Opinion by Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, first published by Fairfax.
The recent death of a 10-year-old in the Kimberley is a tragedy and I pass on my condolences to her family at this particularly distressing time.
This tragedy has heightened my conviction that the lives of all of our children in Australia are precious and should be protected at all costs.
Nearly 20 years after the Bringing Them Home Report documented the experiences of the Stolen Generations, the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continues to be a source of great pain for our people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are overrepresented in the child protection systems of every state and territory at unacceptable levels. Our kids are nine times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be subject of a care and protection order or in out-of-home care.
Addressing the burgeoning number of our children entering care requires greater effort from us all. These efforts must be guided by faithful application of the rights of the child, enhanced participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and agencies in the design of services, and better resourcing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child and family services to effectively deliver these supports in their communities.
It is a fundamental right of all children to be protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The safety, welfare and wellbeing of children and young people is of paramount importance to any just society.
But the road to safety is not always as clear cut as we might hope. We need to acknowledge that removing at-risk children from their families does not guarantee their safety, and may also compromise their quality of life and access to opportunities. We know that educational and developmental outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system are often poor. We also know that there is a significant overlap between children in the child protection system and those in contact with the criminal justice system.
Importantly however, and something that is often missed from this discussion is that the safety, welfare and wellbeing of children and young people is inextricably linked to their culture and community. As my Victorian colleague, Andrew Jackomos argues, our children’s enjoyment of their cultural rights directly affects their meaningful enjoyment of all other rights; culture is not a perk for our children, it is a lifeline.
Culture, family and community are important protective factors that promote the resilience and wellbeing of our children and young people. We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are best served when they are supported to maintain their connection to family, community and culture. The experiences of the Stolen Generations demonstrate the devastation of severing these connections.
As such, efforts to improve the safety, welfare and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children hinge on enhancing the participation and self-determination of our families and communities. Our communities need to be empowered to lead the design and delivery of services. Evidence demonstrates that we are best placed to identify and implement solutions to the challenges facing our people.
Indigenous child care agencies, led by SNAICC and the state-based sector peaks, are doing a great job representing the interests of our children in what is a very fraught space. Importantly, they continue to advocate for a more proactive approach, calling for greater investment in community-based child and family supports, early intervention and intensive family supports, strengthening vulnerable families and healing our communities. However, they lack decision making power in a system that is overwhelmed and often not accountable for its outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.
As I outlined in my 2015 Social Justice and Native Title Report, more could be done to prioritise our voices in shaping how child welfare systems engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities and to ensure greater oversight of service efficacy and outcomes for our people.
To this end, I recommended the appointment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioners in every state and territory and the development of a target in relation to child welfare for Closing the Gap.
I also highlighted that greater investment in child protection research, healing initiatives and early childhood services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are urgently needed. We know that integrated child and family services embedded within communities that draw on community strengths and networks of support are most effective in supporting vulnerable children and families. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child and family services need to be properly resourced to design and deliver these integrated services.
These are just a few of the steps needed to tackle what is one of the most challenging human rights issues facing Australia today.
It is clear that the answers to this issue are not straightforward. However, we must not shy away from this challenge. We must concentrate our efforts on more than throwaway lines, or knee-jerk reactions. Instead, let’s direct our thinking, our policy and our funding to creating safe environments that truly provide for the best interests of our children and families.
Recommendations from the 2015 Social Justice and Native Title Report
- Recommendation 17: The Australian Government takes steps to include child welfare targets as a part of the Closing the Gap, to promote community safety and wellbeing and reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the child protection system.
- Recommendation 18: State and territory governments take steps to establish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioners in their jurisdictions.
- Recommendation 19: Australian, state and territory governments should collaborate to support greater investment in research and the quality of information relating to child protection through greater funding and the establishment of a National Institute of Indigenous Excellence in Child Wellbeing.
- Recommendation 20: The Australian Government recognises the crucial link between child wellbeing, and early childhood education and care services, and supports greater investment in early childhood services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children including through renewed funding for Aboriginal Children and Family Centres.
- Recommendation 21: The Australian Government supports long-term investment in healing initiatives including services, research and evaluation.