A bill presented this week to the Victorian Parliament by Minister for Community Services Mary Wooldridge will aim to give children in state care greater stability, certainty and a better start in life.
The legislation comes after leaked internal documents from the Department of Human Services uncovered hundreds of alleged rapes, sexual assaults and instances of sexual exploitation were reported across Victoria’s out-of-home care network over a 12 month period up to March 2014.
Minister for Community Services Mary Wooldridge announced the Napthine government’s intention to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 to “better protect children and young people from harm”, including amending rules for permanent care “to provide greater continuity and permanency for vulnerable children”.
Permanent care is similar to adoption in that long-term carers are given parental rights and responsibilities for the children in their care, to the exclusion of all others.
In a statement to media, Ms Wooldridge said too many children were spending an extended period of time in care without any certainty about their future; a situation which causes extra and avoidable trauma to children, carers and birth parents.
“Our first priority is to keep a child with a parent, but when parents cannot address the areas of concern, such as dealing with their drug addiction or providing a safe environment, removing the children is the only option,” Ms Wooldridge said.
The Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry found that children are waiting an average of five years to be placed on a permanent care order if they cannot return to their parents. In that time a child can have a number of placements involving different kinship, foster and residential carers.
The legislation proposed by the Napthine government will give parents 12 months to resolve issues in order to resume care of their child. In cases where parents can demonstrate good progress but need more time, a further 12 months may be granted. If this does not work, a decision will be made to seek permanent alternative care for the child.
Ms Wooldridge said the new legislation would provide greater certainty for children early on and as a result, children will be likely to experience more consistency of care and less trauma as a result of coming into care.
“Continuity of care, certainty about the future and the ability to form positive attachments with trusted adults are important for the healthy development of all children, and especially for vulnerable children,” Ms Wooldridge said.
Meanwhile, with the bill yet to receive its second reading in parliament, Shadow Minister for Children and Community Services Jenny Mikakos said that the Opposition would put forward its response “once we have considered [it] in detail and consulted with relevant stakeholders”.
Ms Mikakos added that the bill “does nothing to address the under-staffing of residential care, which is a risk factor in exposing vulnerable children to sexual abuse and exploitation”.
“The Napthine government continues to ignore the systemic problems facing residential care.”