Listen deeply to care for First Nations kids

Emma Davidson MLA 11 February 2021 2
Bimberi Youth Justice Centre

In 2019-20, about a third of children in youth detention in the ACT were First Nations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Photo: File.

It takes a village to raise a child.

Having grown up in a village, I understand the benefits of having lots of aunties, uncles and grandparents to provide care and guidance, instead of relying on mum and dad for everything.

When life gets complicated and difficult, an expansive and connected family means there is always someone to remind children that they matter, they are loved, and they are part of a strong network of people with skills and responsibilities to each other and our land.

For our young ones, growing up becomes more complex every day. The social and environmental systems we learned as we were growing up are not the same for today’s generation of children.

It is more important than ever that children stay connected to family, culture and country. But the heartbreaking truth is that we have far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in youth detention or on community orders, which makes it harder to keep those connections.

In the ACT, our youth detention centre has very small numbers of young people in care at any given time, small enough that we know each child and what is happening in their life and family to result in them being in the criminal justice system.

Among children in the criminal justice system, there are high rates of disability, including mental health and drug and alcohol issues. There are also high rates of homelessness for children who end up in detention. There is trauma.


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Once a child is in the criminal justice system, it is much more likely that the child will spend time in prison as an adult. Our housing, health and criminal justice systems are not easy to navigate and people who don’t have legal support are far more likely to have a negative outcome.

We cannot address the disproportionate representation of First Nations kids in detention without addressing the disadvantage that so often leads to their detention.

In 2019-20, few children aged 10 to 14 years were in detention in the ACT but about a third were First Nations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. This is unacceptable.

In one of the most progressive cities in the country, there should be no child in detention due to lack of access to housing, family support, healthcare or legal support.

These children need support and connection.

There is a strong relationship between children in the care and protection system, and children ending up in the criminal justice system. Work has begun by supporting children in the care and protection system, with significant progress already made.

In short, if your family is experiencing homelessness, mental health or physical disability, drug or alcohol issues, or has difficulty navigating complex community services and health systems, you are far more likely to be subject to care and protection or criminal justice orders. Generations of systemic disadvantage and disempowerment have resulted in too many Aboriginal families experiencing these problems.

The solutions are structural: more involvement by First Nations-led housing, legal services, healthcare including mental health, drug and alcohol services, and child and family support.

We also need all services to be culturally safe and work collaboratively with each other to support families who have complex needs. By working with Aboriginal community leaders, we can support culturally safe prevention, early intervention and crisis support programs, and support Aboriginal leadership and self-determination that will lead to lasting change.

We have started working on these solutions.


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Within a few weeks, Oz Child will begin delivering a Functional Family Therapy pilot to provide intensive support for young people and their families at risk of ending up in the criminal justice system.

We have begun the work needed to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years.

We have committed, via the Parliamentary and Governing Agreement, to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander controlled community housing provider and implement recommendations in the Our Booris, Our Way report.

We have also committed to developing a Charter of Rights for parents and families involved with the care and protection system.

It will take all of us working together to provide therapeutic supports for children to keep them out of the criminal justice system. That means all three political parties in the ACT Legislative Assembly committing to prioritising the work that is ahead of all of us. It also means all of us, in the big country town that is Canberra, listening to and trusting Aboriginal communities when they tell us what they need to support their kids.

Let the land we live on guide us. Like the Murrumbidgee, we need a river of love flowing through every part of our community, providing relief from heat and nurturing life.

Emma Davidson is the ACT Minister for Youth Justice.


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2 Responses to Listen deeply to care for First Nations kids
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jwinston jwinston 10:36 am 12 Feb 21

Your mob have been in government for 20 years and nothing has improved. If anything, the systems implemented by your department over the years has seen the kids successfully “graduate” into the adult jail system.

Until you and your department heads see that offender education and programs are more than just showing up and a tick and flick, then your colleague, Mick Gentleman, will need to expand the capacity of the jail so that the AMC can accommodate your graduates.

keek keek 10:31 am 12 Feb 21

Maybe they could just, you know, not commit crimes to stay out of detention? It takes either an exceedingly serious crime, or a huge string of crimes to get a kid a custodial sentence.

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