening in our out-of-home-care system. It was a self-initiated inquiry, and I think it is very important that this body has the ability to undertake those inquiries so that we cannot hide the data or manipulate the data, but can understand exactly what is going on. That is what we need to do, because if we do hide the data or manipulate the data, then we are not serving the best interests of these children and we are certainly not going to get the best outcomes or better outcomes than we otherwise would.

As I said, this commission has a very important role, and if you are going to be sharing data information between the department and the Commission for Children and Young People, why would you not allow that to be put on the record? At this point, Acting President, I indicate that I will be moving amendments to clause 27 in relation to this very issue and ask that they be circulated.

Opposition amendments circulated by Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) pursuant to standing orders.

Ms CROZIER The amendments, which I will speak to a bit later, go to this point of sharing data and the willingness for transparency that is mentioned in this government media release, and I do hope that that willingness for transparency will be undertaken.

There is much to be done in this area. We have recently had 3000 unallocated cases come to light. We have a youth justice system of which the government has lost control, it seems. We have had a number of riots, a number of very serious situations, and an unwillingness of this government to understand what is actually going on in those facilities. There are many questions to be raised about that.

But before I do that, I will go to one other area. I want to make mention of care plans as well, because the bill does relate to a number of areas around case plans and reviewing dates. While I am talking about the Commission for Children and Young People, I refer to a recent speech by Andrew Jackomos, who is the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People. In a recent speech he expressed concern about cultural care plans that have been undertaken. He said:

Only a small proportion of our children in out-of-home care are case managed by the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and smaller regional-based community groups. And my understanding is that the proportion has been decreasing annually with child protection increasingly directing our children to non-Aboriginal agencies and carers.

He acknowledges that has not happened recently, but it sounds like it is escalating. I think if the government's rhetoric is about ensuring that there are appropriate cultural care plans in place, if there are these case plans and case management situations put in place, then it needs to follow through with that and ensure that that occurs.

While speaking on this bill I did want to acknowledge the contribution of a member of the other house to the debate on the bill in the Legislative Assembly. The member for Lowan, Emma Kealy, gave a very heartfelt contribution in relation to one of her constituents who describes the situation of these vulnerable people very clearly.

She spoke about a young girl who was physically and sexually abused by her family. She was homeless and was put in dire situations throughout her young life, and somehow through her fortitude and resilience she came through that and is now contributing to the community in a most generous and terrific way. I think Emma's contribution to the debate highlighted the vulnerability of the situation and how the system and her family failed this young woman in the most terrible ways when she was a young girl. I wanted to conclude my contribution by referring to that because it is an excellent example of vulnerable people in care and how they can be neglected and abused. We know the lifelong implications of neglect and abuse. It is truly terrible, and these vulnerable children need the best support they can get.

If we go back to what this is about, it is about strengthening our system and about ensuring that we are providing that oversight, that we are understanding what is going on within our system, that we are protecting the most vulnerable members of our community and that we are undertaking the role we need to in relation to strengthening legislation. It is about tidying up technical elements to ensure that court orders can transition from the due date which was 1 March and that the disclosure of information talked about in the bill is actually undertaken so that we have full transparency and we understand the very adverse events that are going on and work to improve those situations. That is why I have moved these amendments. It is to ensure that we have greater transparency. I will speak further on that in a short time.



Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016
10 March 2016



GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)

I would just like to make a few comments in relation to the minister's summation and acknowledge that I will not proceed with the amendments that I previously circulated earlier in the week, on Tuesday, during the second-reading debate. I want to just place on record my thanks to the minister for the assurance that the data that those amendments would have called for will be available for the first quarter of 2016, and obviously the minister will get that information as soon as it is practicable to make that data available.

We are dealing obviously with some technical issues in relation to this bill, and that has been acknowledged. It is complex legislation. Things can move in this area, and through various drafting elements there has been a need to have those technical corrections occur. I do just want to go back to the minister's summation in relation to the adverse events. The minister said that was for futureproofing legislation if category 1 incident reports change or if that terminology changes. Could the minister just give an outline to the house I know there is a definition on the current Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) website about category 1 incidents in relation to the information that will be going to the commission, that sharing of information, about those most serious adverse category 1 incidents, if you like?


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