MORE childcare and protection cases will be resolved through mediation and conferences, sparing vulnerable children and families the trauma of court hearings, the state government will announce today.Alternative dispute resolutions will be introduced into the Children’s Court so families and children can be involved in decisions that affect them.The initiatives follow recommendations from the special commission of inquiry into child protection services conducted by the former NSW Supreme Court judge James Wood in 2008.The initiatives will promote alternatives to court hearings at every step of the process, including family group conferencing, dispute resolution conferences and Legal Aid external child protection. Five new children’s registrars will be appointed to four courts: Broadmeadow, in Newcastle; Wagga Wagga; Lismore; Parramatta.Associate Professor Judy Cashmore, who was part of an expert working party into alternative dispute resolutions said: ”It’s really tough on families when a child is going to be removed from them, and if it can be done where they feel they are not being blamed or ostracised it does make a difference.”The aim is to get the family engaged in the process and not get their back up because someone’s imposing something on them that’s completely unfair or unreasonable.”These practices are actually consistent with a move pretty much across the Western world to work towards mediation both with family courts and across the board, trying to avoid getting to the court process, A, because it’s adversarial and difficult for the people involved and, B, because it’s expensive.”The NSW Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, said the initiatives would empower children and families, leading to better informed outcomes accepted by all parties.The family group conferencing will be run by an independent facilitator, allowing families, relatives and community elders to plan together for child protection concerns before a case is considered for court.The Community Services Minister, Linda Burney, said: “Family group conferencing originated in New Zealand and variations of the model are operating in most Australian states and territories, with results showing that many child protection issues are being resolved without the need to go to court.”The Legal Aid external child protection pilot will begin in Bidura Children’s Court, in Glebe, with 100 cases initially, the family law director of Legal Aid NSW, Kylie Beckhouse said.A neutral mediator would facilitate discussions between Community Services, parents or guardians, lawyers and other parties, Ms Beckhouse said.”Particularly with care and protection issues, you’re looking at people who are socially and economically disadvantaged; they might have impairments, like an addiction, and are challenging people to work with,” she said.The dispute resolution conference is an opportunity for parties to agree on an action to be taken and allow for family participation.Both pilot programs will begin in the second half of the year.
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