In the 2015-15 financial year, Loddon Campaspe CLC’s Child Protection Legal Service assisted 124 people with child protection matters at Children’s Courts across the Bendigo region. Bianca* was one of these clients.
Bianca was a young single mother caring for a primary school aged child in a small Central Victoria town. She had been experiencing mental health issues and for a period spent time in psychiatric care. Whilst in hospital, Bianca was happy for her child to be cared for by a family member.
Following her discharge, the Department of Health and Human Services stepped in, arguing for her child to remain with Bianca’s relative, despite her wishes.
Bianca had been maintaining her mental health following her discharge and engaging with relevant professional supports. Yet the Department sought an Order that would have seen her child remain out of Bianca’s care for up to 12 months.
Bianca was referred to our service for legal advice and support by the psychiatric centre she had dealt with and with whom our Health-Justice Partnership with Bendigo Community Health Services had dealt.
The Department alleged that Bianca had been resistant to support from services, was isolated and a risk to her child as a result of her alleged poorly managed mental health.
We attempted to engage in discussions with the Department to get a clearer sense of their protective concerns for the child and the supports required to address these concerns. Unfortunately we did not receive a satisfactory response from the Department. As a result we represented Bianca at the Children’s Court.
At the Children’s Court hearing we were provided with a number of documents from child protection and other agencies. When carefully examined, it became clear that Bianca’s engagement with services and supports was reasonable. The documents also acknowledged that some professional supports had failed to coordinate their services and provide ongoing support to Bianca when she became unwell, in part due to Bianca’s geographic isolation.
Following our submissions in court, Bianca’s child was returned to her on an interim basis and we continued to support her. Eventually an Order was made that granted Bianca care of her child and the family is now doing well.
Bianca is typical of many of our Child Protection Legal Service’s clients, 37% of whom have a disability, 46% of whom are between 18 and 34 years of age, and 76% of whom are women.
Our Child Protection Legal Service is a pilot service funded by Victoria Legal Aid, who were keen to explore the potential for greater community legal centre involvement in child protection matters. Loddon Campaspe CLC and Women’s Legal Services Victoria were the two community legal centres selected to participate in the program, which runs from October 2015 until June 2017.
The service employs two Lawyers who assist with emergency applications and Duty Lawyer appearances, as well as providing advice and ongoing casework for clients who have interrelated family and children’s law issues. The Lawyers also deliver legal education around child protection matters to services and other community stakeholders.
Most referrals to the service are from VLA. However, some (like Bianca’s) flow from existing relationships Loddon Campaspe CLC has with other local service providers. Sometimes these referrals allow our service to intervene before Child Protection Services acts, preventing undue stress for families and reducing demand on already strained government services.
*Not her real name