It is a situation that arises quite often, usually starting by someone being concerned about something that they have heard, or seen, or been told about, and a notification is made to the Department of Child Safety, Youth & Women (CSYW). Often the person making the notification is a mandatory reporter, such as a teacher, doctor, psychologist or child care provider, who is required to communicate if they have any reason to suspect the child is at risk. Sometimes parents in an acrimonious family law matter make allegations (sometimes even false allegations) and this can involve the CSYW becoming involved. On other occasions, such notification is made by someone that has misunderstood the situation, or has been provided with inaccurate information, or only part of the information but, despite this, the CSYW may become involved.
When the CSYW contacts a parent, the initial reaction may be to not assist them with their assessment or investigation. While there can be concern, and often the assessment of the CSYW may not be the same as the parent’s assessment, it is important that information is sought. You need to know what the allegations are. How are they being looked at? Are the children going to be spoken to separately? Does the CSYW have a plan in place? What is the next step?
There are many options available to the CSYW, and if you are in this situation it is very important that you get specific advice in respect of your matter at the earliest possible opportunity and during each step.
Some of the options that may be available are:
- Safety plan. This is a document usually occurring after discussion with the CSYW and sets out both a clear position (from the CSYW) about the identified risks and the steps that can be taken to minimise risk. If the plan is appropriate and able to be complied with, the CSYW may either try and put in place a longer term plan, or they may determine the unacceptable risk is no longer unacceptable and cease involvement with your family. These can go on for different periods of time, and do require a parent or caregiver to agree to the plan.
- Intervention with parental agreement. This is very similar to a safety plan in that it requires the parents to agree, states the “worries” of the CSYW and the things that need to be done by the family to protect the child. An intervention with parental agreement can go for up to 12 months, and is usually prepared with involvement of the parents.
- Child protection application made to the Children’s Court. There are many different applications that can be sought by the CSYW. The CSYW can only make an application if there is an unacceptable risk to a child, and the plans or agreements above have not minimised the risks enough. The applications can be made very urgently and, if one is likely to be made, it is suggested that you seek urgent advice as to how best to manage the situation.
- Long term guardianship order. If one or more short term (two years or less) orders are made, the CSYW can then determine that they need to seek a long term guardianship order. This will continue until the child is 18 years of age, unless it is revoked earlier.
With matters which involve the CSYW it is very important to have early advice. If you get the advice at the first step, you will be made aware of the steps the CSYW will be likely to take. They have to tick certain boxes to be able to move up the steps. If, for example, the safety plan is signed by all parties, every party is compliant with the terms of the plan, and there are no other issues of risk which are identified, the CSYW would find it difficult to start, say, Court proceedings without new allegations being made.
This is always a very difficult time for families. No parents want a third party (who they don’t know) telling them how to raise or care for their children. In saying that, it is very important that you discuss matters appropriately with the CSYW and that you understand all of the risks to your family.
While family law certainly includes child protection law, it is its own specialised area. Many family lawyers do not work in this area, and we recommend you always seek information and advice from a lawyer who is appropriately trained and experienced in this very different area of law.
Child protection orders also have an impact on family law orders whether they were made in the Family Court or the Federal Circuit Court. This is important to seek advice about as well, again at the earliest possible occasion.
Hopefully this is something that your family will never have to be concerned with but, if you do, there are steps that can be taken to rectify the situation.