This website is for use by legal professionals (lawyers and law practices) only. If the information is used incorrectly, you could risk losing money or your legal rights. If you are a member of the public looking for free advice about your legal problems please visit legalaid.vic.gov.au, or contact our Legal Help advice line on 1300 792 387, Monday to Friday from 8 am to 6 pm. 

If you decide to use or rely on the information or make decisions based on the information in this website (which VLA does not recommend) VLA is not liable to you or any third party in any way for any loss, damage, costs or expenses you or they may suffer or incur as a result.

How DHHS investigates

Information about which kinds of professionals must make reports if they suspect that a child is being sexually or physically abused.

When a report is made to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) they have wide powers to investigate. A report is sometimes called a notification or protective intervention report.

Intake phase

The intake phase is the first step in the process for new reports to DHHS. The procedure is the same for new allegations of reports that have already been made.

Reports and requests for assessment may also come from interstate or from New Zealand or overseas statutory bodies such as the Hague convention.

Investigation phase

Under s. 205 Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 DHHS has broad powers to 'investigate the subject matter of a report in a way that will be in the best interests of the child'. During this phase DHHS will:

  • assess whether the child has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm and is in need of protection using the grounds for intervention (See ss. 162(1)(a)–(f) and (2)—Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic))

  • ensure the immediate safety of the child and consider any siblings who are not part of the initial report

  • see the child as soon as possible during the investigation and no longer than 14 days after getting the report (internal policy only, not a legislative requirement)

  • look at any previous reports to assess the level of cumulative harm

  • decide whether the report of harm to the child is substantiated and what further intervention is required to protect the child from harm and promote the child's safety, stability and development

  • begin a protection application before the Children’s Court if the alleged harm is substantiated and DHHS assesses that there is significant risk of harm and the child needs protection

  • provide information, advice and referral assistance to the child and family if, after the investigation, the report has not been substantiated but where there are significant concerns for the wellbeing of the child which require the support of a community service

  • close all cases where concerns for the child are not substantiated and there are no significant concerns for the child’s wellbeing, and

  • make a report detailing the investigation and the results.

Note: If physical or sexual abuse has been alleged, DHHS must report this to the police.

Disclosure of information

When investigating a report, DHHS:

  • must tell the child and their parents that any information they give may be used to make a protection application
  • must not disclose any information arising from the investigation to anyone except to:
    • a court
    • the child
    • the child’s parents
    • the Secretary
    • Chief Commissioner of police
    • a person in connection with a review by VCAT, or
    • a person to whom the protective intervener is authorised by the Secretary to disclose the information.

See s. 205—Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic) ('the Act') (link below)

Collecting evidence

DHHS may interview family members, school staff, the police, neighbours and friends, counsellors or hospital staff. They have very broad powers.

Parents should be warned that DHHS keeps records of everything they say. Extensive case notes are recorded during the investigation. These notes form the basis of the reports that are filed with the court. There is no legal remedy for correcting or removing information that is inaccurate, although the parties may raise these inaccuracies at any court hearings that eventuate. It has become common for parties to make a notation on the court file about information that they allege is accurate.

Interviewing the child

Although they have the power to interview a child without getting their parent's permission, in practice DHHS will let parents know that they want to interview the child and will ask permission where this is in the best interests of a child. They will make this decision based on the severity of the harm, the parent's capacity to protect the child, the role of the 'non-offending' parent.

They will also factor in how likely they believe it will be that the parents will compromise an investigation if the parents are informed before they make contact with the child. Finally they must consider whether this process may interfere with or compromise any criminal police investigation.

If they decide not to inform the parents, DHHS will generally contact the school and arrange for an interview at school. The school will provide an adult support person to sit in on the interview unless the child asks for someone else.

Generally they will let the parent know that the interview has taken place on the same day, after the interview has taken place.

Taking photos

A parent can object to photos of a private nature being taken, for example, photos of inside their home or those which identify members of the family. However, if they do not expressly object, DHHS may take the photos and use them as evidence.

Entering the home

There is nothing in the Act to prohibit DHHS from entering the home without a warrant or an order of the Court (such as a temporary assessment order). It is DHHS policy to inform parents before they enter the home that they are legally obliged to investigate a protective intervention report and that any information or observations that they make will be recorded and could be used in court later. Parents can ask to see ID.

If the parent refuses entry, DHHS may apply to court for an emergency care warrant, which would allow them to enter and apprehend the child or a temporary assessment order. This order would empower DHHS to enter and make an assessment about the risk before they apply for a protection application.

See ss. 228–239—Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic) (link below)

More information

Legislation

Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic)

  • s. 162—when is a child in need of protection?
  • s. 181—a protective intervener is Secretary of DHHS or Victoria police
  • s. 205—investigation by a protective intervener
  • s. 206—record of the investigation
  • s. 228—application for temporary assessment order by notice
  • s. 229—application for temporary assessment order without notice
  • s. 230—what the court is to consider
  • s. 231—temporary assessment order
  • s. 232—what a temporary assessment order allows
  • s. 236—how long the temporary assessment order lasts
  • s. 239—appeal against a temporary assessment order

See Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic)(opens in a new window)

Health Services Act 1988 (Vic)

  • s. 141—confidentiality

See Health Services Act 1988 (Vic)(opens in a new window)

Mental Health Act 2014 (Vic)

  • s. 140—confidentiality obligations applying in respect of information from clinical practice audit or clinical review

See Mental Health Act 2014 (Vic)(opens in a new window)

Updated