The numbers are in – and they’re worse than ever
Thursday 8 February 2017
Yet as damning as this statistic may be, there’s no excuse to be shocked: the rate of Aboriginal children in care has been sharply increasing for many years now. It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
“Since the National Apology almost 10 years ago, the rate of children placed into out-of-home care has increased across the board,” said Tim Ireland, AbSec CEO.
“Here in NSW, the rate of Aboriginal kids removed from their parents has increased 49% since the Apology. That’s almost five times the increase for non-Aboriginal children.
“There’s just no comparison. This isn’t a gap – it’s a gulf. And it’s growing.”
The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services is published each year with a wide sample of information from all jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth Government as well as states and territories.
Figures released on child protection echo the findings of the Family Matters Report published late last year, which states “the rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed from their families is an escalating national crisis”. (AbSec is a member of the Family Matters campaign.)
“It’s clear that we’re heading in completely the wrong direction,” Mr Ireland said.
“The separation of thousands of our children from their families is heartbreaking, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. We’ve all known for at least the last 20 years since Bringing Them Home that self-determination is the cornerstone of an effective Aboriginal child and family system, and yet every year governments seem to think they alone can solve these challenges.
“The ongoing failure to devolve decision making to Aboriginal communities is reflected in the worsening numbers each year, but we aren’t talking about numbers; these are our kids. It’s time Aboriginal people had a greater say in how this system works for our children and families.”
AbSec is clear on the changes that need to be made, which are reflected in policies submitted to the NSW Government including Our families, our way: Strengthening families so their children can thrive.
“For years now, we’ve been calling for greater investment in early intervention services, to be delivered through Aboriginal community-controlled organisations; organisations that are embedded within and accountable to their communities. We need to provide support from the start of a child’s life, and work with parents and families rather than against them.”
The Productivity Commission Report shines light on a number of areas, not just child protection. Other findings included that 24% of state-owned Indigenous housing is over-crowded nationally, and 27.6% of people in Australian prisons are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.
“Ideally we would like to see a holistic service system where Aboriginal families can find a number of services in one place,” Mr Ireland said.
“We’d stop looking at issues like parenting, housing and justice as if they’re separate issues, and realise that disadvantage in one area affects all those other outcomes too.”
The full Report on Government Services is available on the Productivity Commission website.
A closer look at the statistics
With figures spanning several years, eight states and territories, and various different methods of calculating data, making sense of the report is no easy task.
The Productivity Commission’s job isn’t to make conclusions or recommendations, but to compile and present the information.
That leaves it to news agencies and organisations like us to provide commentary. Here are a few of the themes we found when we went through the report:
In NSW, the rate of non-Aboriginal children in out-of-home care rose from 6.1 in every 1,000 children (in 2007–08) to 6.7 kids in every 1,000 (in 2016–17). That’s an increase of 9.8%.
In the same period, for Aboriginal children, we saw a rise from 48.8 in every 1,000 kids in out-of-home care, to a huge 72.8 kids per 1,000. That’s an increase of 49.2%.
That means while the number of Aboriginal children in care is increasing, so too is their over-representation in the system. The rate of Aboriginal children in care has increased at almost five times the rate of their non-Aboriginal peers.
Just last year, Aboriginal kids in NSW were 10 times more likely to find themselves in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children. This year, they’re closer to 11 times more likely. That’s just one of many statistics that shows not only do we have a problem, but it’s getting worse by the day.
The more drastic the measure, the more we’re over-represented
There are several different stages in the child protection system spanning from early supports and voluntary engagement with services through to more intensive and intrusive interventions.
The first stage is notification: that’s when a government department such as NSW Family and Community Services (FACS) receives a report that a child might be at risk. In subsequent stages, the report is investigated, family support services may be provided, an interim care order might be issued, and finally the child may be placed into out-of-home care.
In all states and territories, the over-representation of Aboriginal children at the final stage of out-of-home care is greater than their over-representation in earlier stages of the system. For most states including NSW, the disproportionality of Aboriginal kids compared to non-Indigenous kids increases gradually as intervention becomes more intrusive in families.
This could lead us to any of three conclusions:
- Intervention and support services are not as effective for Aboriginal families as for non-Aboriginal families;
- Intervention and support services aren’t being provided to Aboriginal families in the first place; and/or
- The threshold used by child protective services for removing Aboriginal children from their families is simply lower than that used for non-Indigenous children.
Any one of these conclusions indicates a serious government failing.
Governments are investing in removals, rather than supporting families and preventing harm to children
To tackle the rising rates of kids removed from their families, we need to solve the problem at the start. This means providing effective intervention services for parents and families.
While the overall amount of money spent on child protection is increasing both in NSW and Australia, when we look a little closer, we see that it’s being spent on the pointy end of the system: in out-of-home care. A decreasing proportion of funding is going to family support programs, which can help children remain safe at home with their parents, and ideally reduce the need for this expensive and destructive out-of-home care system.
In NSW, 61.3% of child protection expenditure is going to out-of-home care. Only 16.1% is going to family support. (The rest goes to assessment, court work and other interventions.) And while the proportion spent on out-of-home care has increased year on year since 2012, the proportion spent on family support has steadily decreased.
Nationwide at a glance
- At mid 2017, 47,915 children were in out-of-home care. 17,664 or 37% of these children were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
- National expenditure on child protection services increased 8.5% over the past financial year, and most of this spending (59.5%) was on out-of-home care.
Over the past 10 years:
- The rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed from their families has increased by 80% (from 32.7 per 1,000 to 58.7 per 1,000).
- The number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care has almost doubled, from 9,070 to 17,664.
- The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their parents and placed according to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle hierarchy of placement decreased from 74% to 67.6%.
NSW at a glance
- Of 93,800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in NSW, a total of 6,824 were in out-of-home care at 30 June 2017. This figure excludes children on guardianship orders, who are not considered to be in out-of-home care despite being removed from their family by FACS and placed elsewhere by a court order
- Over the last 10 years the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care has increased by 58% (from 4,316 to 6 824 – noting that the current figure does not include those placed on guardianship orders).
- The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children placed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander relatives/kin has dropped from 58.5% to 40.6%.
- The number of Aboriginal children spending more than five years in continuous out-of-home care has increased by 129% (from 1,362 to 3,124). For the same measure, non-Indigenous children increased by 52% (from 3,403 to 5,181).
- Only 83.6% of Aboriginal children have a documented and approved case plan to ensure their ongoing needs are met, including their developmental needs, cultural wellbeing and education. There is no mechanism for Aboriginal oversight of cultural care plans, so we have no way of assessing their quality or thoroughness of implementation.