Child removal 'breaking parents', mother says, as report reveals high levels of dissatisfaction

Key points:

  • A new report by Anglicare has found a high level of dissatisfaction among parents and lawyers about Tasmania's child safety system
  • Report authors said the system needed to focus more on problem solving, and recommended earlier access to legal advice
  • The Tasmanian Government said it was committed to improving experiences and outcomes for families in the system

Skye* was 16 when her first child was taken from her and placed in care. She now has five children. All are in care.

Having a child taken away, she says, causes indescribable pain.

"That's why lots of people in the [child safety] system — and I know they do because I was one of them — turn to drugs and alcohol," Skye said.

At first Skye was angry and upset, but she has decided to get involved in pushing for change.

She is one of 36 parents who spoke to Anglicare's Social Action and Research Centre which will on Wednesday publish its report Rebalancing the Scales: Access to Justice for Parents in the Tasmanian Child Safety System.

A woman's hand on her bare feet next to a child's hand on a toy.
Parents who have their children removed may end up homeless after losing parenting payments, advocates say.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Anglicare also interviewed 45 lawyers who have represented parents in care proceedings.

The report found a high level of dissatisfaction among lawyers and parents about the system's effectiveness and fairness.

"We're asking for a rethink, we're asking for much better collaboration between the child safety system and the justice system," report author Teresa Hinton said.

"Most significantly what we would like to see is a move from this adversarial legal system to a system that's much more therapeutic and about problem solving."

Across Australia the number of abused or neglected children, or those at risk, are being removed from their families and taken into out-of-home-care is increasing.

In Tasmania, the decision about whether a child should be separated from their family is made in the Magistrates Court.

"In the past year there have been almost 1,000 applications to the Magistrates Court for child protection orders and that's an almost 50 per cent increase in the last five years," Ms Hinton said.

The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act is supposed to preserve and reunify families where possible.

Ms Hinton said the research found a high-pressured environment where the rising demand for out-of-home care, poor access to legal representation and an adversarial atmosphere combined to undermine the intent of the Act.

Parents losing children ending up homeless

Also recommended were earlier access to legal advice, making legal representation a right — and increasing funding to the Legal Aid Commission to meet that need — as well as training specialist magistrates and changing court processes to give parents a voice.

Ms Hinton said there was a range of "collateral consequences" for families when a child is removed.

"That includes the trauma of being investigated and then the removal of a child, it includes the overwhelming grief and loss for the family, it includes dramatic falls in income as parenting payments are withdrawn, and this can really begin to threaten the housing stability.

She said it also exacerbated the problems that brought parents into the child protection system — mental health, substance abuse and family violence.

"So the family who are already in crisis are further embedded in crisis through removal, and it's at this point that they're attending court," she said.

Ms Hinton said reforms introduced in other countries showed a more therapeutic, problem-solving approach was more effective in keeping families together and reunifying them as quickly as possible.

'It's breaking parents'

Skye said parents need to be treated compassionately.

"One small [positive] step should be praised, that is what helps people continue to do good," she said.

A generic child abuse image of a young girl unidentified holder her hand to her head.
Advocates want better communication between the child welfare and justice systems.(Pixabay: Ulrike Mai)

Skye said she had taken note of her past mistakes.

"Instead of continuing to do wrong, I thought 'well I'm going to change this'."

She is now supporting other parents, something she is happy to do but it also makes her sad because it is a reminder that parents aren't supported within the system.

"It's breaking parents and I've seen it for years."

'Most important report in decades'

Senior Counsel Marcus Turnbull, of the Family Law Practitioners Association of Tasmania, said Rebalancing the Scales was the most important report into child safety in decades and, if adopted, Tasmania could have a best-practice child safety system.

He said the legislation was "largely fine" but the system needed an overhaul.

Human Services Minister Roger Jaensch said the State Government would carefully consider the report's findings and recommendations "in the context of current policy developments underway in this area".

"The report provides a valuable contribution to the complex and challenging area of child safety legal intervention and the impact legal processes have on parents and families," Mr Jaensch said.

"Our Strong Families Safe Kids reforms are focused on supporting families early, before they reach a point of crisis and require legal intervention, but we are committed to improving the experiences and outcomes for those families that do require statutory intervention and engagement with legal and court processes."


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