Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

Ms GRALEY (Narre Warren South) — It is a pleasure to rise this afternoon and speak in the debate on the Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. I want to preface my comments on the bill by acknowledging the recent appointment of the distinguished lawyer and advocate Liana Buchanan to the new position of principal commissioner for children and young people. I note the comments of the minister at the time, where she said:

Liana Buchanan has a distinguished record in public service and will be an outstanding advocate for the rights of Victorian children and young people.

Ms Buchanan’s extensive legal and regulatory experience will help the Commission for Children and Young People in its expanded role overseeing the new reportable conduct scheme.

I wish the new commissioner the best in what is, as we know, a very difficult job dealing with the most vulnerable children and young people in our community and their families.

I was reading a poem the other day by a young blogger. It is a very short piece, and I am going to read it now. It says:

Don’t turn your face away.

Once you’ve seen, you can no longer act like you don’t know.

Open your eyes to the truth. It’s all around you.

Don’t deny what the eyes to your soul have revealed to you.

Now that you know, you cannot feign ignorance.

Now that you’re aware of the problem, you cannot pretend you don’t care.

To be concerned is to be human.

To act is to care.

That is exactly what this bill is doing today in bringing before us some amendments and new provisions of the act to make sure that we protect the interests of those who are suffering with what are in many respects unspeakable cases of maltreatment, violence and abuse, including drug and sexual abuse — especially in out-of-home care services in residential services — which the previous speaker for the opposition has quite rightly identified as being brought to light through the Cummins inquiry and of course through the work of other colleagues in the Parliament on the Betrayal of Trust report. We have had numerous reports come before this Parliament. We have read about these horrific cases in the papers and, as I have said, we have seen them described in reports. There would not be a person in this Parliament who does not want to take steps to make sure that these wrongs are righted and that our vulnerable children and their families get the best possible opportunity to succeed in life. This bill has putting the interests of the children first at its very core.

I will just talk a little bit about the bill, because it legislates for the first time a statutory requirement that the Department of Health and Human Services must — and I stress must — share client information with the commissioner for children and young people in cases where the information is about an adverse event that has impacted on children and young people in out-of-home care. As I said, we have all read terrible stories of what has happened in out-of-home care, and we do not want to see this repeated. While this sharing of information has occurred in the past through informal arrangements, it has never before been put into law, so by acting we are showing that we do care.

This bill also strengthens the power of the commissioner for children and young people, again for the very first time, by requiring the department to provide information about adverse events that have impacted on children and young people in youth justice detention centres. It is bad enough that young people end up in youth justice detention centres. They are not the nicest places, but sometimes they are places in which young people can start a new life. But we do not want to have young people abused or subject to drug deals or, as occurred in a couple of cases, prostitution. This must never happen again.

The commissioner for children and young people has not previously received information about adverse events affecting children and young people in youth justice centres, and they have advocated for the provision of this information. To do the minister credit, we have listened. We were very keen to listen to the providers. We understand how difficult it is to work in these centres and indeed in this sector. We all recognise that these people work in very difficult circumstances and that they hear the most harrowing tales about how our fellow humans can treat young children. We do know there are high levels of burnout. When the minister was the shadow minister, she spent a lot of time talking to stakeholders and workers in the industry, and we have come back to this Parliament and responded to the request from the commissioner for children and young people. In requiring the department to provide the commission with this information, Labor is increasing the scrutiny of the agencies that care for young people. I do not think there would be a member in this Parliament who would not want that scrutiny increased — not only increased but also made more thorough — to make sure that nobody slips through the system. As I said, we have a new commissioner, and we really do respect the work that that commissioner undertakes.

As the previous speaker highlighted, a lot of the bill is dedicated to fixing technical drafting errors. This legislation was much needed, but it was rushed through the Parliament by the previous government, and the legislation is littered with drafting errors, especially in the amendment act. We know that this probably had a lot to do with the fact that the full exposure draft of that amendment act was never circulated. We know that changes were made with little or no consultation with the community sector agencies or legal representatives who support these vulnerable children and young people.

This is a technical bill, and we have before us some house amendments. These are again fixing issues to make sure that vulnerable children and young people are well looked after. The new mechanisms are: an application for a care by secretary order and an application for a long-term care order. These new application mechanisms are needed to ensure that children aged 17 and children who have been in out-of-home care for more than two years can be provided with ongoing protection, because if we do not look after them after they leave the care of the institutional environment, in some cases there will be no mechanism to apply for one of these new orders.

I hope the opposition will be supporting these amendments. I hear it is not opposing the bill, and it will be looking forward to some further scrutiny of the bill in the upper house. I can assure members that the ministers responsible for this bill have worked very hard to fix many of the loopholes and deficiencies in previous legislation with these technical amendments, and I look forward to members of the upper house supporting those house amendments.

I would just like to finish by saying that since Labor has been in it has spent a great deal of time looking at how it can improve the child protection system. Nobody wants a child to end up in child protection, but the fact is that some families can no longer look after their children and some children may be at risk by staying in the family home. The Labor Party invested a record amount into child protection and family services in the last budget — a $257 million budget boost, representing a 17 per cent increase on the coalition’s last budget. Our strategy is about boosting early intervention and early years services. If we can care best for a young person when they are first suffering or first vulnerable and provide them with the care and support that services like Child FIRST provide, we can hopefully make sure that that child can have a successful future.

I will finish by saying that since taking office we have also made a major investment in increasing staffing levels. We have talked about staff burnout, but we want to support people who are working in this sector. There is $16 million in extra funding to increase staffing levels in standard residential units so that staff can stay overnight. I think that is a very good thing. We have also introduced spot audits for residential care units for the first time to improve the safety of young people. ‘To act is to care’, the young blogger said. I certainly think that the Labor Party in government is putting the interests of vulnerable children first and foremost with this bill. I commend it to the house.