Seen and not heard: Victorian children at risk

Journalism Reporting and Writing assessment: extended news story, live reporting panel

Image: Crosswalk.com

Victorian state authorities are putting young victims of family violence at risk by not communicating with each other.

It’s hoped a new information sharing scheme will help social service agencies better assist people at risk, especially young people.

But with $3 billion dollars spent so far to tackle the enduring challenges of family violence, experts say a great deal of work remains to be done.

Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety Victim Representative Cathy Oddie says the biggest issue is “the left arm doesn’t talk to the right arm in social services”.

“Part of the royal commission was about breaking down that siloed approach and creating an integrated service framework,” said Ms Oddie.

Five years on from the royal commission into family violence, sparked by the tragic death of Luke Batty at the hands of his father, children remain dramatically at risk.

Results from the Crime Statistics Agency Victoria present a bleak picture.

Since 2016, 65 children have died, 5 as a direct result of family violence and 44 while living in close contact with it.

A further 35 children committed suicide in Victoria in 2019, all living in homes with severe family violence.

In 2020, almost 35,000 instances of family violence included the presence of children, more than a third of the total cases reported.

The Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme and Child Information Sharing Scheme will enter the state education system on April 19 with the start of the second term.

The two new initiatives will help social service professionals share and request information from each other.

It’s hoped they will give agencies the chance to create a complete picture of the safety needs of people at risk and act sooner to help them.

Principle Commissioner for Children and Young People Liana Buchanan says the system will save lives but has warned the risks of slow-paced reform could be “catastrophic”.

Ms Buchanan says currently, in reported instances of family violence “no single service has the full picture”.

“The implications of that is children continue to live with sustained neglect, violence or harm, and in some cases failure to share information between services has had a lethal consequence for the child.”

The state government remains behind schedule on many of the 227 recommendations stemming from the royal commission with just over half currently implemented.

Family Violence costs the state economy $5.3 billion a year while in 2020, 51,000 women and children became homeless as a result.

Ms Oddie says one of the key recommendations of the royal commission was for children to be recognised as independent voices in circumstances of family violence.

“Even if what they’re experiencing is witnessing the violence towards a parent, that needs to be recognised as harmful towards them,” said Ms Oddie.

In situations of family violence, social services are still required to treat children like extensions of the parent involved.

Young people are rarely named in court, usually referred to as “the complainant’s child” and are most likely to enter the public consciousness only after severe injury or death.

Ms Oddie says young people are rendered “invisible” by the legal system and were usually unable to speak their truth about family violence until they reached adult age.

Ms Buchanan says family violence can no longer be assumed to be just about adults and state policymakers needed to continue to treat family violence as a crisis.

If you or anyone you know needs support, contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic or Family Violence Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).