Ms Patten (Northern Metropolitan) — I am pleased to rise today to speak on the Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. As I understand it, the bill is making some technical amendments to some of the changes that were made in 2014 to the act and to address some of the unintended consequences of those changes. It also requires that the Department of Health and Human Services share client information with the Commission for Children and Young People, where that information is about an adverse event affecting children and young people in out-of-home care or youth justice detention centres. I think this is an excellent process, and I am pleased to see it now being put into legislation.
I was going to support Ms Crozier’s amendments that required the commission to report the outcomes of that on a regular basis, but I understand those amendments have now been withdrawn. I, however, do support the ongoing notion that the commission should be required to provide reporting on a regular basis as to the findings and the information that has been passed on to it. While these amendments go some way to addressing that, there is certainly a lot more to be done. I think the unworkability of many of the amendments that were passed in 2014 is absolutely evident and becoming more and more so as each day goes past after the amendments made on 1 March this year. For example, the conversion of custody to secretary orders that run for less than two years now mean that children at age 17 are effectively without an order. They have no order now because it is less than two years.
We have also seen the tragic case of a young girl who was seeing her mother regularly once every two weeks. Now with the changes brought on by the 2014 amendments she is allowed to see her mother once every three months. This is absolutely tragic.
The 2014 changes significantly limited the power of the Children’s Court to order that a child be reunified with their parent. Children as young as 2 could be taken away from their parents and have no access to them until they were 18. With no independent authority able to place any conditions on that, the department became judge and juror on this issue.
In a press release on 29 February the Law Institute of Victoria noted that the changes that came into effect on 1 March will have a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It stated:
The changes will have a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, noting that as at 30 June 2014 Aboriginal children in Victoria are 12 times more likely than other children to be placed in state care. Other children who will be similarly affected include those with a parent who has a disability, are victims of family violence or experience mental health difficulties.
This means that vulnerable children in vulnerable families will miss out on the oversight and care necessary to support and facilitate family reunification wherever possible.
This bill goes a little way towards addressing these concerns. I understand the government has committed to a six-month review to look at the changes that were implemented just last week. I have concerns about that because six months is an awfully long time for families. If members think of a two-year-old, we are talking about a quarter of their life, so I have serious concerns. I support the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, the Office of the Public Advocate and Mental Health for the Young and their Families in their call for full oversight and review of the powers of the Children’s Court to be reinstated and effective remedies to improve support for who we know are the most vulnerable children from some of the most vulnerable families in our community.
It was disappointing — and I appreciate the timing of this — that this bill will not come into effect until the day after royal assent. If we had been able to change those dates, this would have alleviated some of the concerns families may have at the moment. Under the current structure it appears there may be roughly a month wherein families may be unsure as to which order they fall under, whether they fall under the changes that this bill will make or the orders that were enacted on 1 March.
I appreciate that clause 21 of the bill has been made retrospective, but the rest of it has not been. I think it would have been very helpful if we had been able to do that with more parts of the bill, because we would have been able to offer immediate correction of issues rather than people having to wait for a month.
I support this bill. It goes some way to addressing and correcting the issues created by the 2014 legislative reforms. I sincerely hope that the minister and the department continue to review the results of the 2014 amendments and ensure they are functioning towards the ultimate purpose that we all have of supporting vulnerable families as effectively as possible.