Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment Bill 2018; National Disability Insurance Scheme (Worker Checks) Bill 2018

21st November 2018

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (20:35): I wish to speak on the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment Bill 2018. I feel that this is one of the more conflicting issues that has been before this House, certainly in this term. It is a great shame that it has been introduced almost at the death of this Parliament, limiting the length of time to debate the issues. The bill is being debated in cognate with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (Workers Checks) Bill, and I am disappointed that the bills have been tied as they are not similar in nature and each bill is significant in its own right. I have no issue with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (Workers Checks) Bill, but there are aspects of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Bill which I wish to address.

First up I would like to reiterate something I have said quite some time ago, although I know it has little effect on anyone else in this Parliament. I want to restate that I believe that a Minister in this role has one of the toughest jobs in the Parliament or in this State. It is a very difficult work space, and I do not believe that people from either side of this House pay enough respect to whoever holds that position. While the Minister has the ability to bring about important changes for children and families in need, they also need to deal with some of the most distressing matters that exist within our communities. It is a tough job, and I genuinely believe there should be greater understanding of that, and assistance given across the House divide to the Minister, regardless of who is in power. Whether we have a change of Government and we have Minister Mihailuk—or whoever it might be—or the present Government remains in power and we have Minister Goward, I would love to see a change in the paradigm around that portfolio because we should not be tearing ourselves apart like this on such an important matter. If we cannot come together and get a better understanding around the care and safety of our children then we are in real trouble.

I have swayed several times on this matter. Like everybody else, I have heard the arguments from the community and I am very concerned, particularly in the area of the consultation that has taken place and the understanding that people have of the bill. I have been through the bill, bit by bit, with my staff and spoken to people in my local community, but I have come to the conclusion that the bill is not some manifestation of evil social engineering that it has been purported to be. I am sorry for those people who are stridently opposed to the bill. My major concern is that there are people who are concerned about it and therefore it seems that the consultation could have been better, because we need to be able to bring communities along with us on such a matter.

By and large, the bill contains many positive reforms to the sector, but I accept that there remains significant opposition from many credible organisations such as Community Legal Centres and the NSW Law Society, who most of us rely on frequently for advice on technical matters. I have raised concerns with the Minister and put questions to the Minister's office on a number of occasions, and I thank the Minister's staff—Ms Anne King—for providing time to answer some tough and complex questions throughout this process.

I know that this is a very emotionally charged concept, but I do not accept the view put in some quarters that this bill will create another stolen generation. The very fact that the words have been put out there may cause a great deal of concern in the community. I do not believe that the mechanisms behind this bill will result in another stolen generation. I am certain that anything remotely of that nature is not the Government's intention and I believe that this is a grossly unfair characterisation of the intentions of the Government in general and the Minister in particular. I just cannot accept that that is the case.

A great deal has been said about the inclusion of a two-year limit for family restorations. I accept the Minister's advice and the advice of the staff and others that the courts will be able to extend this period in special circumstances. I know that a lot of people are concerned about that time limit, which is explicitly set out in the bill. I believe that the reasons for the concern have been somewhat overstated, but I do appreciate that there is concern. It has always been my view that the best way to find permanency for a child is to invest in, and support, the families to which they belong. I think that we would all agree on that. I also accept that the Government has achieved very good results in reducing the number of children entering permanent out-of-home care over the past few years.

I note that the number of Indigenous children entering out-of-home care was reduced by 42.4 per cent between 2015-16 and 2017-18. That figure was 45.7 per cent for non-Indigenous children. Clearly current practices are improving the situation, and I believe that these new measures could build on that trend. I think it is notable that when we talk about this issue we are disproportionately talking about children of Aboriginal families or the impact on Aboriginal communities. I understand the sensitivities around that and I have spoken to my community about this. The views expressed to me have been mixed.

