Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Restrictions on the Making of Protection Orders) Bill 2015

Ms GRALEY (Narre Warren South) — It is a privilege to rise to speak on the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Restrictions on the Making of Protection Orders) Bill 2015. One thing that we as elected representatives in the Parliament of Victoria can all agree on is that one of the biggest responsibilities we have as legislators and as representatives of our communities is to put children first. That should be at the forefront of all our decision-making.

We are debating this bill in a week when we have spoken on a condolence motion for the first and only woman Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, in which we referred to her desire to always have children at the forefront of public policy making and the fact that she was able to achieve that in so many respects. I recall that in his speech the Premier commented on a sign at the gates of the Robina Scott Kindergarten in Williamstown that said:

Joan, thank you for your passion and dedication to our education.

Members should imagine if as legislators and policymakers we were to get right a child protection system so that we made our children safer and we could walk out of here and see a sign saying something like, ‘Thank you for making our futures safer’. We would all feel good about that. I am sure that was at the forefront of the thinking behind this bill.

I recall the debate on the 2014 legislation. Some members who are no longer here reiterated that they wanted us all to focus on what was good for the child. I recall also that some people were concerned about the 2014 legislation. Some people in the gallery were quite upset, as were some members of Parliament. At the time members of the Labor Party called it for what it was. Labor went to the electorate with a policy that said we would review the legislation. Not even seven months into our term we are back here doing that, and that sends a very good message to the community that we are actually delivering on our promises and, more importantly, that we are focusing on areas that we said are of great concern to us.

I draw the attention of members to some quotes of Ms Mikakos, who is now the Minister for Families and Children. In 2014 she said:

In a recent case, the Children’s Court found that the Victorian government department breached its duty of care. Under the new laws, the court will have its hands tied in similar situations.

These were exactly the concerns of members of Parliament and many members of the community at the time. She got really worked up about it, as she should have, and said:

Why is the government trying to dodge its responsibility for our most vulnerable kids?

She said also:

The Napthine government failed to protect children in out-of-home care; now they want to hide from the court’s scrutiny.

I refer to comments made by the member for Oakleigh. I think most of us in this chamber have a great deal of respect, indeed reverence, for the court system. We have a very stable court system that is respected by not just ourselves but also the general community. The courts are highly regarded and their members are very well-qualified people who hear a lot of cases, and that empowers them to make wise and good decisions. It is very good that wherever possible the courts are the final arbiter in the land, that they are not changed by political circumstances or even heavy lobbying but are independent. In cases involving children they are independent and very concerned about the welfare of children in the future.

I recall also that at the time the Law Institute of Victoria expressed its concerns about the 2014 legislation, which included that it would result in:

… the diminishment of the ability of the court to exercise its statutory functions and to review the decision-making of Department of Human Services.

Many members who have spoken before me have said that this is not an attack on what is now the Department of Health and Human Services. We know that many people who work in the department have huge caseloads that include some onerous cases and that they work very hard to try to solve the precarious and often violent situations children find themselves in. The fact that the law institute made that point said a lot to many of us in this Parliament.

One of the favoured commentators of those opposite is James Campbell, who writes for the Herald Sun. He has been very busy this week running a line for them. At the time of the debate on the 2014 legislation, under a heading ‘Bill is bad news for vulnerable children’, he wrote:

Thanks to Wooldridge’s bill, which passed the Legislative Assembly yesterday, the interference in a department, which the court found allowed two children in its care to be raped, will be substantially weakened in the future.

I am sure none of us want that to happen. In fact we are all concerned about reports in the media about the circumstances in which children find themselves when in out-of-home care. That is one of the reasons it is very good that we have revisions such as that reflected in the bill before the house. Labor promised to make amendments to the legislation and that is what we are doing. We promised to fix the problem and that is what we are doing.

As members know, this amending bill tightens the time lines for making a decision about future permanent care arrangements for children in out-of-home care, either by reuniting the children with their families or by finding an alternative permanent care family for them. That is a good thing. Having worked in the area as a student welfare coordinator, I know that one of the worst things you want to see is a child being taken away from their family. You want to try to make that family unit work, to get them to stay together and to bring resources to the table to support them. That is not always possible. Where it is not possible, we want to make sure that when a child is removed from their family they are given the best possible care that can be provided by the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies.

I am pleased that while the bill makes changes to legislation the Labor government is about to walk the talk as well. We have committed $275 million over four years to child protection, out-of-home care and family services. That represents an increase of at least 17 per cent in new funding for child protection and families, compared to the previous year’s budget. I draw the attention of members to the fact that there are specific measures in the child protection area. We know that the child protection system has faced significant demand pressures. The Herald Sun gets its figures right occasionally, and it is right in drawing our attention to the fact that there is significant demand and a significant number of children need our support. That is why it is important that the recent budget provides $65.4 million for child protection services and much-needed additional capacity to respond to that demand.

I want to emphasise that irrespective of where the money is spent, there is no doubt that we need additional child protection practitioners. We need at the coalface people who understand the issue and will have at the front of their minds looking after children — that is, putting children first. That is why the government has included delivering 88 additional front-line child protection practitioners. The government will provide 19 additional after-hours workers to extend after-hours outreach capacity, which is being done for the very first time in Victoria. That is a marvellous addition to the funding as it will provide some of the additional services that are so much needed to make sure that Victoria is a good place to live, work and raise a family for all families, irrespective of where they live.