Child protection intervention in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families across the country is at crisis point.
Women are telling me it’s like another stolen generation and as I travel across Australia hearing their stories, it certainly does feel that way.
As the 2018 Family Matters report reveals, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up just over 36 per cent of all children living in out-of-home care across the country.
Our children are 10.1 times more likely to be taken away from their families than other Australian children.
It really is hard to believe these figures, 10 years after the national apology to the Stolen Generations.
Disturbingly, if we fail to change the course, it’s predicted that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will more than triple over the next 20 years.
This is a national tragedy.
The Family Matters report, by SNAICC – National Voice for our Children, the University of Melbourne and Griffith University includes important recommendations to turn the tide on these figures.
Firstly, it calls for a national comprehensive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Strategy.
Over the past year, I have been travelling with my team at the Australian Human Rights Commission as part of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani, (Women’s Voices) project.
We have listened to more than 2,000 women and girls in urban and remote locations and the issue of child protection has consistently been raised.
Women are sharing their heartache and worries about the huge numbers of our children being taken away from their families and placed in out of home care.
They’ve shared their fears about families being broken apart and about not knowing where their children are.
One of their greatest fears is about children being disconnected from their culture and country.
The figures show that they have every right to be worried, as fewer than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their families have been placed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers.
We need to find ways that children can stay connected to their culture, identity and community, rather than being taken away and cut off from the important things that may be able to provide their ongoing strength and identity throughout their lives.
The system as it is right now, is disempowering our women and families, and it is stopping us from engaging and delivering solutions.
Children deserve to grow up in safe, happy and healthy homes. But we need to support and strengthen families and communities to make sure that happens.
As recommended in the Family Matters report, we need increased investment in evidence based and culturally supportive prevention and early intervention services.
The report finds that most funding is used to react to problems, rather than solve them.
In 2016-17, only 17% of overall child protection funding was invested in support services for children and their families, while 83% was invested in child protection services.
As the report highlights, several states have implemented some positive measures.
Victoria and Queensland have set up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led bodies for oversight of reform agendas that have been designed with significant participation of our communities.
They have also increased investment in community-controlled organisations to deliver culturally safe service responses.
In the Northern Territory, as a result of Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children, a range of commitments have been made.
And in Western Australia, there’s new funding for community-controlled early intervention.
I am however, deeply concerned about recent changes to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment Bill in New South Wales.
The changes are likely to have a significant impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are severely over-represented in the care and protection system.
We must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
We know that past policies of removal of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children from their families have had devastating long-term effects.
The Bringing them Home report in 1997 recommended that adoption should be an option of last resort. This and other inquiries have also emphasised the importance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle.
This recognises the importance of enhancing and maintaining the connections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to their family, community and culture, as well as the vital role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities participating in decisions about the safety and wellbeing of their children.
Closing the Gap
At the Council of Australian Government’s meeting, state and territory leaders are expected to consider the Refreshed Closing the Gap Strategy.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have consistently called for new targets to address the over-representation in out-of-home care and to improve early developmental outcomes for children.
As Co-Chair of the Close the Gap campaign, I am hoping a new target is included in the Refreshed Strategy and I urge COAG leaders to seriously consider this important report and its recommendations.
It is vital that peak body organisations like SNAICC are genuinely involved in designing, delivering and evaluating child protection policies and services.
They are in the best position to understand Indigenous communities and the strategies needed to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children as well as build capacity within families.
To dramatically reverse the rate of children in out of home care, we need to be part of the solutions.
We must do this together.
It is simple, nothing about us, no decisions to be made that affect us, without us.