Still not “bringing them home”: Victorian Aboriginal children in care on the rise

By Sayomi Ariyawansa

In Victoria, the number of child protection reports which are substantiated each year for Aboriginal children is continuing to increase. A report to the Victorian Child Protection Service (part of the Department of Human Services) is “substantiated” where there is reasonable cause to deem that a child has been, is being, or is likely to be abused or neglected or otherwise harmed. The annual report of the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People (the Commission) outlines some hard-to-stomach truths about the reality faced by Victorian Aboriginal children and families involved in the child protection system.

According to the report, the rate of Victorian Aboriginal children in out-of-home care is among the highest in Australia, and higher than similar jurisdictions around the world. Victorian Aboriginal children are 16 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be in out-of-home care. The Commission draws a stark comparison, noting that between 1910 – 1970, three in ten Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families whereas now at least one in 11 Victorian Aboriginal children are in out-of-home care, compared with one in 174 non-Aboriginal children.

Taskforce 1000 will examine the care plans for all Aboriginal children in care, critically reflect on their needs and take action to respond to them.

In its report, the Commission declared that these numbers are “staggering” and announced that “Taskforce 1000”, co-chaired by the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People and the Secretary to the Department of Human Services, had been established in response to these findings.

Taskforce 1000 will examine the care plans for all Aboriginal children in care, critically reflect on their needs and take action to respond to them. The work Taskforce 1000 sets out to complete is important and there are clear intentions for it to be a consultative process that engages the community and young people. It is intended that Taskforce 1000 will map service availability in each area, and will meet with panels, comprised of representatives from departments of education, human services, justice, community organisations and Aboriginal organisations, to talk collectively about how to improve the quality of cultural support plans and the outcomes for Aboriginal children. While its objectives seem specifically targeted to improving outcomes for Aboriginal children who are currently in out-of-home care, the findings of Taskforce 1000 could also inform better early intervention strategies for families, vulnerable children and young people.

Yet, it would not be surprising if Taskforce 1000 is met with some cynicism. The Report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Inquiry) in 2012, itself a response to the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into Child Protection in 2010, consulted with and received submissions from Victorian Aboriginal people who identified the needs and role of Aboriginal communities. The Inquiry noted that a different approach to service provision was required, – with the development of clear, accountable plans for Aboriginal children involved in the child protection system. The Inquiry concurred with the view expressed by Aboriginal people, who asserted that outcomes for vulnerable Aboriginal children and families would “only improve once practical gains in Aboriginal self-determination about children and families are achieved”.

The recent report of the Commission, therefore, seems to tell us nothing new, but that things have becomes worse – which begs the question: why are we still here?

Over time there have been numerous informal and formal attempts to address the over-representation of Victorian Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. Yet many of these responses have focused on the so-called “pointy end” of the child protection spectrum – that is, responses have focused on the Family Division of the Children’s Court of Victoria. Now, Taskforce 1000 seeks to focus on the experiences of Victorian Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.

By the time a family is involved with proceedings in the Children’s Court, or the decision has been made to place a child in out-of-home care, a lot – to put it bluntly – has already occurred. A report to the Victorian Child Protection Service, for example, has been made. The family and child would have had at least critical, if not extensive, dealings with the Department of Human Services and hopefully, with other family support services as well.

The Inquiry in 2012 outlined some of the factors which may contribute to the over-representation of Victorian Aboriginal children in the child protection system. Clearly, over-representation is, to an extent, symptomatic of the particular disadvantages faced by the Aboriginal community in Victoria – and the risk factors that then impact on Aboriginal children and young people. For example, the Victorian Indigenous Family Violence Taskforce estimated that one in three Victorian Aboriginal people are the victim of, or have a relative who is the victim or who is a witness of, an act of violence on a daily basis. There are disproportionately high rates of victimisation and physical harm or threats of physical harm. Victorian Aboriginal people are also more likely to experience mental illness, serious illness and/or alcohol and drug-related problems. The teenage pregnancy rate is 4.5 times higher for Victorian Aboriginal young women, when compared with non-Aboriginal young women.

Despite these statistics, it is dangerous and inaccurate to attribute the over-representation of Victorian Aboriginal children in out-of-home care to these enhanced risk factors alone. Further scrutiny is required regarding decision-making and case-management by the Department of Human Services – not just at the point at which an Aboriginal child is placed in out-of-home care, but during all stages of the Department’s involvement with an Aboriginal family.

Professor Muriel Bamblett, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) speaks about the importance of involving the Aboriginal community in the decision-making processes in child protection. She notes that perceptions about Aboriginal people can influence the way information about Aboriginal caregivers and families is presented to child protection services, which is why it is critically important to have Aboriginal people involved in decision-making.

Further, Professor Bamblett looks to the data coming from VACCA and states that while Aboriginal services “are primarily funded for tertiary services so it means we’re the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff waiting for families to fall over, it’s too late” – there’s “really, really good data coming out … around our early intervention and prevention.” Where families are referred to integrated family services, Professor Bamblett notes that the early data is encouraging and that the program is stemming the flow of Aboriginal children into out-of-home care. She states: “[s]o that proves then that when you have Aboriginal people involved earlier, we can prevent Aboriginal children entering the Child Protection system and it’s really critical that we’re involved upfront.”

Taskforce 1000 intends to review the welfare-related case plans for Victorian Aboriginal children in out of home care. However we need to better understand how initiatives like the compulsory “Cultural Support Plan” for Aboriginal children are being implemented in practice, and for what purpose. Cultural Support Plans are compulsory for all Victorian Aboriginal children in out of home care, and are intended to enable children and young people to remain connected to their families, communities and culture. Cultural Support Plans collate information about a person’s birthplace, traditional name, traditional language, totem, family clan and traditional state, amongst other things. They also require goal planning in relation to three key areas: maintaining links to Aboriginal community, connection to land and reconnection with siblings.

Cultural Support Plans recognise the importance of an Aboriginal child’s culture and are in line with Article 30 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child 1989, which provides:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.

It is important to ensure Cultural Support Plans are appropriate for the needs of each child. What is meant by “enjoying one’s own culture”, and the relevance of each aspect of a Cultural Support Plan will vary from child to child, and from young person to young person. The child or young person is at the heart of all planning and decision-making. A Cultural Support Plan must not be a box-ticking exercise as a demonstration of cultural sensitivity – it should and must be more than that.

When it comes to Victorian Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and involved in the child protection system, the numbers are serious and disturbing.

Under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic), there is a broad legislative objective to act in the best interests of the child at all times, and this can give shape and substance to the broadly (and, frankly, vaguely) expressed aims of Article 30. Any attempt to analyse decision-making in the child protection process must heed this, and recognise that the needs of the child and young person – which include but are not limited to their cultural needs – are central.

When it comes to Victorian Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and involved in the child protection system, the numbers are serious and disturbing. The establishment of Taskforce 1000 is clearly motivated by the desire to address these issues, but may fall down the path of devoting too much attention to the tertiary end of the child protection spectrum at the expense of other important considerations. These considerations include how to involve Aboriginal families and communities in decision-making within the child protection context, and invest in early intervention programs that are appropriate and effective.

A mere glance at the over-representation of Victorian Aboriginal children involved in the child protection system points to significant systematic disadvantage. What is truly galling, however – for the children and young people at the heart of these issues – is that we’ve known about it, collectively, for a very long time.

Sayomi Ariyawansa is a Melbourne lawyer. She has volunteered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, interned in the New York Office of Human Rights First and previously worked for the Victorian Department of Justice. She is currently on the committee for the Global Ideas Forum.