February 21, 2018  |  Second reading

Children Legislation Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2017

Mr Howard – (Buninyong) (17:56:59) — I am pleased to add my comments in regard to the Children’s Legislation Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2017, which is before the house. In doing so I will start by making the comment that there is nothing more challenging in our role as MPs or as members of the community than hearing stories about children who have been harmed in some way as a result of family violence, family neglect or whatever it is. Those issues then come before us through the media or through our doors into our electorate offices. Family members express concerns about children that they are aware of, or parents come before us when protective services have intervened to take their children away from them.

We know that this is a very traumatic area where those who are involved in the issues of child protection have to make a call on issues on regular occasions knowing that they might have to look at taking children away from parents where they believe they will be unsafe if left with their parents. Sometimes child protection have to determine where the children go in the interim and how they will work through those situations. Clearly it is distressing for parents who are in those circumstances too.

We also know of occasions where protective services staff have been criticised for intervening, and there have been times when they have clearly been criticised for not intervening soon enough. It is important that as much information as they need is available to all of those people who are working with families and children when those children are at risk. This bill clearly recognises that any good government wants to do all it can to ensure that all children growing up in this state are in a safe environment and are able to grow up and live their lives in a healthy and supported way so as to be able to look forward to a positive future. It is important that family units are supported when they need support. When there are issues of stress occurring, action can be taken to address those issues.

I am certainly pleased that this government last April introduced the Victorian Roadmap for Reform: Strong Families, Safe Children. It takes a number of pretty important steps forward in recognising that we need to be proactive in responding to these important issues. We need to recognise that we do not want to let situations of children who are at risk get to crisis point. We have to be proactive in being able to recognise those signs of risk, those issues that come to bear, and we need to be able to act in the most timely way to address issues of potential concern.

I am certainly pleased that this government brought forward the Roadmap for Reform last year, in April, and has since then taken several actions beyond that in responding to the Royal Commission into Family Violence and in responding to other reports that have come to us via the coroner. We are working through a way of trying to ensure that early warning does come. We also need to recognise that information needs to be shared. That is one of the key issues that has come out of past coroners reports and so many other situations where a number of agencies have been involved in some way or other in supporting the care of a child at a particular point and then it is only after the situation has come to crisis, or worse, that it has been picked up, but sadly those agencies that were working to try and address the issues associated with that child were not aware of some of the work or some of the information that was held within other agencies to be able to address those issues.

It is important that we work on the best way of ensuring that information is appropriately shared. The development of Child Link is a key part of that. In recognising what others have said across the house, obviously you need to be very careful about what information is shared, not sharing more information than is appropriate but ensuring that necessary information is shared and that it is shared only between those bodies which have a professional role to play and an important role to play in protecting that child.

In developing this legislation and then in going beyond this legislation and enacting it over the coming years, through 2019 and out to 2021 when Child Link will be rolled out, there is going to be ongoing consultation taking place with those key providers and stakeholders to ensure that we do get it right. I hear that a number of members of the opposition, rather than talking about the positives of this legislation, are dwelling on those concerns about what information should correctly be shared and what information should not. We will continue to work through it with stakeholders following on from this legislation to ensure that we get it right and keep working on gaining feedback to ensure that we continue to refine the system to get it at its best.

Of course within the legislation, as others will have pointed out, we recognise that if the wrong people get hold of information which they should not get then they can be taken to court and pursued for wrongful access to the information. We certainly do not want to see this go down that path, but we want to ensure that we have those appropriate checks and balances to emphasise that the right people need to get the right information at the earliest possible occasion so they can build up that picture and we can develop a good early warning system of signs for when a child may be at risk. That way, the best approach can be taken by the various agencies involved to, as a first step, try to support the family or the parent, whatever the circumstance of the care for the child is, and to try to support that child to stay in its appropriate care situation. I believe that this legislation is working in a very, very sound way, recognising those delicate balances that are in place to get its definitions right, to get the program right and to ensure that this arrangement will work well.

I again want to focus on the legislative principles that are the underpinning principles of this legislation — that we do give precedence to children’s wellbeing. The driving force of this legislation is to ensure that all children in this state can be raised in a safe environment. We also recognise that essential right to privacy that needs to be respected. We want to share information only to the extent that it is necessary to promote the wellbeing and safety of the child or children who are considered to be or may be at risk. We want to see agencies that are working to protect children — and there are a number of agencies that will be involved, whether they are hospitals, schools or the protective services unit within the department — and a range of people working collaboratively. So if some have information that others will then know about, the appropriate process can take place to get that early intervention and to get that support in place by the right agency. We want to seek to take into account the views of the child. We want to ensure that families feel protected in terms of the information that is provided. We want to be respectful to the carers, to the families involved and to the children.

There are a whole range of processes being put in place to ensure this is sound legislation. It certainly responds to the need that we all recognise is out there. We want intervention, if it is required, at the earliest possible occasion to see that the best results happen to ensure that children in our state continue to be safe.