The Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Permanent Care and Other Matters) Act 2014 (Amendment Act) was passed by the Victorian Parliament in September 2014, and came into effect on 1 March 2016. The Amendment Act arose from findings and recommendations of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry (2012). Key findings of the Inquiry relevant to the Amendment Act included:
- it takes, on average, over five years from a report being received to a child being placed on a permanent care order, which is too long and harmful to children
- the range of Children’s Court orders should be simplified, and their purpose clarified.
It recommended identifying and addressing the barriers to achieving more timely permanency. In response, the department undertook the Stability Planning and Permanent Care Project 2013-14. Key findings included:
- inconsistency between Children’s Court orders and department case plans
- the stability planning framework in the Children, Youth and Families Act had failed to achieve the timely decision-making intended
- drift in case planning was contributing to the long periods of time taken to reach a decision that alternative permanent care was required despite evidence that reunification was unlikely
- lengthy delays accompanying contested court cases contributed to poor outcomes to children.
Further information about this project can be found on the Stability planning and permanent care project page.
The amendments provided a legislative framework to drive improved focus on providing children with timely and secure outcomes, and to embed permanency planning for children in need of protection. Permanency refers to the achievement of an enduring care arrangement for a child that promotes the child’s safety, development, and sense of belonging. The intent was to prevent children from drifting in or between placements without early, clear and consistent decision-making for their future.
The majority of children who come to the attention of child protection remain in the care of a parent. Of those who enter out-of-home care, most are reunified with parents well within two years. This did not change. However, for a smaller group of children a permanent or ongoing out-of-home care placement is required to ensure their safety and wellbeing. It is important decisions are made as early as possible and within a timeframe that promotes the child’s development. The amendments included in legislation the following hierarchy of permanency objectives:
- Family preservation
- Family reunification
- Permanent care
- Long-term out-of-home care.
The best interests principles remained paramount for all decisions made by child protection, family services, out-of-home care providers and the Children’s Court.
 The location of adoption in the hierarchy recognises it is the most legally secure option for a child where reunification cannot safely be achieved. This inclusion did not lead to a change in the number of children adopted in Victoria. The Adoption Act 1984 requires parental consent, or for the Court to dispense with consent.
Case planning was brought forward to commence from the time child protection is satisfied that a child is in need of protection. This decision is often referred to as substantiation and follows an investigation. The case plan now includes the permanency objective for the child as well as significant decisions made by the department for the child. Where a Court order is in place, the case plan is now consistent with the order. A copy is still given to the child and their parents. All case plans are now reviewed at least annually and earlier if there is a significant change. To support these new case planning requirements, along with the case plan, an actions table sets out the goals, tasks and timelines to implement the case plan
Cultural support is required for all Aboriginal children in court-ordered out-of-home care where previously this was limited to children under the former guardianship orders. Their case plan is required to reflect and be consistent with the child’s cultural support needs, to maintain and develop their Aboriginal identity and encourage their connection to their community and culture. Each Aboriginal child in out-of-home care is provided with a cultural plan aligned with their case plan. The legislation now recognises that a child’s cultural support needs may vary, depending on their individual circumstances.
The amendments introduced a new simplified scheme of court orders that made the purpose of intervention clear. The permanency objective aligns with the order.
Family preservation order
Child in parental care with supervision
Replaced: interim protection order to parental care; supervision order.
Family reunification order
Child in out-of-home care with the intent the child will return to parental care
Replaced: interim protection order to out-of-home care; custody to third party order; supervised custody order; custody to Secretary order where family reunification was the goal and child has been in out-of-home care for less than two years.
Care by Secretary order
Child expected to remain in out-of-home care, except in exceptional circumstances
Replaced: custody to Secretary order where ongoing out-of-home care was the goal or child had been in out-of-home care for two years or more; and guardianship to Secretary order.
Permanent care order
Child with permanent care parents
Amended existing: permanent care order provisions
Long-term care order
Child with specific long-term carer (where permanent care order not an option)
Replaced: long-term guardianship to Secretary order for children aged 12+.
- Temporary assessment orders and undertakings were not be affected.
- Interim accommodation orders continued to function as they had before. A restriction was introduced that an interim accommodation order must not be made if the Court is satisfied that a protection or permanent care order could be made.
The Permanency for children preparations included providing information to children, parents, carers, all stakeholders and the child protection workforce to prepare everyone for the changes.