“Nothing Is Ever Really Lost to Us As Long As We Remember It”

“This is it. My last week in Australia,” I repeated this idea in my head over and over again as I looked out of the window and tried to see the city of Melbourne while my plane approached the airport.

It was so surreal to think that in only a week I would be a quarter of the way through my fellowship year and I would be on a plane leaving for my next adventure in London.

At the same time, I was excited for my last week in Australia. I was adventuring out to a new state and spending time with people who I have never met before. I knew that even though I only had a week in Melbourne, there would be so much to see, so many people to meet, so many memories to make, and so much to learn!

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Certainly, Melbourne didn’t disappoint.

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I woke up early every day to start my adventure in the Children’s Court of Victoria (CCV), in the heart of the Central Business District of Melbourne.

After wandering around and getting lost (as always) I found my way to the building with time to spare on my first day.

After walking aimlessly around the building I met with a Children’s Court Magistrate who welcomed me to the court. She was my main mentor and form of support during my time in the Children’s Court of Victoria and I cannot express how thankful I am for how she took the time to talk to me and to help me learn so much in a very short amount of time.

Thanks to her help I had an incredible week attending different types of courts and mediation processes and shadowing Children’s Court Magistrates, Children’s Court Registrars, Children’s Court Conciliators, and staff from the Children’s Court clinic.

My time spent in the CCV was incredibly busy, but unforgettable. I learned so much about how the state of Victoria approaches helping children who have experienced abuse or trauma.

I learned about the unique structure of Victoria’s Children Court. The court was in a large building with unique architecture of high ceilings, warm light wood paneling, and a lot of glass and windows.

I was told by court staff while on my tour of the building that this was intentional to appeal to children. It was also interesting to see that the Children’s Court building was divided physically into approximate halves, where the left side of the building was dedicated to criminal matters and the right side was dedicated to family matters.

For me, this separation meant a lot of running back and forth as I shadowed Magistrates in several different matters including: child protection cases, sexual abuse protection cases, youth probation and bail hearings, and family violence cases. At first I found it odd that the Children’s Court would have distinctly separate areas for criminal and family matters. However, as I started to piece together the history of the Children’s Court and the history of how the state and the law approached helping children through criminal and family matters, the distinct separation of the two types of cases seemed appropriate.

I heard stories about how children in need of protection and care were often treated like child criminals, where they were housed in juvenile detention facilities and even had “neglected child” or “ward of the state” noted on their criminal record. As one can imagine, this created a real stigma for children who were in need of care by the state and so the court sought to make these areas of law physically distinct to help support the separation.

I also learned that the court was organized differently than in New South Whales, since there were distinct day lists for certain types of cases.

The Children’s Court of Victoria (CCV) had separate list days for criminal cases involving sex offenses perpetrated by children, care and protection cases involving child sexual abuse, and family violence intervention orders (protection from abuse orders). I really liked that the court was structured in this way and that the CCV heard all cases of family violence intervention orders that either involved children as persons in need of protection and/or had children as perpetrators of family violence.

From my experience in different courts, I think that having judges and magistrates that specialize in matters involving children as well as having a separate court and facility dedicated to matters involving children are true strengths of the justice system in Australia. I believe that this helps to provide the individualized, specialized, coordinated, and intense forms of state and legal intervention that children and families deserve.

I also learned how the power dynamics and politics of different organizations can distract organizations from their focus of doing all that they can to help children in need. Thanks to my honest and open mentors I learned about how the Department of Human Services (DHS-the child protection government agency) has possibly lost sight of their mission to help children in need as they try to monopolize the power and funding of government programs.

I heard how DHS has been at odds with the independent Children’s Court Clinic and have struggled over the years to try to disband it and/or take control of it. The clinic has been organized and directed by an incredible woman who has spent most of her life defending, improving, and developing the clinic into what it is today. My time in the clinic showed that the independence of the clinic is essential to maintaining the individualized and intense analyses and treatment approaches that truly make a difference in helping children and families.

Similarly, I was told that the DHS has recently made an attempt at disbanding the Children’s Court altogether as they sought to establish a panel of their own members to resolve contested child protection matters.

This idea absolutely shocked me as I do not see how that would allow for the child protection process to have any form of “justice” and accountability.

I was also disappointed to discover that because of funding issues and because of a belief that the Department of Human Services is capable of making decisions in every child’s best interest, every child does not have a legal representative automatically appointed in child protection cases. Following the concept that children above the age of ten are able to hold informed opinions about their needs and situations, only children above the age of ten in the state of Victoria have legal representatives automatically appointed. Furthermore, these attorneys advocate not for the child’s best interests, but the direct wishes that the child expresses.

As a political and legal advocate for children and as someone who has seen firsthand how government child protection agencies can fail to appropriately respond to child protection concerns, this approach really troubled me! I strongly believe that EVERY child of EVERY age should have some sort of INDEPENDENT legal representation.

