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Speech on Child Protection and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020

On Tuesday 23 March 2021, I gave a speech on the Child Protection and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020. I didn't get to finish my speech before being cut off for lunch, so I'll add my notes for the rest of what I was going to say underneath.

You can read the full speech below, or the first part of it in the official Queensland Parliament Record of Proceedings (Hansard).

Mr BERKMAN (Maiwar—Grn) (12.55 pm): I rise to make a contribution on the Child Protection and Other Legislation Amendment Bill. I start by acknowledging that the findings of the coronial inquest into the death of Mason Jett Lee were truly shocking. It is harrowing to think that one so vulnerable could be treated so horrifically, and there is no question that our child protection system needs to do better to protect children from harm.

The report published last year by the Queensland Audit Office into the family support and child protection system paints a pretty bleak picture of the current state of the system. It tells of a system under pressure from increasing numbers of families with multiple and complex needs, it lays bare that family support services do not have the capacity to deliver the services needed to meet this demand, and it tells of the increasing difficulty the department is having in attempting to place children into care based on their needs because of a shortage of carers and because of children staying in care longer.

The result is that, even before we specifically consider permanent options for placement of children out of home, children are being placed into out-of-home care and short-term care based on what is available, not what meets their specific needs. The very clear opposition from relevant advocacy organisations, concerns about the human rights consequences of this bill and particular impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been roundly ignored by the government. They have sidelined these concerns and simply reintroduced exactly the same bill that was met with such criticism in the last term of government. It still prioritises adoption over guardianship of the chief executive and introduces an arbitrary time frame to drive decisions about permanency rather than investing in childfirst, case-by-case management or providing the supports that biological parents need to meet their children’s needs.

It is a sad indictment that the government continues to push ahead with a legislative agenda that takes so little notice of the voices that should be front and centre in law reform like this. That is the case with both bills we will discuss this week. We have seen the government ignore key stakeholders. Those organisations best positioned to critique whether legislation will achieve its intended purposes and to propose necessary amendments to meet those goals are simply sidelined.

While I obviously cannot comment on all of the criticisms stakeholders have made, I will turn firstly to the Human Rights Commission. The commission does not support the amendments overall. That is clear. The commission’s submission concluded by expressing the view that the amendments are not based on evidence that they will achieve the stated purpose, are premature in light of the forthcoming review of adoption legislation and do not sufficiently safeguard the rights of the child and birth family. I understand that there is a statutory requirement that the minister undertake a review of the Adoption Act this year. Given what we have heard from submitters in this inquiry and the even broader range of submitters in the last parliament and from the Queensland Audit Office recently, why would we not at least wait until the review of adoption legislation is complete later this year?

The Create Foundation points out a significant omission in who is being asked about this—that is, the kids it will actually affect. When the Create Foundation consulted with young people, they immediately identified the complex and all-too-common reasons that two years might not be enough time for biological parents to prove they are suitable—reasons like substance abuse disorders or family violence. Those kids with firsthand experience of this know that it can take longer than two years to solve. As Create points out, this bill creates a time frame driven imperative for permanent placement, potentially driving more kids towards forced adoption without increased government support for the biological parents. Adoption should remain a last resort, but, even if it is not, it should involve thorough, child centred, preadoptive assessment where the child is given a genuine opportunity to participate in the decisions affecting them.

And here is the rest of the speech I was going to give:

Sisters Inside gives an important example of how the prioritisation of adoption over guardianship of the chief executive will compound existing disadvantage and marginalisation. They note in particular that parents in prison will be disproportionately impacted. Many parents who have been imprisoned by the State won’t have enough time to stabilise, access counselling and other supports, and get back on their feet, before the arbitrary 2-year review kicks in. 

In circumstances where First Nations people are the most incarcerated people on Earth, as is the case here in Queensland, this is just one example of how these changes will disproportionately affect First Nations children and families. 

These changes will disproportionately affect First Nations children and families

Statistics around overrepresentation of indigenous kids in child protection system are shocking, but the issue is not a new one:

  • In June 2013, the Carmody Inquiry showed us that Indigenous children are nine times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children.
  • The QAO reported last year that in 2018–19, 43 per cent of all children in care were Indigenous, despite making up only eight per cent of children in Queensland.

The Government says it’s listened to concerns about the impact of this Bill on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It says that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (ATSICPP) is adequately reflected in the Bill and in existing departmental processes. 

But this response misses the point that the ATSICPP clearly isn’t working:

  • Under the ATSICPP it is ALREADY the least preferred option to place Indigenous kids with non-Indigenous carers. 
  • From Auditor General’s report: “Between 2013–14 and 2018–19, the Department of Child Safety placed 44 per cent of Indigenous children into care with non-Indigenous carers. This remained consistent over the six-year period.”
  • In almost half of all cases, Queensland’s Child protection system has failed to meet the objective of the ATSICPP, leaving these kids with the least preferred option.

The Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak makes important points about what this Bill will mean in practice:

  • The Bill would mean that a short term failure to properly identify suitable kin carers will becomes an irrevocable decision, and 
  • that adoption will result in severing or damaging the child’s cultural and family connections.
  • Their submission expresses the view that “the department should not be able to determine that they are unable to locate suitable kin carers unless there has been full and proper formal consultation with the family and community leaders.”

This submission, like so many others, has not been addressed before the reintroduction of this Bill. 

None of the submissions on this Bill support it. A clear majority of the submission in the last parliament did not support the Bill.

In addition to the many submitters who flatly oppose this Bill, important recommendations from the Office of the Public Guardian and the Queensland Family and Child Commission have been roundly ignored.

In light of all these unaddressed concerns, and in circumstances where the Government has reintroduced a Bill that changes nothing in response to them, we cannot support this legislation. 

The child protection system in Queensland is not able to find appropriate short-term options for out-of-home care, which makes it very difficult to justify changes that will fast track the consideration and use of adoption - a care option with the most severe, and long term consequences, and the least oversight.

What the Government should be doing

This Government is still failing to properly invest in the child protection system and, perhaps more importantly, it is failing to address the underlying problems for families tied up in the child protection system and youth justice system.

This Government is leaving nearly 50,000 people on the social housing wait list, while it commits to build enough homes for around 1% of that list, and then punish parents for being unable to provide stable housing. 

People with substance use disorders are stigmatised, criminalised and punished. The Government is leaving them trapped in a cycle of harm, rather than diverting funds from law enforcement towards services that treat drugs and substance abuse as a health issue, as we should, in line with the evidence. 

They’re putting cops in schools to deal with their so-called ‘youth crime’ crisis, rather than funding a universal free school meals program that would actually help take pressure off parents and keep kids engaged in education. 

Why is the Government not doing the things that we know would actually help build a healthy, stable environment for kids? Universal public housing. Fully funded public health and education. Government investment in jobs, particularly in the regions. 

On one reading, this Bill acknowledges that the system has failed these families, but it does nothing to address the glaring shortcomings in the child protection system or the underlying drivers that put families in contact with this system.

And we know from history that simply taking children away from marginalised families doesn’t solve the marginalisation. The Stolen Generation is undeniable proof that this creates significant, intergenerational trauma, and leaves the inequality intact. 

We are a wealthy society here in Queensland. The Government must do better to meet people’s everyday needs, to address those underlying drivers of disadvantage that so directly affect the families and children tied up with the Child protection system.

Unless we do this better, no amount of tinkering with the adoption legislation will ensure that kids are truly safe from harm.

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