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Pandemic impacts ‘could push thousands more children into care’

But Berry Street chief executive Michael Perusco said he was “unfortunately very confident” the severe scenario – in which treatment is not available until 2022 and the economic recovery is slow – would play out. He said 4500 more children than usual would be placed in out-of-home care due to the pandemic, unless intervention occurred.

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“There’s some really strong indicators that COVID is increasing the risk factors for abuse and neglect, and at the same time is reducing families’ ability to cope with those increases in stressors because we have to isolate,” Mr Perusco said.

“It’s a double whammy, if you like – it’s increasing risk and there is less opportunity for families to do something about it, including because there is less access to social services.”

He said child protection reports jumped when restrictions were eased after the first lockdown, and he expected another rise in reports once the current lockdown ends.

If families don’t get the right support, “the blunt instrument of removing children from families will be used, which will in fact make things worse in the long term”, he said.

Deb Tsorbaris, head of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare – which represents more than 100 of the state’s family services organisations – said investment could help change the projections.

The Social Ventures Australia report argued a $180 million investment every year in targeted early intervention programs that have been used in places such as New Zealand would deliver savings of $1.8 billion.

“This is a [state] government that has plans and we’ve had some positive soundings with the Treasurer before COVID about this work. They’re highly engaged with it,” Ms Tsorbaris said. “This is about averting further human tragedy.

“It’s even more urgent than it was six months ago for governments and the sector and the community to want to do something about this, because actually there are solutions right in front of us”

Mr Perusco said early intervention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who continue to be over-represented in child protection statistics, must be determined by the Indigenous community.

“The last thing the Aboriginal community need is more white people telling them what to do with their children,” he said.

Kaitlyne, 23, whose last name has been withheld, was in primary school when child protection services became involved with her family.

Her mother was violent towards her older sister, which meant her sister – who did most of the caring – was removed and lost contact with her siblings for two years. After a stint in foster care, Kaitlyne and her infant brother were sent back to their mother. The family received little meaningful support and the cycle of abuse and neglect continued.

“He didn’t want to go home, he was terrified and he looked to me for support,” Kaitlyne, who was no older than 12 at the time, said of her brother.

She now works as a youth advocate. She said one thing that annoyed her as a child was that she was rarely asked what was happening to her, or even listened to – and that was the big lesson for authorities now.

“There were so many situations when people would assume, or just label you as this naughty child wasting the taxpayer and court’s time. That’s what silences children and keeps them quiet. These kids should be heard and especially with COVID right now.”

Minister for Child Protection Luke Donnellan said the Andrews government has invested an extra $2.5 billion in new services and programs in child protection, including investment in early intervention programs and an extra 650 practitioners.

More than $45 million had been invested during the pandemic to help provide outreach support to families, Mr Donnellan said.

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