A child protection system under significant strain undermined laws designed to help some of Victoria’s most vulnerable children find permanent homes. This was the main finding of Safe and Wanted, an inquiry conducted by the Commission for Children and Young People, made public by the Minister for Families and Children today.
The Commission was asked to examine the implementation of changes to laws designed to ensure that children in the child protection system quickly receive the stability, safety and security they need to thrive.
The amendments to the Children Youth and Families Act were introduced in response to pressing concerns that it was taking too long to find a permanent placement for vulnerable children in the child protection system. The changes, which came into effect in March 2016, sought to ensure that a permanent home is found for children as soon as possible, either with their parents or in an alternative care arrangement.
We reviewed how the laws were working in their first six months of operation. Our inquiry found that the amendments were introduced in the context of a child protection system struggling with increasing demand and not operating as needed to achieve permanent outcomes for children, sooner.
During the first six months of the amendments, the number of children placed on permanent care orders increased by nearly 60 per cent, compared with the equivalent period in 2015. This is a significant increase.
Stakeholders consulted during the inquiry attribute this increase in part to the temporary teams of child protection workers tasked with implementing the amendments.
However we found legislative change alone was not going address the significant systemic challenges that exist in the child protection system and cause delays for children. Giving vulnerable children the chance to be placed in stable, safe homes as quickly as possible will require improved practices, significant workforce development and increased resources.
In the short period under review, we did not find conclusive evidence that the legislation had already caused widespread unintended consequences. However, we found a number of concerning trends and systemic barriers that prevented children from finding a permanent, safe home. Our inquiry also raised concerns that aspects of the amendments may create negative outcomes for some children.
Barriers to reunification
The inquiry found a range of barriers to children being reunified with their parents, including limited services to help parents to safely reunite with their children. The inquiry also found no recorded evidence of critical case management being done for significant proportions of children on family reunification orders.
Data examined by the inquiry also revealed that the number of children reunified with their parents has fallen by 11 per cent since the introduction of the permanency amendments.
Unallocated cases and high caseloads
A large number of children in the out-of-home care system had no allocated case manager. The average number of unallocated cases increased by almost 31 per cent in March-August 2016 (3,116) compared to the same period in 2015 (2,381).
The inquiry found that the median allocated case load ranged from 15 to 20 cases, up from 12 in 2012. These indicators suggest many children cannot receive the support and planning they need to be safely reunited with family or placed in a permanent and safe home in out-of-home care.
Safe and Wanted also found that widespread non-compliance with legislative requirements to provide cultural support to Aboriginal children in out of home care persists. The report pointed to workforce training delays as major reason for the failure of the amendments to strengthen cultural support for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. This means that Aboriginal children in out-of-home care continue to be denied their right to connection with their community and their culture.
The report made 40 recommendations to the Victorian Government to address the system-wide challenges about workforce capacity and resourcing, improve policies and practices and make further changes to the legislation to address the risk of negative outcomes for children.
The government has advised that, although legislative changes will not be progressed at this time, it has adopted the majority of the recommendations relating to additional resourcing, training and workforce, improving policy and practice, and is committed to monitoring the impact of these changes.
We are pleased that the government is taking steps that should address some of the recommendations made by the inquiry, and look forward to the government’s formal response to our recommendations.
Read the report
Safe and Wanted has been published on the Department of Health and Human Services website.