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12 March 1991 - Current

Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016
Page 619
24 February 2016

Ms SHEED (Shepparton) — I rise to speak in support of the Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. Many of the clauses in this bill relate to amendments that will, when the bill comes into operation, ensure the better operation of the 2012 act. I would like to support the comments made by the member for Bendigo West in congratulating those people and acknowledging those people who work at the coalface as children's protection workers. I know for a fact that they very rarely get thanked, because they stand around outside the Magistrates Court, they cop abuse from parents and all sorts of people, and life is pretty tough for them. They often burn out after only a few years in their jobs, and yet they perform what is a truly remarkable service in our community.

There is one matter I want to refer to particularly, and that is new section 60A of the act, which is to be inserted into the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012. That is the requirement that the secretary of the department must share information with the children's commissioner. I think that this recognises the very important role that our children's commissioner plays in this state. The appointment of a new commissioner is noted, but I would like to say that I have known Bernie Geary for many years. Indeed back in the old days of West Heidelberg he worked as a youth worker, face-to-face, hands-on, interacting with kids out there through really tough times, and his role has been developed until he was appointed the children's commissioner. The face-to-face experience that he had over all those years made him very adept at recognising what was needed and performing his task as a true advocate for children. He has now retired, and I congratulate him on the work that he has done and wish him well in his retirement.

Just last year on 19 August his report entitled “… as a good parent would …” was tabled in this house. It is a shocking report, and it exposes how some of our most damaged children — some as young as seven — are the victims of sexual abuse in residential care facilities provided by the state. The report called for immediate action to provide child-focused and safe environments for children in state care.

The reference to the words 'as a good parent would' is taken from the primary act itself. It sets out the considerations that the secretary must take into account when determining to locate children in out-of-home care:

The secretary is required by law to provide for each child's physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development in the same way as a good parent would.

If there is one thing that this report and many previous reports show, it is how we have really failed to do that. I acknowledge that many efforts have been made over the years, inquiries have been held and legislation has been amended in an attempt to try to address these issues, but out there, at the coalface, things are clearly still not going well. I think this particular amendment to the act will at least assist in ensuring that what goes on in a number of places — in out-of-home care, in residential care units and in youth training facilities — adverse events there, must be reported to the children's commissioner. I think that will perhaps shine a light on what is going on more and, hopefully, increase the endeavours to improve the lives of those children.

It was reported in the commissioner's report that there was a low skill base and often poor choice of workers caring for our vulnerable people. Some are described in the children's commissioner's report as unqualified, unsupported and poorly supervised. If this is the case, it is a given that they are unsuitable to care for vulnerable children, or indeed the disabled. In my role as a member of the Family and Community Development Committee we have heard a lot of evidence about abuse of the disabled in residential care. There are some very common problems here that arise, and it is that vulnerability of people that we have to look out for and respect and we have to try to ensure safe environments for them.

A further finding related to staffing ratios. Just recently I received a number of complaints from people in my electorate, constituents who were neighbours of a residential home. It was clear that this was their first experience of such a facility. Of particular concern to them was the lack of supervision of the children in the facility. It was clear that the children were often out of their home, unsupervised during the day and the night and without anyone knowing where they were. They did not appear to attend school. The children were aged between about 11 and 14; one was a female living together with three males. These constituents sometimes observed the only worker who seemed to be there at times was working away on a computer and was not really endeavouring to spend time caring for and looking out for the children. Bad things happen and they need to stop happening.

Over the years I have spent about 15 years on the Victoria Legal Aid panel as an independent children's lawyer. In those years, when a case was referred to me to act for a child, the first steps we would take would be to subpoena the then Department of Human Services files, subpoena police records, subpoena health records and gather together the bulk of information that was required to assist the court in making a decision about what was best for the child. Very often that was the information the parents did not want you to see. It was a case of digging and of trying to find out what the relevant facts were that would impact on this child to determine how to make a decision for its future.

I have to say there were times in the family law jurisdiction, which is different from the Children's Court, where there was the option of putting children into home care. Generally in the Family Court it is a matter of just choosing between two parents and sometimes that choice was so awful. I recall a situation where one of the judges said to me, as the independent children's lawyer, 'Ms Sheed, would you take these children home with you?'. It is a terrible thing that out of two parents, one cannot be seen as being good enough. Yet in that jurisdiction we would regularly send notices to the Department of Human Services requesting that they intervene in the proceedings because we took the view — and I took the view as the children's lawyer — that those children should not go home to either of those parents. Regrettably it is very rare for the department to intervene in family law proceedings, and I put that down to a lack of resources.

I know the Chief Justice of the Family Court has for years been trying to negotiate a situation whereby the department will intervene in those proceedings more, because we are sending children home to a parental situation where sometimes they would be better off in care. Again, it is a really difficult line to draw because there has been the view that what happens in out-of-home care is often much worse than being with a very poor parent. Your parents love you, but they may not be providing that intellectual and that physical support that schooling and the sort of support that we know children need. But the children may have formed those early attachments and so it is always a dilemma. It is so difficult for magistrates and it is so difficult for judges to make the sorts of decisions they do.

The children's commissioner's report last year made nine recommendations. They were all very sound. I think everyone would agree that they are important and I urge the government to take up those recommendations. The Minister for Families and Children has indicated that she supports the recommendations. I commend Bernie Geary on taking the initiative to conduct this inquiry. The fact that he was out there talking to people and seeing what was going on made him take that step of initiating the inquiry on his own motion.

While I support the bill and the amendments I do again say that I urge the government to take on board the sorts of recommendations that have come out of that further report. We had the Cummins report. A lot of changes were made. But I am concerned that this report made last year has been overlooked to some extent. I think it is very important and I urge the government to follow through, read through those recommendations and go through the process of introducing more legislation gradually to take on board those recommendations.