The Victorian Government response to the findings and recommendation of the inquiry into the implementation of the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Permanent Care and Other Matters) Act 2014.

The Minister for Families and Children requested the Commission for Children and Young People complete an independent inquiry into the permanency changes following the first six months of their operation to examine if the stated objectives were being met and whether they were having any unintended consequences.

The permanency changes were passed by the Victorian Parliament in September 2014 and commenced in March 2016.

In 2015 the Victorian Government acted to reinstate the power of the Children’s Court to refuse to make a protection order if it was not satisfied that the Department of Health and Human Services had provided the necessary services to families.

The Victorian Government thanks the Commission for Children and Young People for its inquiry into the implementation of the permanency changes.  The Victorian Government 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 the changes.

Importantly the Victorian Government recognises that all parties involved in the permanency process must recognise and act to uphold the rights of the child.

The intent of permanency is to provide children with a sense of security and belonging by driving timely, clear and consistent decision making.  This ensures that where possible, children do not drift in or between placements without clear planning for their developmental needs.

Early indications are that some children who would previously have remained on shorter-term orders are now on orders that provide certainty about their future care. The Government’s view is that this is a positive outcome.

The Commission’s report has been considered alongside a report from the Victorian Law Reform Commission, examining the state’s adoption laws. The Commission for Children and Young People acknowledged the short time frame from this Inquiry limited its ability to draw conclusions about the long-term impact of the amendments. For this reason, the Government has decided not to progress legislative changes at this time.

As recommended by the Commission, the Victorian Government is committing to a longitudinal study to ensure there are no unintended consequences to this legislation. The Department of Health and Human Services (department) is in discussions with academic institutions and agencies who may be placed to carry out an longitudinal study into the outcomes for children as a result of the permanency changes.  

Roadmap for reform

The Inquiry provides important input into work that is already underway through the Roadmap for Reform: strong families, safe children – the Victorian Government’s $168 million long-term response to reform the child and family services system.

Under the Roadmap for Reform we are transforming support for some of the most vulnerable children and young people in Victoria’s south with more than $20 million to trial new models of care.

The trials are focused on helping keep families together, including where possible placing children with kin, improving the experience for children in out-of-home care and improving the support for young people transitioning out of care.

Improved policy and practice

As the permanency inquiry noted, overwhelmingly, the recommendations seek to address identified system-wide challenges relating to demand management and resourcing, and to improve policies and processes needed to support vulnerable families.

The Victorian Government has already acted to address these system pressures. The 2017-18 Budget includes $161 million to expand child protection services and placements for children who are unable to live safely with their families.

The 2017-18 state budget also includes $29.2 million to expand Family Services. This includes $6.9 million for Integrated Family Services to deliver an Intensive Family Services response (200 hours) to over 300 families in 2017-18. The Intensive Family Services response targets families whose children are subject to Family Preservation or Family Reunification Orders. It involves Family Services, in partnership with Child Protection (and other services where required), working  intensively with families to achieve child protection case plan goals.

$34.8 million has been made available for additional counselling and treatment services for up to 3,800 parents a year to reunite families impacted by addiction. This specifically supports parents whose children have entered out-of-home care and are working towards reunification.

Investing in the child protection workforce

The Victorian Government is committed to improving the child protection system and shifting from crisis response to prevention and early intervention through its Roadmap for Reform agenda.

Over four years the government is investing $980.3 million to support vulnerable families, children and youth, including victims of family violence.

The 2017-18 budget includes $72.2 million for an additional 450 child protection practitioners – the largest ever expansion of these frontline workers – to help better manage existing workloads, meet rising demand and keep more Victorian children safe. Since 2015 there have been an additional 646 new child protection practitioners funded.

$6.5 million has also been committed to maximising recruitment and retention of child protection practitioners through the development of expanded attraction, recruitment and retention strategies. 

State-wide training on case planning will be rolled out to child protection practitioners across Victoria to support to the workforce and improve case planning rates. Practice guidance on family reunification has also been developed and is available on the child protection manual to assist child protection practitioners in their work with children and families. Formal auditing and reviews of child protection case plans will also be implemented.

Building the capacity and resourcing of the child protection workforce will assist in addressing barriers to achieve timely permanency for children.

Supports for parents whose children are in the out-of-home care system

Care by Secretary orders are made for two years to allow time to find a permanent or long-term carer for the child, preferably with extended family, or if not, with another family, except in exceptional circumstances where family reunification is the permanency objective.

This also allows time to support children, their parents, and carers to prepare for permanent or long-term care. A permanent or long-term care order can be applied for at any time during the order. It is expected this will occur at the right time for the child. The order requires review of the operation of the order at 12 months.

The rights of parents of children on family reunification orders to make major life decisions are currently supported by the Children Youth and Families Act.

As part of Stage 3 of the Ice Action Plan, the Victorian Government committed $17 million over four years to provide more timely access to drug and alcohol treatment services for parents needing engage in treatment as part of a condition of a court-issued family reunification order. The funding will help to expand community-based drug and alcohol treatment services for parents so that they can access treatment within court timeframes and work to reunify their family.

Child protection workers and the AOD sector have been engaged to help to understand how to best support parents in the design of this new initiative. An expression of interest process is close to finalisation to identify AOD treatment providers that will deliver the additional services in local areas across Victoria. New treatment services will be up and running from February 2018.

Additional support for carers

The Victorian Government is also providing greater support to carers.

The Victorian Government has committed $19.2 million to better support children in home-based care and their carers in order to stabilise these placements and improve life outcomes for vulnerable children.

This includes $7.18 million for flexible support packages to help cover extraordinary expenses for new and existing permanent carers. The funding can be used to cover expenses related to a child’s educational, health and medical needs, to assist with contact between parents, siblings, and family members, to help in preserving cultural identity, and for costs related to respite care and child care.

The Carer Kafe has also commenced with specialised training for all carers to enable them to better respond to children’s needs. Topics include trauma informed care and dealing with difficult behaviours.

A new permanent carer helpline managed by Permanent Care and Adoptive Families has been established, with qualified professionals delivering phone advice and assistance to permanent carers as needed.

There is current work underway to streamline and centralise permanent care program service delivery and better integrate this with home-based care and child protection. A permanent care manual is currently being updated.

Aboriginal children in out-of-home-care

The Victorian Government is committed to addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and enabling self-determination. Improving cultural connectedness for Aboriginal children in need of protection is a critical component of this work. 

In the 2016 -17 State Budget, $5.33 million over two years was included to implement a new model to support the development of cultural plans and since the Commission’s inquiry significant progress has been made towards improving cultural planning.

Since the Commission’s inquiry, state-wide training has been rolled out in all divisions to support implementation of cultural planning.

A new model for kinship care that will identify carers earlier, strengthen community connections for Aboriginal children in care and deliver better, more flexible support has been developed.

The new model – part of a new package of measures for kinship carers – is supported by a $33.5 million investment and recognises the vital role that kinship carers play in caring for some of Victoria’s most vulnerable children. It will also see a further 36 dedicated kinship care child protection practitioners. 

Performance and data monitoring

We recognise the importance of maintaining accurate and up-to-date client records and have instituted work to monitor the impacts of the amendments. This includes monitoring trends in court orders and the time taken to achieve permanency outcomes for children. The Department’s more recent data shows that there has been a reduction in the average time taken to achieve permanent care orders from five to four years.

Information provided to parents, carers and children through the permanency process will also be reviewed to ensure consistency. Information recorded about children’s placements will also be reviewed to maintain accuracy and up to date information.