I will not accept that there has been a unanimous view but there are certainly people who believe that there needs to be reform in this space. The people I spoke to could not articulate whether this is exactly what they want. I think the impact on the Aboriginal community makes the issue much more sensitive. I also wish to mention the Newpin Social Benefit program—a good program, which is restoring more children to their families as opposed to permanent adoption placement. Newpin has resulted in some 63 per cent more children being restored to their biological families over the past four years, as opposed to 19 per cent of children in families which have not gone through the program. [Extension of time.]

These are the types of programs and initiatives we should be investing in—effective early intervention programs that move away from a strategy where adoption is the preferred permanent solution. Whilst I have listened to many of the speeches, there were many issues mentioned in the member for Newtown's speech that I agree with. It is a sad reality that there are children and situations where adoption is the only option, but it should be the last option, and generally it is.

Our society has learned from mistakes made generations ago, when we did not seem to care, or to at least know better. Adoption laws have changed and are now slanted more towards the interests of the children—appropriately so—than that of the parents. I have one constituent, now aged 61, who discovered only two years ago while researching family history that his family was actually his adopted family. His situation, where he was denied the truth for so many years, has had significant impacts on his life. But those shortcomings do not exist in current laws. We spent considerable time talking to that gentleman, and his initial concerns, which were quite stridently against this bill, were modified greatly by further examination of the bill.

There are many questions to be asked about the consultation on this bill. We need to be able to bring the community along with this on this legislation. I understand that numerous organisations, including the Law Society, hold concerns with aspects of the bill, but having referred those concerns to the Minister's adviser I believe that this bill will likely do more to keep families together and will do more to keep families and children out of the courts and legal system.

This issue of guardianship orders by consent has caused a good deal of concern. I do not see that these reforms will create a fast-track to adoption as, in the vast majority of such cases, the guardian is a grandparent, aunt or uncle or close relative who rarely moves towards adoption and prefers to remain as a guardian. If a parent is making a decision on their capacity to care for their child, or let us say the mother is making a decision to give up her child and put that child in the full-time care of its father, then they deserve the right to do so without lawyers, without litigation, and in the knowledge that the father would be eligible for financial support. I believe that in many cases, the courts and lawyers may have the effect—not done purposely—of keeping some families apart at a time when they should have the capacity to keep more together.

One of my major concerns with the entirety of this bill is that there appeared to be a lack of public consultation. I acknowledge that that is a big issue for many of the members who preceded me in this debate tonight. That is certainly the view of the Law Society and very importantly some Aboriginal groups. I appreciate that seven public panels were held throughout the State, in addition to one which was an entirely Aboriginal panel. I believe the Government received more than 100 submissions. I accept that it is a very complex bill, and while the Law Society and others oppose it, it is solidly supported by the likes of Barnardos. Perhaps that is not a great surprise but I also have spoken with many others who work in the sector—organisations and individuals who are also at the coalface—and they have a view similar to Barnardos and support the bill.

I suspect that some of the Government's intentions, while logical and sound, have become lost in translation, so I would like to see the Government work more closely with those dissenting organisations to better inform them and to work more closely on more and better reform. It is complex legislation that will apply to an area where it is impossible to deliver a perfect system to suit all situations. No government has ever achieved that. The bill has tackled many important issues head-on but, in making substantial changes in such a sensitive space, I believe that we need to bring as many people and representative groups on board. Whether it is a genuine misinterpretation, misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of aspects of the bill, I believe that there will be genuine fear by many that this bill will displace or remove children from their families.

For that reason, when this bill passes this House—we can all be pragmatic about this and adopt a view one way or the other but we know this bill will pass this House, perhaps with amendments—I would like to see the Government and the Minister commit to further consultation post the passing of the bill with all or representative parties, who have expressed an interest and particular concerns with this bill, with a view to dispelling any misunderstandings or indeed to identify changes to the legislation that may be warranted. We cannot just walk away from such a difficult task. I ask the Minister to address those issues specifically—the consultation and the potential to keep a watching brief in this space—as she makes her speech in reply.

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