Children’s Court specialist lawyer Joel Orenstein said many Victorian families had passed their two-year deadline to reunify during the pandemic, or would be approaching it.
“The system is not working but the clock is still ticking,” Mr Orenstein said.
Liana Buchanan, Victoria’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, said she was deeply concerned by the possible long-term impact of coronavirus disruptions.
“My view is that safe reunification of parents and children is generally in a child’s best interests,” Ms Buchanan said.
“The combination of loss of contact between parents and children, parents’ inability to access services [such as counselling or drug and alcohol services] and the current law means there will be cases where COVID prevents reunification, even where safe reunification was planned and considered possible before the pandemic.”
When the Department of Health and Human Services halted face-to-face contact in March, Neil* went from seeing his three young children once a fortnight to not speaking with them for five weeks.
He was then able to talk to his two-year-old daughter and two sons, aged five and three, occasionally on the phone until a bittersweet meeting last month.
“Before COVID, when I saw my daughter we had a good relationship, she would come up and want cuddles. Last month when I went to give her a cuddle she screamed and cried,” Neil said.
“I don’t think she recognised me because she hadn’t seen me for so long.”
Neil said the DHHS had given him no guidance on how he could be reunited with his children in future, beyond a men’s behavioural change program he will soon complete.
“I would love to know what else the department wants me to do. Trying to maintain a relationship with a two-year-old by talking on the phone, it’s so hard. I’m worried it won’t be possible to be my kids’ parent again because we’re not seeing each other.”
Ms Buchanan said after the cancellation of contact in March, the DHHS was still struggling to facilitate court-ordered criteria for reunification.
“The position we’ve taken and put to the government is that the legislation should be amended to allow the Children’s Court to extend reunification orders in cases where it has been hampered by COVID,” she said.
Julian Pocock, executive officer of the Aboriginal Executive Council that advocates for Victoria’s 3000 Indigenous children in child protection, said his agency had proposed a blanket six-month extension for parents.
“If a family isn’t having regular contact with the children and a child protection worker isn’t able to see how those interactions are going, it’s difficult, arguably impossible, for a family to show they can safely resume the care of their child,” Mr Pocock said.
About 60 of Victoria’s 2000 child protection workers have been seconded to work on the coronavirus response.
A government spokeswoman said the state’s system, which received a $77.5 million boost in April, remained alert to children at urgent risk of harm or abuse and said the DHHS was working with carers to support the “vitally important” connection between children and their families.
“We understand restricting face-to-face visits was very difficult for some families, but it was necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, their parents and carers,” the spokeswoman said.
Mr Orenstein said he feared the creation of a “COVID generation”.
“There will be kids that are going through the system at this time and won’t be able to reunify with their parents,” the lawyer said.
“That leaves the children in state care, which we know can entrench them in the system and have lifelong consequences.”
State opposition spokesman for child protection Nick Wakeling called for a fairer government approach to reunification.
“The Andrews government’s refusal to allow parents to have face-to-face contact with their children will do immeasurable damage to many Victorian families,” Mr Wakeling said.
*Name has been changed
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.