A SERVICE being piloted in Bendigo and Melbourne could reduce the need for some families to go to court to address child protection concerns.
The Independent Family Advocacy and Support service aims to help families understand their rights and responsibilities as part of the child protection system and engage with services.
Victoria Legal Aid has funded the service for three years.
Peter Noble, the executive director of Victoria Legal Aid Loddon Campaspe, said the need for such a service was identified in a 2017 review of child protection legal aid services.
The review found about a third of child protection cases that went to court need not have ended up there.
The cases started with the identification of longstanding issues, but the issues weren't serious enough at that stage for the courts to be involved.
Victoria Legal Aid identified an opportunity to work with families to address the identified issues at that stage.
Mr Noble said IFAS advocates worked with families to identify their goals and needs, and to develop their skills and confidence to speak up for themselves.
"IFAS can provide information about the child protection system and arrange referrals to other support services like drug and alcohol counselling or parenting programs," Mr Noble said.
"If families need legal advice as well, they'll be referred to a lawyer for help."
Victoria Legal Aid funded 440 ongoing grants of assistance for child protection matters in Bendigo and 350 child protection duty lawyer services in 2017-18.
IFAS is a non-legal advocacy service. Team members include a lived experience consultant, Isla Swanston.
"I believe having a program like IFAS would have been helpful for me to navigate the system to prevent myself and my children's cases from getting to the court system," Ms Swanston said.
"To be able to have someone to help me know my rights and to understand them, and to also know that I could gather my own evidence to prove concerns about my parenting skills were not valid, would have been very valuable.
"All of my children remain in my care and I'm proud to be working with a team who can provide that advice and support to other parents."
The Bendigo pilot has so far been well received, Mr Noble said.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and those where one or more parents have an intellectual disability are being prioritised for IFAS services.
"We know Aboriginal families are over-represented in the child protection system and we hope this kind of early support will help more families to stay together and connected to their culture," Mr Noble said.
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