COVID-19 and Virtual Contact Visits

2020 was an era-defining year for humanity as we had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the challenges it brought forth. The Children’s Court promptly closed, with all lawyers required to work from their offices or from home. For our clients, it meant they were only able to join their court hearings via phone or Webex video conferences. Webex hearings facilitated face-to-face virtual contact and brought some semblance of normality to court hearings.

The same barriers COVID-19 brought to the workplace crossed over to our client’s contact arrangements with their children. Unfortunately, many supervised contact visits were suspended and moved to virtual methods.

This subsequently created a big problem for our clients and all parents involved in Child Protection proceedings. It severed the opportunity for face-to-face contact, impeding the ability to maintain a strong connection and bond with their children.

TP Legal’s First Supreme Court Appearance

In Secretary DFFH v Children’s Court of Victoria & Emily Powell (a pseudonym) [2020] VSC 144, we acted on behalf of the mother. DFFH determined Emily, a 17-month-old infant, was facing an unacceptable risk of harm while in the care of her mother. This decision was prompted primarily by unexplained injuries to Emily’s face, and thus concerns of family violence. Our client responded appropriately to these concerns, and the Children’s Court placed Emily with her mother on an Interim Accommodation Order. DFFH contested this decision to return Emily to her mother‘s care, appealing the matter in the Supreme Court. DFFH’ solution was to place Emily in foster care while our client continued to address the protective concerns, facilitating all contact with her mother through virtual means due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our office contested this proposal on the basis that it would not be in the best interests of Emily to be placed in an unknown foster home, away from her primary carer, with only virtual contact facilitated at times and locations suitable to the carer themselves. Our concerns centered around the unknowns of the pandemic, i.e., how long it would go on for, and how long Emily would be separated from her mother during this period of time. As Emily was only a young baby, it could be many months before she might be able to be reunited with her mother. Given Emily’s current age even several weeks could be a significant period of time for a baby to be away from their primary carer. This posed a risk of causing irreversible damage to Emily’s bond with her mother.

Fighting to Keep Family Together

At TP Legal and Associates we fought for our client and her daughter to be reunited, arguing that the emotional damage to Emily caused by being separated from her mother (who was actively addressing DFFH concerns) was not in her best interests. The Supreme Court agreed with our arguments, ruling that such virtual contact proposed by the DFFH as a way to maintain the bond between Emily and her mother was ‘illusory’.

This landmark decision has now been used as a precedent for all following cases across the Children’s Court jurisdiction. Our office is very proud to have orchestrated such an important ruling, assisting many parents and children in maintaining a strong connection and bond over such uncertain times.

Emily was promptly reunited with her mother, and after displaying strong capabilities as a parent over an extended period of time, DFFH withdrew their involvement. At TP Legal and Associates we are honoured to see our hard work having such a long-lasting positive impact on many children and families.