Wednesday 8 March 2017
It is no secret that across Australia and in every jurisdiction there are way too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care. Sadly the great majority of Victorian Koori children in out of home care, nine out of ten to be precise are removed as a direct result of being victimised through family violence. Not as collateral damage, but as direct victims of family violence.
Each one of those children will bear differing levels of trauma, pain, scars and even guilt that for most will go unresolved. And the numbers of Victorian Koori children in out-of-home-care are growing at record numbers unknown since colonisation, double the number since we commenced Taskforce1000 in 2014.
Many of the children are witness to intergenerational family violence, many are witness to intergenerational child removal and many are witness to both. Sadly, a number will have their lives painfully stolen from them without the opportunity to have known what a secure, warm and loving home ever was. Some as newborn babies, others in the throes of adolescence. In Victoria over the past nine months there have been allegedly murdered three Koori children with family violence, male perpetrators and the child protection system as common themes. On average that is one child, one soul taken away from their families every three months.
There is no question that the majority of Koori children removed today in Victoria will be case managed outside of the Koori community by the Department of Health and Human Services and placed in non-Koori placements. And we know from evidence that the majority of our children who become involved with the youth justice system have had child protection experiences. Many Koori children in Parkville and Malmsbury Youth Justice Centres today have spent much of their lives with the state as their parent. For many the child protection system has been another parent that has sadly let them down. You cannot separate the child protection system from the youth justice system for these children without shutting your eyes to reality. Dual clients bring dual responsibilities.
This is real. This is traumatising families, traumatising communities and most tragically traumatising children and yet we know that it doesn’t have to be so. It should be a shameful fact and heart breaking story for all Australians. It is a blight on our nation. I am not sure exactly how can we Advance Australia Fair.
It was humbling to have led the Commission’s recent systemic inquiries Always was Always will be Koori Children and In the Child’s Best Interests with both reports being tabled in the Victorian Parliament October 2016.
The inquiries respectively considered the impact of the child protection system on Koori children and compliance with the intent of the legislated and mandated Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.
Whilst I acknowledge the excellent and committed people working in child protection and across the community sector, it is on the record that both inquiries found serious program and management deficiencies in how the system was impacting on children in out-of-home care.
I have been heartbroken by the record numbers of our children placed with non-Koori carers whilst responsible and loving Koori kin, grandparents and siblings have waited in vain to be contacted and connected, falsely believing the legislated Aboriginal Child Placement Principle will bring their loved ones home. And the Commission hears this story repeated almost daily as family members contact seeking our support to bring the children home or at least some contact. We know the most important people in a child’s life are their siblings yet we saw through Taskforce 1000 as we see today sibling groups broken up. The only thing preventing many from being reunited is a lack of initiative.
Like many others I am proud to have championed the broad overarching right of self-determination that is underpinning macro policy and strategic development within the system, yet I continue to be disheartened at how overarching goals fail to be translated into everyday practice with vulnerable families, children and young people. I have been bemused at the underfunding of community based initiatives particularly in regional Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) over past successive governments or with program and services poorly delivered if delivered at all.
Contained within both reports are 133 recommendations that have, at their core system reform, the principle of self-determination and the belief that ACCOs are best placed to look after our most vulnerable children, keep them connected to kin, know their culture and community and walk on their land. Many of the recommendations target ensuring that the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle and related cultural and connection programs and initiatives within the Child Protection system need to be honed with greater levels of training, executive responsibility and management oversight.
All Koori children in out-of-home care whether they are placed in foster care, kinship care or residential care should all have the cultural and family protections and guarantees provided in legislation. They should not be any less if a child is case managed by the department, a community sector organisation or an ACCO. In reality this is the case. This mandated parity and equity in access to programs and services should be crucial to any Aboriginal Children’s Strategy and with the implementation of the inquiries’ recommendations.
I was pleased back in October when the Minister for Families and Children, the Hon Jenny Mikakos responded that the Andrews government accepted all 133 recommendations in full, in part and in principle. At the sixth meeting of the Aboriginal Children’s Forum last week in Healesville the community warmly welcomed a detailed breakdown of the government’s commitment.
I look forward to collaborating with other members of the Aboriginal Children’s Forum in working with Minister Mikakos to achieve maximum implementation of the recommendations in the spirit they were made. It is exciting to witness the development of the Children’s Forum priorities initially through the transition of case management for all Koori children in out of home care to back to ACCOs and their eventual guardianship.
The work of Taskforce1000 and Always was, always will be Koori children and In the Child’s Best Interests would not have been possible without the full support of Minister Mikakos, the Department of Health and Human Services, ACCOs and Community Sector Organisations. Our work is also enlivened by the Andrews government’s commitment to self-determination which is the cornerstone of the work we are doing through the Aboriginal Children’s Forum.
But most importantly we also need to acknowledge the many children, their families and their carers whose stories, representations, pleas and histories we hear through our work and provide us all inspiration to achieve better.
Andrew Jackomos PSM
Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People (Victoria)