Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Security Measures) Bill 2013

Ms GRALEY (Narre Warren South) — I rise this afternoon to speak on the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Security Measures) Bill 2013. This is a very serious piece of legislation and I put on the record at the outset that Labor will not be opposing the bill. In the main, the bill codifies existing practices in Victoria’s secure welfare services (SWSs) by providing a legislative framework for them. Secure welfare services provide short-term placement options where a child or young person’s safety is maximised by working with trained and hopefully highly skilled and well-managed persons.

All of us hope that their safety is not only maximised but guaranteed and improved in these SWSs. SWSs are considered an option of last resort — and so they should be — for some of the most traumatised and at-risk children in state care. These children are, as many other speakers have said, our most vulnerable children in need of state protection and monitoring by skilled professionals.

The bill follows an investigation into secure welfare services conducted by the Ombudsman in 2013, following a disclosure under the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001. The disclosure contained several allegations raising concerns about the treatment of children in secure welfare. The investigation identified concerns with aspects of how the department was managing secure welfare. Amongst these concerns were children being subjected to searches akin to strip searches and the use of physical restraint without a legislative basis.

The Ombudsman was also concerned about children being put into isolation without a legislative basis and there being no independent visitor program for secure welfare as there is at adult prisons and youth justice centres. He also talked about poor record keeping and, most importantly in my view, that secure welfare staff were often at or near capacity and expressed concern that decisions on where children were placed were based on capacity of the facility rather than the needs of the child. The Ombudsman made
eight recommendations to the department, some of which are contained in this bill.

I would like now to speak about my own experience as a student welfare coordinator of dealing with students while I was a secondary school teacher. It was before my own children were born and I was very dedicated to the children in my care and concerned about the way that many of them came to school every day. I dealt with children who were experiencing a high level of dysfunction in their families.

There would be some in this Parliament who could not imagine the plight of some of the children who came to my attention in the job that I had. They were experiencing a long history of broken relationships, and many were experiencing sometimes unspeakable trauma. In fact part of the counselling procedure was around trying to get them to talk about the trauma they were experiencing so that I could then put in place a program of
substantial support for them in order for them to make their way in what I imagined was going to be a very difficult life.

As a parent I often wonder how a parent or child could treat each other in the way that many parents and ¬†children presented themselves to me. I have never seen the harshness and disregard that some of them displayed towards each other when they were sitting in my office in that school. One thing I did learn in that position of responsibility was that when you had to make a decision — and these were all very difficult decisions — you had to take into account not only the circumstances of the child and the family, the school and the
community but also where you were sending the child when you were taking them out of their own family.

In cases where they were going to SWSs because there was a lot of violence involved and a lot of talk and displays of self-harm and harm to each other, it was a very serious consideration and it was a very highly developed process. It meant lots of talks with police, it meant court appearances and it meant the involvement of specialist agencies. I do not think I ever made a decision to take a child down that track without a great deal of trauma and reservation on my own behalf.

I knew there was a long list of people trying to help the child and the family, but somehow it did not help to know that they were going into an SWS. We do know that in these facilities trained professionals are there to help them.

I acknowledge that we as an opposition are requesting that this bill be taken into a committee stage in the Legislative Council because we want more detail about how the seclusion and search processes are going to be undertaken without any incursion into an individual’s civil liberties while being mindful that we are often dealing with difficult
and highly traumatised people. That is why it is important that we know that there are adequate resources and that the people working in these facilities will provide the best professional and considered care for a child who has, in many cases, been isolated.

I take up the issue that we are concerned about the child being isolated in a secure place for considerable periods of time.

Isolation is one of the worst punishments that can be imposed. I know it is not meant to be a punishment in this case; it is part of the therapeutic process that the child is undergoing. But we have to keep a very watchful eye on that process because it can be fraught, with very difficult circumstances coming from being in isolation. It is with a heavy heart that we support this bill. We have our reservations, especially so today with the release of the Auditor-General’s report on residential care services for children.

Whilst he is not talking about secure welfare services (SWSs), a number of bills have come into this house recently dealing with the treatment of children in residential care, and we have had some very volatile question times around children in the care of the state under a child protection program. The Auditor-General’s sums it up well in his report, and that is where I am going to finish.

He starts his report with a comment that reminds us that everybody in this house wants decisions to be made about young people who find themselves in seclusion and isolation. The Auditor-General makes the following comment at the outset in his report:

A society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members.

We all need to pause when we speak on bills, when we say things and when we take on the responsibility of making laws around these issues and remind ourselves that we are dealing with the most vulnerable members of our society.

Each and every one of us in this chamber is judged by how we go about making sure the legislative framework we provide is formulated with a great deal of care, that the people who are working with these very vulnerable people have a great deal of professional capacity and that the government provides the necessary and I imagine quite expensive
resources to look after the young people who are in the state’s care. I commend the bill to the house.