Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Child Protection) Bill 2021

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (21:01): I am pleased to rise this evening to speak on the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Child Protection) Bill 2021. In doing so, I would like to reiterate the comments of the Liberal lead speaker, Dr Bach, my colleague, and say that The Nationals will be supporting this bill that overwhelmingly has very positive aspects to it and, as has been said, much-needed modernisation of this child protection area. It is an area that, when you come into this role, you get to meet an enormous number of wonderful people both in the departments, where they absolutely care about their work and the integrity of their work and also those families who extend themselves, their lives, their pockets and their families to look after vulnerable and often quite traumatised children. That is very much the case in Eastern Victoria Region—I have met with some absolutely fantastic people in the out-of-home care, kinship care and foster care areas. I am still learning about the magnitude of the work and the debt that we in this place in Parliament but also Victoria owe them for their care of vulnerable children.

I would like to start off and just make mention of the Home Stretch program and endorse this program. It has been trialled and then adopted in other jurisdictions around the world—in the US, the UK and Canada, across the ditch in New Zealand and certainly in other parts of this country. When I first came in, Georgie Crozier was the shadow minister in the child protection space and very able she was. I invited her down to the Latrobe Valley area and we spoke and had many forums where we learned and spoke about the issues that face parents—foster care parents in the whole. Through that process we also spoke with Quantum around a Home Stretch program, a program where when children get to that point of being 17, rather than moving out of the home care area they are actually supported in a looser sense potentially in their own home or a rental or a shared rental or still in the family’s home until they reach 21 years of age.

I happen to be the proud mother of two—I call them boys but they are certainly young men. I understand that as a young man reaches 18, whilst he can drive and he can go to the pub, if I can say that, and he can also vote, he is still developing. They are still becoming adults. They are still learning their way through life. My sons have been in a reasonably well adjusted home, but they still need those conversations and wraparound care of people who love them. In an out-of-home care system we see that children come in, and they come in because their initial home environment is either dangerous, abusive, neglectful or just not fit for their stability and nurturing. So they come into that sector and the longer they can have a good and stable support system, the better they will be. Indeed The Nationals and the Liberals in the last Parliament actually put forward a Home Stretch program, and we are very pleased that the Andrews government then adopted it as well. They took it up, and here it is being embedded into jurisdiction in terms of legislation.

Now, one of the things that the Home Stretch program really provided—and this is published literature from around the world—is that homelessness was halved in certain jurisdictions, hospitalisation was halved, arrests were reduced, alcohol and drug dependency was reduced and educational attainment and engagement was extended. These are things that should ring true in our ears, because that is what we need to see for our young people—and that is why the Home Stretch program certainly is most worthwhile. It is not early intervention by the time they hit 17, but that aftercare into their early adult life certainly helps to prevent a whole raft of further pain and cost on the state system in terms of extended medical care, drug rehab or unfortunately incarceration. We are preventing these sorts of things, so I certainly endorse that.

One fantastic person who I have come to know well in the Eastern Victoria Region is a lady by the name of Heather Baird. She and her fabulous team run A Better Life for Foster Kids. It is a volunteer system. It is certainly a charity. She does an amazing job, as do all of her workers and her committee. They participated in a Victorian survey with some alarming results, but not really surprising in effect. This survey was in 2021, Strong Carers, Stronger Children—Victorian Carer Strategy: Findings of the Home-Based Carer Census, and it was reported to the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. There was a strong contingent from the Gippsland region, which is really useful for me as well.

Some of the information that came through that was that there is a desperate need for mental health supports in the out-of-home care sector. Children have assessments on their physical health. They have oral assessments and assessments for whether they are seeing well or need glasses. But again, Heather will always stress the importance of that mental health support and the need for a mental health assessment when they walk through the door. Of children in out-of-home care in Victoria, the report showed 69 per cent of them have a history of trauma. Unsurprisingly, 56 per cent of them have behavioural issues, 44 per cent have attachment issues and 40 per cent are identified as having mental health difficulties. They are coming in with clouds over their heads. The report also found that close to a third of carers had ended a placement with a child or children because of these behavioural issues within the children—violence, anger and behavioural issues. I am sure that is unfortunate, but it is the reality that these out-of-home carers have to deal with.

Now, Heather has been so passionate about this, and I know she actually met with Minister Donnellan when he was in this space. She met with him—I had advocated for her to meet with him—and she certainly had a productive meeting with him. She has called for the Andrews government to present a pilot program about mental health assessments. Now, to date that request was received, but nothing has been actioned to have these wraparound services so that within the first three weeks of going into care a child has a proper mental health assessment. That does not mean that they are going to get all the services instantaneously, but they will have an assessment. She just said, ‘Children need to tell their story’. Whatever that story may be, they need to be able to express it, get it out there, unpack it, go through it and have help—professional help—when needed to pass through that. I think we should all relate to that.

Now, it is not coming from the government at the moment, so the pilot program is being run by A Better Life for Foster Kids. They are putting forward $20 000. It sounds like chickenfeed to big business and big budgets, but it will mean a lot to children in the area that they identify. They are going to have these assessments and pay those bills and then present that back to government as a really important way of showing the significance of having that early intervention for children. She certainly has some questions that she would like me to ask in the committee stage, so I am just flagging that with the minister. It will probably be next week, I am assuming. But it is really important that we follow up on these things.

Through the meeting she had with Mr Donnellan—Minister Donnellan at the time—there was a real issue around statistics. She wants to understand about a child that has no reunification order—so they are not ever going to go back to the parent; it is too unstable, too dangerous. She has cases where the child is languishing on the list in limbo land, unable to get heard in the court system, and she has seen instances where a child has gone in almost at birth and they have still been in the system two years later. Now, if you are not going to reunify them with the parents and there is no hope of doing that, then that child needs to be fast-tracked through the system into a loving home, a permanent home, a permanent care arrangement, so I want to ask some questions about how that process is going, how many children are put into permanent care within the two-year period and how many are still waiting on lists. I think we need to see some of that data, because we need to see it and government needs to understand how it can target its investment in this space. There are other questions, but I just would like to touch on a couple of other things from the bill, so I will save some of those questions certainly for the committee stage.

When we see people calling life as it is I think we need to endorse them and encourage them to go further. There is a sensational lady who I think is well known if you look on any sort of social media; she is Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, and she actually calls it as she sees it because she lives it and she understands what happens in her Indigenous community. But she is looking at what is in the best interests of those children and the women around those children, youth and families. I really endorse her courage, because sometimes she is actually not seen to be trendy. There are some in society that would push back on her and tell her to sit down and be quiet, but I want to encourage her to keep working.

Fortunately we do see—and this bill starts to look into this in detail—a modernising of legislation and frameworks to decrease the overrepresentation of, as in this case it is saying, Indigenous children in the system. Again, speaking with Heather, she does see that there is often a bouncing, unfortunately, of Indigenous children from kinship care to kinship care and then out into the foster care sector, and it really sometimes does not serve the child. Heather will often say the system is back to front, because quite often it is around the parent or the kinship parents or even the original parents. So I think this system really needs to be overhauled. If this can do it and provide strength to support the children, then this is a very good thing.

With that I think I will leave my contribution there for this evening, endorsing this bill. I know that my colleague Dr Bach spoke about the time frame, and this bill lengthens the time frame for protection—youth protection, child protection—to be able to have those children assessed and put through the courts. I endorse his position about bringing it back and keeping it in the status quo, as the Law Institute of Victoria have put forward in their very strong position. We have heard from them in the past, and I think they are reasonably wise individuals in terms of the law. So I endorse his position in terms of our amendment, and with that I look forward to the committee stage of the bill.