New report warns of an escalating national crisis for Aboriginal children
27 November 2018
The rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being removed from their families is an escalating national crisis.
This is the main finding of the Family Matters Report 2018, an annual collection of data across Australia compiled by Family Matters - the national campaign to keep Aboriginal kids safe and cared for in community. (AbSec is a part of this campaign.)
The report finds that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are now 10.1 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous children. And the rate is projected to triple in the next 20 years if urgent action is not taken.
Fewer than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are placed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers, following a steep decline over the last 10 years. This places Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are removed from their families at serious risk of being permanently disconnected from their families, communities and cultures.
The causes of over-representation
The Family Matters Report 2018 points to a number of issues causing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system. Poverty is one – it was found that 25% of clients accessing homelessness services were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, and most disturbingly, of those clients, one in four was a child under the age of 10.
Family violence was also highlighted in the report, where in 2016–17, emotional abuse, which can include exposure to family violence, was the most common child protection concern for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Another driver of over-representation is intergenerational trauma. Direct descendants of the Stolen Generations are 30% more likely to have poor mental health than other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. All of these factors put our children at greater risk of entering the child protection system.
The situation in NSW
According to the report, progress to address the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child protection system in NSW, as well as to ensure their ongoing connection to community and culture, has stalled in NSW.
Positive steps outlined by NSW Family and Community Services last year – including commitment to more equitable funding in the Targeted Earlier Intervention (TEI) and the implementation of the Aboriginal Industry Development Strategy (IDS) – have not yet been carried forward. And the commitment to transition case management of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care to accredited Aboriginal agencies continues to stall, and has been undermined by Government revisions to program guidelines.
Aboriginal communities are deeply concerned by the NSW Government’s promotion of adoption of Aboriginal children – something the Aboriginal sector and community has strongly opposed. Adoption and other permanent care orders lack safeguards to uphold the rights and best interests of Aboriginal children and young people, including their right to safety, to meaningful connections to family, community and culture, and to ongoing periodic review of their placement and treatment. The approach taken here suggests that little has been learned from past reviews, including the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and Bringing Them Home.
Aboriginal people and organisations in NSW have also come up against a lack of transparency from the NSW Government when it comes to child protection. This makes it impossible for Aboriginal communities to fully participate in the development and implementation of solutions. The Tune Report was only released after sustained advocacy from the sector and other stakeholders, and embarrassingly, NSW was the only jurisdiction that failed to provide data and input to the report by the publication deadline.
More recently, legislative amendments have been rushed through parliament without adequate consultation with Aboriginal communities. These changes will disproportionately impact Aboriginal children and families, and may contribute to more Aboriginal children being severed from their family, community and culture. This reflects a larger lack of engagement and consultation with Aboriginal organisations and communities on the part of the NSW Government and Family and Community Services.
We can only achieve change for Aboriginal children and families when the NSW Government works together with Aboriginal organisations and communities, implementing Aboriginal-led solutions that are targeted to our needs.
The Family Matters Report 2018 is solutions-focused, highlighting the way forward for positive change. We must shift from being reactive to being proactive, invest heavily in solutions, and involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in decision-making about our children.
Governments are only investing 17% of child protection funding in support services for children and their families, which are critical to preventing the situations that lead to child removals. The majority of child protection funding (83%) is spent on child protection services and out-of-home care – reacting to problems once they’ve already occurred. There must be a significant boost in funding of culturally safe preventative and early intervention measures to urgently put a stop to these high rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child removals.
A second priority identified is the need for greater focus on early years services to ensure that our children have the best possible start in life. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander five-year-olds are 2.5 times more likely to be developmentally delayed than non-Indigenous children, yet are accessing early childhood education and care at half the rate of non-Indigenous children. We must facilitate greater access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families to early years services.
The Family Matters Report 2018 also highlights the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander decision-making in child protection. So far only Victoria and Queensland have a statewide program to support Aboriginal families to participate in child protection decisions. Only the same two states have agreed on a comprehensive strategy to improve outcomes for children that is overseen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family-led decision-making in child protection must be rolled out nationwide to ensure the best outcomes for our children.