Despite these potentially negative aspects of the CCV, I was also blown away by the numerous strengths of the system including the development of court processes that begin to progress away from a formalized, legalistic, and “hard” approach of implementing law.

I had the unbelievable opportunity of shadowing and learning from a system that provides a more individualized legal approach as I spent a day in both Koori Court and the Family Drug Treatment Court.

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The Koori Children’s Court is a court for children who identify as aboriginal and have either pled guilty or have been found guilty of committing a criminal offense. It is located in a special courtroom in the Children’s Court, is decorated with aboriginal art and the aboriginal flags, and has been cleansed repeatedly by smoking rituals by aboriginal healers. Through this court, the children have the opportunity to discuss their cases as they sit at a round conference table with support persons, the Magistrate, two aboriginal elders from the Koori community, and court officers. Watching this process was incredible! I was able to witness several cases proceed through Koori court and watch as the Magistrate and aboriginal community elders took a discussion based approach to helping these convicted offenders. The process was a dialogue where family members, friends, and the convicted person talked about the offenses, discussed plans for improvement and prevention of further criminal acts, and most importantly had the opportunity to tell their stories. In response, the aboriginal elders spoke about the issues that the offender faced in his/her life, often would explain how these offenses brought shame to the family and the aboriginal community, and ultimately the elders provided advice and support. After further discussion, different court services offered plans to help prevent the offender from reoffending and the Magistrate then made a formal sentence for the offenses.

The Family Drug Treatment Court is a court under the Children’s Court of Victoria and is currently the only one in existence in Australia. This court is modeled after the US Family Drug courts and is an opportunity for parents involved in child protection matters to work on their substance abuse issues with a court program of intense intervention and support. Ultimately, this court program is designed as a substance abuse treatment program whereby parents are subjected to several drug tests throughout the four stage process starting with three scheduled drug tests per week in the first stage. Throughout the different stages, parents are also supported with weekly conservations and check-ins by the Magistrate running the court as well as referrals to many different services that help address all of the issues that concern the child protection agency. Through these processes the court, the law, the people, and the state are ultimately working together to help children and families in need by trying to directly include the families, their support systems, and their culture in the process.

I believe that the aboriginal Koori Court provides the opportunity to help mend the relationship between the state and the aboriginal community, pay homage to an offender’s culture, approach the offender in a way that helps build cultural and civil awareness, understand the causes of the offending, and work toward building supports and plans to help prevent reoffending. I believe that the Family Drug Treatment court provides the opportunity for families to work with the child protection system, identify the many issues involved in child protection cases, help parents receive intense intervention to address the complex issues placing children at risk, help families receive the support needed to overcome these issues, inspire parents to make the necessary changes, and ultimately establish a clear plan and path for parents to own their recovery and work toward family reunification.

Seeing these processes in action was inspiring!

I believe that each case, every child, and every family deserves an individualized and intense form of state intervention like I witnessed in these two court processes.

As you can see, my time in Melbourne was certainly unforgettable.

Not only did I learn so much about my project, but I also had the privilege of getting to know several amazing people.

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I spent my first afternoon at court getting to know Elisa who treated me to a night in the city with wonderful conversation, great cider, a lovely “Mexican” dinner, and appetizers at a rooftop Melbourne eatery.

I had the privilege of staying with a wonderfully kind, supportive, and generous family.

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Anna, Claude, Adrian, Melissa, Mark, Ben, and beautiful baby Bella made me feel at home right away. From the first moment I met them, they welcomed me into their family.

I have found a big sister and an incredible role model in Melissa. I really appreciated getting to know such a strong woman. I will always look back on my experiences in Melbourne and remember the day I spent out with her family.

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We explored the beaches around Melbourne, visited Luna Park, ate amazing fish ‘n’ chips, had incredible Italian pastries, and spent a wonderful day getting to know each other.

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I also really enjoyed my time getting to know Anna. I spent most of my time in Melbourne with her and cannot thank her enough for everything that she has done for me.

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Anna took me all around Melbourne and enthusiastically helped me to experience as much of the city as I could during my short time there. She treated me to a famous bakery/café, walks along the river, a walk around a famous Italian street, going around the famous Crown Casino, walking over a bridge with tons of locks on it, a cathedral, a touristy experience going to the top of the Eureka Tower and experiencing “The Edge”, shopping, walking around the city, a final “American” meal at a TGI Fridays, and incredible home cooked meals.

As I prepared for the next part of my journey, it was very difficult to leave my new family in Melbourne. I feel so appreciative and thankful for everything that they have done for me.

Melbourne was a whirlwind of incredible experiences and opportunities.

Although I wish I had longer with both my new family and exploring everything that Melbourne has to offer, it was time for me to start the next part of my journey in a different part of the world.

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As I look back on my incredible last week in Australia, I am reminded that I am very fortunate to have this once in a lifetime opportunity. This has been and will continue to be a truly special journey as I learn more than I could ever imagine, spend time doing things that I love, form lifelong mentorships and relationships, and embrace everything that not only the world has to offer me but also everything that I have to offer the world.

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