Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (21:15): I am very pleased to speak somewhat briefly and somewhat specifically to the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Child Protection) Bill 2021, which as we have heard from Ms Bath just now, is an omnibus bill with lots of features and tendrils to it. But I would like to focus my attention on part 19. Two years ago I introduced the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Out of Home Care Age) Bill 2020. Back then in Victoria exit care planning for kids in foster and state care began at 15 years of age, and every child must have left the nest by their 18th birthday. As many as 800 young people were leaving care in Victoria every year. In Victoria somewhere around 11 000 children are unable to live with their parents at any given time and find themselves in the statutory care of the state—that is, their legal guardian or parent is the government. Most of these children are living in foster or kinship care, but around 6 per cent live in residential or group homes. Now, this may be the result of violence in the home or issues with their parents’ drug use or mental health. There is a plethora of reasons why children can no longer live in their homes.
When we think about who these children are and the trauma that these children may already have experienced in their young lives, there is no doubt many will remain vulnerable. While 85 per cent of 18- to 21-year-olds in Australia are still living at home with one or both parents—and I know many of us would have experienced having adult children still living at home with one or both parents—we were expecting, until this bill, our vulnerable care leavers to fend for themselves at age 18. It was quite simply a recipe for disaster, and the statistics have borne that out. Care and support, financial and emotional, is withdrawn by the state. It is abrupt, and it is no surprise that within 12 months of leaving care 50 per cent of our care leavers were homeless, in jail or unemployed—50 per cent. For those reasons, countries like the USA, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany and Portugal extended care to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds with, not surprisingly, incredible results. And that is why I introduced a bill some time ago to do the same here in Victoria, because it simply stood to reason. In Leeds, England, the year after they extended their leaving-care age, only one young care leaver ended up in custody, as compared to 102 in the year before implementation. So it went from 100 kids ending up in custody to just one—just by this simple model.
Deloitte Access Economics estimated that continuing care in Australia to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds would almost halve homelessness, reduce hospitalisation by one-third, reduce mental illness by over 40 per cent, increase engagement in education, significantly decrease arrests and massively decrease alcohol and drug dependence for this cohort. So this amendment—part 19 of this bill—is really a no-brainer, and I am pleased that we got there. And I have to say I am pleased that we were able to nudge the government in that direction. It is very good evidence-based policy. It is a platform of the Reason Party. It is why we brought the issue to this place. To the government’s credit, they acted almost immediately to extend the Home Stretch program administratively in 2020, but legislating this change just guarantees that reform.
Today we see lasting legislative reform being locked into our statutes. This will save and change lives. Ms Maxwell and I have been working on the justice inquiry and we have seen the effect of—you would not even almost call this ‘early intervention’ at 18—providing safety and security to our young people, the impact that will have on their lives in the future and the impact that will have on our justice system, on our homelessness system, on so many other factors in our society.
This bill will expand the secretary’s responsibilities to provide services to assist young people under the age of 21 who are transitioning from out-of-home care to adulthood to include young people who have grown up in permanent care. I think all of us can think of that 18-year-old, and the thought of just closing the door, changing the locks and saying ‘You’re on your own now’ when some of them may be still trying to finish year 12 and some of them are just still trying to find their way—most of us cannot even conceive of doing that with our children.
The bill also creates a legal obligation for the secretary to provide a transition to adulthood allowance for all eligible care leavers. The allowance will contribute to the costs of accommodation and support for young people who have left care as they transition to adulthood where the young person is living independently or where they are remaining with their existing home-based carer. This is how the wonderful Home Stretch program will be delivered, via this reform, to the 500 or 600 young people who leave care this year and in years to come. I congratulate the government for listening and for acting on this really important policy.
I did not write this section, but I think this is how having a crossbench does impact in here. It does enable us to nudge on policy. I do not want to take credit for this because I know there are the Home Stretch campaigners and there have been so many people campaigning for this change. But sometimes it takes someone to bring it into the house, to just push it that little bit further and push it over the hill so it gets onto the legislative agenda of the government, and I will take some credit for doing that. But this is very pragmatic change, as I just would like to reiterate—change that has been campaigned for by many organisations. I certainly would like to congratulate all of them, and I know that all of them are feeling really good in the knowledge that we are legislating for these changes.
As I said, this is an omnibus bill, and I only wanted to touch on that part specifically, but I would like to make the point that I recognise the issues that stakeholders, including the Law Institute of Victoria, Women’s Legal Service Victoria and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, have raised with respect to time frames for emergency applications, care of a suitable person, reunification time frames and other matters. I look forward to discussing more of those in the committee process, and I will certainly support amendments in this house that go to those matters.
Dr Ratnam’s out-of-scope amendments are around increasing the age of criminal responsibility. That is an issue that I also am passionate about, and I will be very interested to see how we go in the committee process for that. It is certainly a Reason Party policy as well. Kids should be treated as kids, not criminalised before their young minds have even developed, not thrust into a criminal justice pathway that they cannot escape. We know the younger a child enters into the criminal justice system the more likely they are to stay in it. One of the facts that a number of us on the Legal and Social Issues Committee heard is that 44 per cent of the crimes are committed by 6 per cent of people, and of those 6 per cent almost all of them started hitting the justice system at around the age of 10, so increasing that age of criminal responsibility could have a dramatic impact on our crime stats, on our prisons, on our justice system.
To return to my principal point, I am so glad to increase the care-leaving age in this state to give some of our most vulnerable Victorians a much better chance, and that is the reason I commend the bill to the house.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading speech 10/2/22