Families denied visits with children face ‘devastating’ impact

Sheri and David* were counting down to the day their daughter could come to live with them.

“We were right at the end of a family reunification order,' Sheri says. “We had been doing very well with the order, meeting all the court conditions. Our access to our daughter had increased to 56 hours per week – two overnights and four days.”

And then on March 24 – a week after their daughter’s first birthday – a Department of Health and Human Services worker told them all contact would be suspended indefinitely owing to the risk posed by the coronavirus.

Children’s Court specialist lawyer Joel Orenstein warns suspending face-to-face visits between children from out-of-home care and their birth parents are having devastating consequences.Credit:Jason South

“I was bawling for two days,” Sheri says. “I was crying uncontrollably, having panic attacks, worrying all the time. We were so close to the finish line and now we are not able to see our daughter.”

Last month Victoria suspended face-to-face visits between children in out-of-home care and their birth families.

Children’s Court specialist lawyer Joel Orenstein, who is representing the father, says the impact on families is devastating.

“All of a sudden the curtain goes down and there is no contact and no foreseeable end in sight,” Mr Orenstein says. “This will have a significant impact on the ability of babies to form attachments with their birth families.”

Sheri and David’s daughter was taken off them when she was two days old, amid concerns about the couple’s drug use and domestic violence.

“I was so excited about having my miracle baby and she got ripped away from me,” Sheri says, although she acknowledges there were grounds for doing so.

“When I came to terms with that, I thought, ‘Right, we have to do absolutely everything we can to get her back as quickly as possible' – and that’s what we’ve done.”

The couple say they were determined to comply with 24 court conditions on their reunification order, including urine drug testing, family and domestic violence counselling, and a mental health appointment.

Mr Orenstein says they had progressed from supervised contact to unsupervised and overnight visits. “They were so close.”

He is calling for a more flexible approach to ensure contact visits continue in accordance with court orders.

“The suspension of face-to-face visits is so damaging and has lifelong consequences for the child,” Mr Orenstein says.

He says the suspension of contact visits with birth parents is also at odds with the advice of the Family Court on parenting orders and COVID-19.

In a statement on March 26, the chief justice of the Family Court of Australia, William Alstergren, said: “Consistent with their responsibilities to act in the children’s best interests, parents and carers are expected to comply with court orders in relation to parenting arrangements.”

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said that in accordance with advice from the Chief Health Officer, the department had activated an emergency management plan and was no longer able to regularly supervise visits in person between children and family members.

“This is an incredibly difficult situation, but it's necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, their parents and carers,” the spokesperson said.

“Contact between children and their families is vitally important, and we are working with carers to ensure contact continues through videoconferencing, telephone or other means during this time.”

However, in a recent Supreme Court case, Justice John Dixon described the opportunities for a mother to have access visits by either telephone or videoconferencing with her 17-month-old daughter due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as “illusory”.

Justice Dixon made orders giving the mother custody of her daughter, saying he said he had “no confidence that meaningful contact can occur by any video medium between a mother and a 17-month-old baby”.

“In practical terms, there will be no access and mother and baby will be subjected to significant isolation, possibly for a substantial period of time,” he said in his decision.

He said the prospect of fracturing the mother/daughter bond in this way itself might cause “very significant harm” to the child’s best interest.

One case practice support worker told The Age the department was grappling with how to protect the physical health of vulnerable children – some of whom were immunocompromised or had immunocompromised carers – and staff from exposure to COVID-19 while acknowledging the impact of separation on their mental health.

“I feel for families. It’s terrible, I can’t even imagine,” the worker said. “It’s unprecedented. How do you keep the community safe and how do you keep parents safe? How do you support them and the kids? The department needs to do some outside-the-square thinking on this. There needs to be some flexibility.”

* Names have been changed

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

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