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Child protection matters

This fact sheet explains what the law says about protecting children, making sure they are healthy and safe from harm.

To print, email, or download a copy of this fact sheet, use the icons at the top of the page. For more information, call the Legal Aid Helpline on 1800 019 343.

What is child protection law?

Child protection law is about protecting children. It’s about making sure that children are healthy and safe from harm.

How does child protection law work?

In the Northern Territory, Territory Families has the job of making sure that children are safe. Territory Families have to follow the NT law in everything they do.

The law says that any adult in the Northern Territory must report to Territory Families or the police where they believe that a child has suffered or is suffering from bad treatment. This includes physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. This is called ‘mandatory reporting’.

The people who are most likely to report child abuse are doctors, teachers, school workers, police, neighbours or other family members. The name of the person reporting to Territory Families must be kept strictly secret by Territory Families, and by the court if the court becomes involved.

We all need to look after our children. We should all help and support people looking after children. If people don’t treat their children properly, then you should report it. On the other hand, if you think Territory Families are taking children away and it’s not right, tell the parents to contact a lawyer to get legal advice.

How can legal services help with a Territory Families matter?

You don’t have to wait until a matter is in court to get legal help. Legal services can give you independent advice and information about legal processes and explain what is happening with your case. They can also help you by talking to Territory Families or writing to Territory Families to give your side of the story. What you tell your lawyer is confidential (secret).

If your matter does go to court, legal services can go to court for you and help you to have a say about your child. A lawyer can also give you advice if you don’t think Territory Families has done the right thing or has treated you or your child badly.

Some people think that Territory Families just comes in and takes children—what does Territory Families actually do?

All reports made to Territory Families should be assessed. There are times when they decide everything is OK. Other times, Territory Families might speak to the parents or guardians where the children are living and talk about ways of helping them to look after the children. Sometimes Territory Families might be so worried about the children that they decide that children should be removed for their own protection.

Sometimes, a child will be taken away for a short time, so Territory Families can investigate. Other times, Territory Families will apply to the court to keep a child in care for a longer time—anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. If the matter is really serious then a child may be in care until they are 18.

Agreements with Territory Families

In some cases, Territory Families workers will see if the parents will agree for the children to go into care for a short period of time. This might be because the parents have some problems or stress that they need to sort out, and they are having trouble caring for the children at the same time. Territory Families might see if the parents will sign an agreement. If Territory Families talk to you about signing an agreement it is best to talk to a lawyer before you sign anything. You should never sign anything if you don’t understand what it says.

If Territory Families apply to the court for an order about my children, what can I do?

If Territory Families apply to the court for an order about your children you should get advice from a lawyer as soon as possible. Territory Families will need to prove to the court that your children are in need of care. Territory Families will need to show the court a case plan about how your children are going to be looked after while they are in care. You can talk to Territory Families about this plan and your lawyer can help you to try to reach an agreement with Territory Families for you to see your children as often as possible while they don’t live with you. Territory Families might put in the plan that you need to go to courses such as parenting classes, or drug and alcohol counselling, before the children will be able to live with you again.

What should I do if I get papers from Territory Families?

If you get given any papers from Territory Families you should talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. There are a number of different
legal services that can help. There is a list of these services at the end of the fact sheet.

What about a parent’s rights to keep their children?

Parents’ rights come after the rights of children. This is because a child’s right to a safe home is seen as the most important thing. But a parent has a right to be heard and you should get legal advice about this so that you can make sure someone knows your side of the story.

Aboriginal customs about bringing up children can be very different to western cultural ways—does Territory Families treat Aboriginal children differently?

There are special provisions in the law for Aboriginal children. The Aboriginal Child Placement Principal recognises the importance of keeping Aboriginal children with their family and for Aboriginal children to grow up safe and knowing their culture. This means that Territory Families must try to make sure the child lives with their extended family.

Any carer, including family members, has to be assessed by Territory Families to make sure they are suitable. The assessment makes sure that the person offering to look after the child, their home, and other people who live or visit the home will care for and protect the child.

If the extended family can’t have a child live with them, what about other families from the same country?

The law recognises the importance of a child retaining a strong link with his or her culture. Territory Families has to try to find a placement for a child with people from that child’s own country.

Sometimes family members are involved in bringing up children—what can they do if a child is removed from a parent’s care?

The involvement of key people in a child’s life is important. For example, if there is an Aunty or Grandmother who is an important person in a child’s life or has been looking after the children, Territory Families should try to keep them involved.

If Territory Families have taken my children, can I go to the Family Court or Federal Magistrates Court to get them back?

The court that makes orders about protecting children is part of the local court called the Family Matters Court. If the Family Matters Court has made orders taking away children, the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court will not be able to make any orders. If there are already family law orders in place then they will be suspended for the time that the Territory Families orders are in place. If you are not sure whether there are any orders about your children, you should get a lawyer to check this for you.

Can I get the court to change or remove the order?

If the Family Matters Court has made an order taking away your children then you can go to that court to try to get the order changed or removed. You will need to show the court that things have changed since the order was made and that your children will be safe and looked after if they live with you. You should speak to a lawyer about this.

How do I get help from a legal service?

Legal services across the Northern Territory that can help with a Territory Families problem:

NT Legal Aid Commission has offices in Darwin, Palmerston, Katherine, Tennant Creek, and Alice Springs. Free call 1800 019 343

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency has offices in Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek, and Alice Springs. Call 1800 898 251 (Darwin), 1800 897 728 (Katherine), 08 8962 1332 (Tennant Creek), or 1800 636 079 (Alice Springs).

North Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Service has offices in Darwin and Katherine, and visits Wadeye, Kunbarllanjnja, Angurugu, Nhulunbuy, Yirrkala, Ski Beach, Nguiu, Pirlangimpi and Milikapiti. Call 1800 041 998 (Darwin) or 08 8972 3200 (Katherine).

Top End Women’s Legal Service has an office in Darwin. Free call 1800 234 441.

Katherine Women’s Information Legal Service has an office in Katherine. Free call 1800 620 108.

Central Australian Women’s Legal Service has an office in Alice Springs and visits Tennant Creek. Free call 1800 684 055.


The information in this fact sheet is current as at May 2018. This content is provided as an information source only and is not legal advice. It is correct at the time of publication, but laws change. If you have a legal problem you should seek advice from a lawyer.

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