(Debate, 26 March 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
It is simply heartbreaking that children continue to suffer from neglect, harm and abuse in modern-day Australia. In the vast majority of cases I believe their parents want to properly care for them but are unable to due to factors such as addiction, mental health, intellectual disability and domestic and family violence. Intergenerational disadvantage may have left them without the skills and knowledge required to raise children. Family and Community Services workers and the courts have a difficult job making decisions about the welfare of children in situations of severe disadvantage.
The aim of the Child Protection Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 is to help ensure those decisions are in the best interests of the child. The bill includes a range of changes, many of which will improve child protection in this State, including provisions to engage parents at the prenatal stage, defining reportable deaths and ensuring they are reported to the Minister and Parliament, and a legislated hierarchy of permanent placement principles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. However, I am concerned that the bill could create poor outcomes for vulnerable and disadvantaged families, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, culturally and linguistically diverse families, victims of domestic violence, parents with disabilities, parents in regional, rural and remote areas and parents in prison. Community Legal Centres NSW and the Indigenous issues committee of the Law Society of New South Wales argue that additional protections are needed to avoid negative impacts and ensure the best interests of affected children.
Legislated time frames are inappropriate for helping families provide a functional environment for their children. Each family is unique, often with a complex web of issues and problems. The inflexibility will likely make parents feel disenfranchised and powerless. We need to provide families with a system that is able to work with their specific needs and weaknesses. Community Legal Centres NSW is concerned that the most vulnerable parents will be affected by proposed rigid time frames for determining whether a child is to be restored, particularly mothers who have experienced trauma or are in custody. It rightly points out that trauma takes time to overcome and is different for each individual, depending on the circumstances.
Contact orders have been limited to a 12-month maximum and there is concern that contact between parents and children beyond this period could be denied because the courts will only be able to hear cases of disagreement when there is a significant change in circumstances. This test may not be achieved if there is tension between biological, foster and adoptive parents, Family and Community Services and the non-government organisations working with parents. Having a parent-child relationship is a basic human right and should only be denied if it is unsafe. I am concerned that imposing parent responsibility contracts on an expectant mother who is the victim of domestic violence could see her being held responsible for not leaving a violent situation if she does not leave the relationship in the contract set time frame. When a woman leaves, her risk of violence is at its greatest, which will affect the timing of her decision. In most cases, mothers who are victims of domestic violence love and want to protect their children and should not lose them.
I am concerned that simultaneous assessment for the authorisation of carers of their suitability as prospective adoptive parents will discourage carers from working towards restoration of children to their biological parents. This should be the initial aim of all foster care situations, with adoption only considered when there is no realistic possibility of restoration. Parent capacity orders will include obligations on parents and I am concerned that there are legislative requirements that they are realistic and achievable given a parent's circumstances. It is essential that parents have access to the services and programs they need before any consideration of removal is given and this must be a legislated requirement. To ensure parents understand and effectively engage in developing realistic agreements and contracts, it is important that they have access to free, independent legal advice before signing and this should be provided in the Act.
The bill includes specific provisions so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will be put up for adoption only as a last resort, which I understand has widespread support. However, I share concerns that Family and Community Services will need to establish ways to identify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, particularly when both parents have not identified as such. Furthermore, the definition of "kin" that Family and Community Services will use is too broad to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children get placed in the care of someone within their community who has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community connection. I understand that the Minister is aware of these concerns and I request that she address them in her speech in reply. In conclusion, I acknowledge the many loving and passionate foster parents in the electorate of Sydney who do an amazing job.
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