Grandparents are rescuing our children
A GENERATION of children lost in the system is being raised by grandparents because their parents are unfit to look after them.
The state's top Children's Court judge, Mark Marien, said society should thank God for grandparents, who have become the backbone of the state's care system.
"The court is indebted to them," Judge Marien said yesterday. "They put themselves forward because it is in the best interests of the child."
The growth has led NSW Community Services to start to keep separate figures for grandparents.
There are now 3200 children and young people - almost one quarter of all those in out-of-home care - being looked after by their grandparents, step-grandparents and even great-grandparents.
"They are decent people trying to sort out the mess the families get themselves into," Judge Marien said in his first interview since taking over six months ago as Children's Court president.
He said that if the court had to remove a child from its parents, the best place for them was with a family member.
"Often it is the case that the grandparents will put themselves forward," the former District Court judge said.
They step in because of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, mental health problems or because the parents are in jail, Judge Marien said. "A lot of grandparents regard it as a responsibility that they have," he said.
In a revolution for children's justice, Judge Marien is calling for the court to be given its own status separate from the Local Courts. He wants permanent, specialised magistrates instead of those on loan from the local courts for three-year stints.
There are now 15 Children's Court magistrates, after two fresh appointments by the NSW Government.
Judge Marien plans to send magistrates out on circuit to sit on childcare cases around the state for the first time.
Care cases involving NSW Community Services and juvenile criminal cases are currently heard outside Sydney by local court magistrates, with the Children's Court called on to help on an ad hoc basis only if the court lists become too long.
"The best way to serve the children of NSW is to have specialist children's magistrates who have a background and an interest in this kind of work," Judge Marien said.
"(It would) reflect the specialist nature of the court and the importance of the decisions the court makes."
As well as more than 14,000 care cases a year - compared with only 6660 ten years ago - the court hears serious criminal cases that would see an adult dealt with in the Supreme Court and which would attract jail sentences of 20 years.
Judge Marien is the first judge to be appointed head of the Children's Court, a position traditionally filled by a magistrate, following recommendations by former judge James Wood in his inquiry into the state's crumbling child protection services last year.
Mr Wood identified grandparents as one of the fastest-growing areas of out-of-home care.
The court's budget of $6.68 million includes an extra $2 million a year to implement recommendations by the Wood inquiry, including the two new magistrates and four extra registrars.
Attorney-General John Hatzistergos has organised discussion about Judge Marien's suggestions.