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Australia needs a uniform national approach to child-protection legislation

By Francis Lynch - posted Monday, 15 April 2002

Given the relatively small size of Australia there would be many who would agree with those who suggest (Word doc) that "eight different sets of child protection legislation in a country of 19 million is excessive." Each state has a child protection regime and the Commonwealth having the Family Law Act. What this means is that there are multiple arenas where matters of parenting and child protection might be dealt with.

There is a complex system of arrangements whereby a child protection dispute might arise in a state children's court or in the federal Family Court, or within the recently created Federal Magistrates Service. These jurisdictional overlaps ultimately confuse proceedings, particularly for parents and children, and appear to be inevitable in the current system. However, there is a fundamental difference in that the ‘public’ arena of the state children's court is to determine whether the child needs protection, while the ‘private’ Federal arena is generally to determine parenting disputes between parties. We also need to consider whether it is acceptable in Australia for a child to be protected from a particular abusive situation in one state but not in another.

Recent Child Welfare Legislation Reform in Australia


Child Welfare legislation in Australia has undergone significant changes during the past decade. Many of the state governments have enacted new legislation during this time and there are some similarities that are emerging between them.

The form and principles of legislation have changed during the twentieth century from ideals of charity, adult rights and control towards greater recognition of the need to protect children and recognition that children have rights that need to be upheld. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Family Law Act 1975 promote actions in the "best interests of the child" and provide an influence on more recent child welfare legislation in the states.

Emerging Principles of Legislation in the States

Many of the Australian States and Territories have enacted child welfare legislation during the past decade. As has been the case in the past, the states and territories are influenced by each other, and a number of key similarities have begun to emerge in this recent legislation.

1. Family relationships

Many of the responses of child welfare systems in the past have been to remove and separate children from their families. This has often been the mainstay of child welfare policy, and efforts to preserve family and cultural relationships have tended to be a more recent phenomenon. The principle of preserving family relationships and role is in place in some of the recently enacted child welfare legislation in Australia.


In recent times there has been renewed focus on the needs of children who can't return to family. While there are increasing support services for children and families to be reunified and preserved, there are still many children who will need to be in the care system for long periods of time. While the debate can sometimes be portrayed as one about adoption, the first options proposed are for return to family or extended family (pdf file).

In contrast to some of the practices that have characterised child welfare practice in the past in Australia, there is an increasing focus on the role of partnership and participation, both with families and the community.

The child welfare environment in Australia is fragmented by numerous jurisdictions and a variety of responsible bodies. This often leads to less-than-ideal results for children where there are multiple agencies involved in their life with little coordination between them. The system is so disorganised at times that agencies can attempt to pass responsibility to others so as to minimise their workload, without cognisance of the impact on children and families.

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About the Author

Francis Lynch is General Manager, Family Support Services at MercyCare in Perth, and an Executive member of the Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia.

Related Links
Association of Children's Welfare Agencies
Children's Welfare Association of Victoria
National Child Protection Clearinghouse
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