Supporting the wellbeing of children and families is an important government and community responsibility. Children and young people who enter the child protection system are among our most vulnerable people and remain at risk of falling behind their peers across every aspect of life. Exposure to abuse and neglect can cause long-term harm for children and young people, including learning difficulties and/or poor academic achievement, mental health issues, physical health problems, alcohol and drug abuse, involvement in the criminal justice system and homelessness. 
Many children and young people in care are also doubly disadvantaged, with Aboriginal children, children with disability, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and regional areas of Victoria being over-represented in care. In particular, there has been a rapid rise in Aboriginal children entering the statutory system, with the number of Aboriginal children being removed their families in Victoria now at the highest since white settlement.
The early years of childhood are a critical period for people’s healthy development, and are considered formative in shaping the way children learn, develop and build relationships. Experiences during this time have long-lasting effects, influencing an individual’s mental and physical health, social adjustment, educational achievement and life expectancy. Exposure to abuse or neglect, witnessing family violence, poor parenting behaviours, parental mental illness, poverty, parental substance abuse, limited cognitive stimulation and an absence of positive attachments or ‘toxic stress’ can contribute to developmental vulnerability in childhood. Conversely, there are several factors that can promote positive early development, such as access to health and social care services, cognitive stimulation in the home, secure caregiver-child attachments, good parenting and attendance at high quality early learning services.
The best ways for government and the community to foster children’s healthy development and prevent or minimise conditions that may lead to abuse and neglect, are to invest in prevention and early intervention strategies that strengthen vulnerable families and help them provide optimal environments for their children. However, too many vulnerable families only receive support once they reach crisis points, with many falling through the cracks because services are overstretched and under‑resourced, or because families have difficulty finding out about and accessing the services they need.
VCOSS’ Submission to the Roadmap to Reform: Strong Families, Safe Children makes recommendations on how Victoria can help prevent neglect and abuse from occurring, to intervene early, keep more families together through crises, and secure better futures for children who cannot live at home. In developing this submission VCOSS has drawn on the research evidence and our member organisations’ experience in supporting children, young people and their families as well as the broader services system, including services that do not traditionally work in the child and family services sector.
Victoria will reap many benefits by increasing the support available to vulnerable families to prevent their children from abuse and neglect. The key strategies outlined in the submission include:
- Access to intensive prevention and early intervention support services; such as family support from, antenatal and postnatal care and parenting programs, help families find the support they need before problems escalate and involve child protection services.
- Supporting universal services, such as Maternal and Child Health and high quality early learning services and schools, to be inclusive and culturally safe will also help reach and engage all families. Given their engagement with a broad range of families, universal services are well-placed to identify signs of early vulnerability and link families with additional services where required. Resourcing and supporting adult-centered services, such as alcohol and other drug services (AOD), mental health services and family violence services, to work with children and collaborate with children and family services can also help children and families and reduce numbers of children entering child protection. This also needs to be accompanied by better support for children with disability, providing families experiencing homelessness with quick access to safe and secure housing and improved responses to dealing with crime.
- Taking a holistic and integrated approach to prevent children at risk of entering the child protection system. Families may face a range of complex and interrelated problems, such as mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and family violence. Integrated service models that provide holistic, wrap around support to families are more likely to effectively address their needs. This requires stronger collaboration between the early childhood services (such as Maternal and Child Health, early parenting programs, playgroups and early childhood education and care) and schools with family services (including Child FIRST and Integrated Family Services), and adult-based services (such as housing, AOD, mental health, family violence and financial counselling services).
- Responses to tackle socioeconomic disadvantage and community-based risk factors. Placed-based approaches that empower communities to address the complex issues they face are more likely to succeed in improving the wellbeing of children and families, and reducing children and young people’s risk of abuse and neglect.
- A strong focus on reducing the numbers of Aboriginal children entering the child protection system, and improve the outcomes for vulnerable children that do enter care. A key approach to achieving this includes implementing all nine of the agreed priorities from the Victorian Aboriginal Children’s Summit.
For children who do enter care there are a number of key priorities for action. These include:
- Placing children and young people in the most appropriate home-based arrangement, wherever possible.
- Further supporting and growing foster care and kinship care to reduce the numbers of children entering residential care. As part of this process, children and young people should be provided with a stronger voice in how best to meet their needs as well and informing broader sector reform.
- Improving the education, health and wellbeing of children in the out-of-home-care system by providing all children with access to therapeutic placements and a greater focus on meeting their educational needs, including training teachers in trauma informed practice.
- Greater support for care leavers to successfully transition from care to independent living. Care leavers continue to experience poorer outcomes than their peers, being over‑represented in the youth justice system, having poorer mental and physical health, and lower education and employment participation rates.
VCOSS welcomes the Roadmap for Reform: Stronger Families, Safe Children project as a chance to build on the investment made in the last state budget, to help strengthen vulnerable families and improve the wellbeing of children and young people, to reduce the numbers of children entering out-of-home-care and to provide better outcomes for vulnerable children and young people who are in care.
 Child Family and Community Australia, Effects of child abuse and neglect for children and adolescents: CFCA Resource Sheet, AIFS, January 2014, https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/effects-child-abuse-and-neglect-children-and-adolescents
 A Harvey, P McNamara, L Andrewartha, M Luckman, Out of care, into university: Raising higher education access and achievement of care leavers, La Trobe University, Melbourne 2015, p.11; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Child protection Australia 2013–14, Child Welfare series no. 61. Cat. no. CWS 52, Canberra , 2015, p.24.
 Commission for Children and Young People, Annual Report 2013-14, 2014, p.37.
 C Gong, J McNamara and R Cassells, AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report: Issue 28 – Little Australians: Differences in early childhood development, Sydney, AMP.NATSEM, April 2011.
 M McDonald, T Moore and R Robinson, Policy Brief No. 26: The future of early childhood education and care services in Australia, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Centre for Community Child Health, 2014.
 Goodstart early learning, ‘Why access to early learning is important for vulnerable children’, Vulnerability, June 2014, http://www.goodstart.org.au/GoodStart/media/GoodStart/PDFs/Publications/140630_GS-MessageDoc-Vulnerability-140613.pdf?ext=.pdf
 Goodstart early learning, Op. Cit.
 Aboriginal Children’s Summit Communique, 13-14 August 2015http://www.ccyp.vic.gov.au/downloads/aboriginal-childrens-forum-2015-communique.pdf