A spokeswoman for the department said the separation order was an “incredibly difficult situation”, but one necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, parents and carers.
“Contact between children and their families is vitally important, and we will work with carers to ensure contact continues through video conferencing, telephone or other means during this time.”
Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan stressed the situation was temporary.
“I understand how important face-to-face contact is for parents and their children and I know how incredibly difficult this situation must be for families, but we also need to do everything we can to protect our children, their parents and carers from coronavirus.”
Child protection workers will still investigate the most critical allegations of child abuse and neglect, but must limit the time of their visits and maintain strict social distancing.
In the Victorian Supreme Court on Friday, Justice John Dixon made orders giving a mother custody of her 17-month-old daughter, in part because of his “grave reservations” about the department’s determination to maintain the mother and daughter’s relationship through video calls.
The department had sought to remove the toddler from her mother’s care, arguing she could not provide a safe home for the child.
“I have no confidence that meaningful contact can occur by any video medium between a mother and a 17-month-old baby,” Justice Dixon said.
Victoria’s Commissioner for Children and Young People Liana Buchanan said she was concerned restrictions on case worker movements could result in children falling through the cracks.
“Kids who are at risk, just won’t be visible,” she said.
“My worst fear is that I will, in six months time, find that I have to conduct a child death inquiry into a situation where a child has died because they haven’t had the assessment and response they needed due to the COVID-19 situation.”
Laws introduced four years ago in Victoria give parents two years to get their act together or lose custody of their children for good.
Family lawyer Fleur Ward said many of her firm’s clients had children in foster care, and would previously have had regular supervised contact with their children.
“If you break the bond altogether, especially for babies and young kids, it’ll never come back,” she said.
Ms Ward said that many support services were closed, and she was concerned the two-year limit was unsustainable. “Given the shutdown of contact and service provisions (counselling, psychologists, clinical facilities for the provision of drug screens) the timeframe of two years, which the court cannot alter in any way, is also utterly unacceptable.”
Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare chief executive Deb Tsorbaris said the surveillance system to protect children was breaking down as fewer children attended school, neighbours stayed indoors, maternal health nurse appointments were made by phone and extended family contact ceased.
“There’s not as many eyes on kids,” she said. “People are really concerned about themselves at the moment.”
Ms Tsorbaris said this would lead to a decrease in notifications to child protection just as an increase in violence against children was likely occurring.
“This is the lull before the storm,” she said.
Bianca Hall is a senior reporter for The Age. She has previously worked in the Canberra bureau as immigration correspondent, Sunday political correspondent and deputy editor.
Chloe Booker is a reporter at The Age.