**WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this article may contain images of deceased persons **
To highlight the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system – 20 years after the release of the Bringing Them Home report – the Family Matters campaign has launched a Week of Action (May 14-19) that includes a national series of community gatherings, talks, rallies and other events.
In the post below, Gerry Moore – Family Matters Co-Chair, CEO of SNAICC – National Voice for our Children and a Yuin man – outlines what action is needed at state and national levels to address this national crisis, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children now make up 35 per cent of all children in out-of-home care.
The call for action includes increasing from 17 to 30 per cent of all State and Territory annual child protection spending on preventative and early intervention focused family support services, an out-of-home care Close the Gap target, and ensuring that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle does what it is intended to do.
Croakey readers may also be interested to read Always was, always will be Koori children, the Taskforce 1000 report by Victoria’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People Andrew Jackomos into the circumstances of 980 Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care in Victoria.
Also at the bottom of the post are some of the powerful and moving tweets shared across Australia with the #IndigenousMums hashtag on Sunday to mark Mothers’ Day, echoing the fantastic #IndigenousDads callout last year. It was coordinated by @IndigenousX, which hosted different Indigenous mums sharing their experiences throughout the day, prompting loving tributes and reminders of the loss, racism, and stigma experienced by so many Indigenous families and communities.
Gerry Moore writes
A national crisis: The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the ground-breaking Bringing Them Home report of the inquiry into the Stolen Generations. When this report was released in 1997, Australia was shocked to learn that, at the time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represented 20 per cent of all children living in out-of-home care.
Twenty years on, and the situation has only gotten worse, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children now representing over 35 per cent of all children in out-of-home care. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are almost 10 times more likely to be removed from their parents and placed in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children across Australia.
Government responses to this ongoing crisis have rarely gone beyond alarm and short-term, reactive interventions that fail to address the causes of over-representation. Policies rarely articulate solutions and implementation fails to provide a holistic response that could decrease over-representation.
Numerous legal and policy frameworks designed to advance safety, and family and cultural connections for children have so far failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as evidenced by the current and escalating rate of over-representation in out-of-home care.
This is a national crisis and one that deserves all-of-Government attention and action. But are they willing to act?
The pathway forward
Driving this agenda forward is the Family Matters campaign, which takes a comprehensive, sustainable and long-term approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child safety and wellbeing. At the core of the campaign are four interrelated building blocks – underpinned by both evidence and ethics – detailing systemic changes needed to achieve its aim of eliminating the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care:
- All families enjoy access to quality, culturally safe, universal and targeted services necessary for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to thrive.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations participate in and have control over decisions that affect their children.
- Law, policy and practice in child and family welfare are culturally safe and responsive.
- Governments and services are accountable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Maintaining connection to culture
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, identity and continuity of identity are centrally important to their wellbeing and resilience in childhood and later in adult life. Removal and placement in out-of-home care severs and disrupts connections to family, community, culture and country that are critical to positive self-identity for children and often occurs without proper and effective efforts to maintain and promote connections. This risks the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and violates their human rights to cultural and family connections.
Overcoming existing disadvantage
We must work towards an approach that addresses the key economic, social and community-level drivers of entry into out-of-home care. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are grossly over-represented in measures of disadvantage that contribute to child protection risks and similarly under-represented in participation in services that could respond and prevent entry into out-of-home care.
This includes over-representation in homelessness, overcrowded housing and unstable housing tenure; experience of poverty and socio-economic disadvantage; and incidence of family violence against women. At the same time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families are less likely than non-Indigenous families to access universal and targeted services that can strengthen and support families, improve safety and wellbeing and reduce the increasing rate of contact with child protection services.
Investment where it is most needed
We must see increased investment in early intervention to support families and prevent children being placed at risk in the first place. Despite Australia-wide endorsement of a public health model for child safety, only 17 per cent of the total current child protection system expenditure of $4.8 billion is spent on preventative and early intervention focused family support services. If we are to have any hope of changing the story, this figure must be increased to at least 30 per cent of all State and Territory annual child protection expenditure.
Extensive research evidence shows that a short-term injection of funds and efforts in prevention and early intervention will lead to enormous long-term savings, not just in child protection, but across a broad range of service systems that respond to the lifelong negative outcomes that result from child neglect, abuse, and removal, such as criminal justice involvement, welfare dependency, drug and alcohol misuse and poor health.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation
Evidence highlights the importance of drawing on the strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and cultures to keep their children safe and well – better outcomes can be achieved through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led solutions.
Further, in line with the right to self-determination, recognised by Australia by its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a right to participate in decisions that affect them.
At present, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, their families, and their communities have very little say in decisions that are made about children’s care and protection. We need representative community organisations to be enabled through roles and resources to participate in decisions, and family and kin themselves to be invited to find solutions where there are concerns for children.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle as a mechanism for change
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle is a key policy measure that can shape culturally respectful and inclusive practice that is attuned to the importance of connections to family, community, culture and country for children. Designed to recognise the importance of safe care within family and culture, the Principle puts forward the best interests of children, enables self-determination in child protection and aims to ensure that actions that caused the Stolen Generations are not repeated.
The Principle’s elements span prevention of entry to out-of-home care, reunification of children with their families, ensuring culturally connected placements, and enabling the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities in child protection decision making.
However, to date across Australia, the Principle has been narrowly conceptualised and poorly implemented. Even on a proxy measure of compliance with the Principle – the placement element – it is clear Australia is failing. In 2016, only 50.9 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were placed with their family, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family, and only 66.2 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were placed with their family, kin or another Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carer.
A simple answer often identified for a lack of compliance with the Principle is that there just aren’t enough Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people able to provide care. This is only a small part of the reality. There also aren’t enough efforts to identify potential carers, to support family reunification, to provide ongoing support for children to connect back to culture, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves to put forward the solutions for providing safe care for children in their own families and communities.
As a first step, we must have improved laws, policies and procedures that support and monitor the comprehensive implementation of the Principle.
Growing political momentum
What is sorely needed is a national target and strategy to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.
There is growing political recognition of, and commitment to, this urgent need, including from State and Territory Children and Families Ministers, the Council of Australian Governments and more broadly from all governments and non-government organisations committed to the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children.
The crisis and need for action has also been highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who on her recent country visit to Australia recommended the establishment of a target on child removal incidence.
Acting before it is too late
Current projections are warning us that the population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will triple in size by 2035, which should be all that is needed to spur immediate action now. What is clearly needed immediately is a national target and strategy to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.
We must see governments and non-government organisations working together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to arrest this negative trajectory and overcome this issue once and for all.
Gerry Moore is the Family Matters Co-Chair and CEO of SNAICC – National Voice for our Children
Touching Twitter tributes to #IndigenousMums
…and to Aunties
On the pain of loss
Impact of racism, ill-health and stigma
But not a day off for everyone