Nothing is more important than keeping our children safe. As a community, we need to be vigilant in ensuring we are doing the best we can for our youngest citizens. While living at home with their natural family is the best option for most children and young people, in some cases there is the need for other arrangements to be in place. The care and protection system and the out-of-home care system are there to keep children safe and support families who are struggling and need extra support.
The Productivity Commission’s annual report on government services that was released last week gives us insight into how well the ACT is performing in this area, compared to other jurisdictions. This latest report confirms a worrying trend regarding increasingly high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the out-of-home care system compared to non-Indigenous kids in the ACT. The report confirms that the ACT holds the inglorious title of having the highest rates of care and protection reports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and the second highest rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on protection orders in the 2016-2017 period. This means that for every thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, more than 350 reports are made. This is compared to less than 50 reports for non-Indigenous children in the ACT.
Higher numbers of reports may be partly due to increased awareness around domestic and family violence but it is difficult to understand why there is such a difference in the numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids coming to the notice of authority. There are complex reasons why some families may be facing additional challenges including entrenched poverty, heightened risk of homelessness, and lack of access to culturally appropriate services and supports. These figures suggest, however, that something else is going on. Community leaders have been raising the alarm for some time that far too many Aboriginal children are being removed from their families.
We must act if we know a child is in harm’s way. We need to address the reality that removing a child has lifelong effects, and these impacts need to be understood, mitigated where possible and be the last resort rather than a standard practice.
We have been exposed to the harrowing effects of the stolen generations who were displaced from family and culture and we need to learn lessons of past practices. Any system where children may need to be removed from their families must be culturally sensitive, include many other points of engagement and opportunities to respond prior to reaching a crisis point and do all it can to ensure children are not set on a pathway of lifelong disadvantage and despair. We need to make sure that services and supports for children, families and carers are in place to respond prior to reaching a point of crisis where the only option is removing children from their families.
Another concerning finding of the Commission’s report is that the ACT lags behind all other jurisdictions in the amount spent on child protection. This is despite the significant injection of funding that has occurred in recent years as the Government has sought to reform the ACT out-of-home care system. This finding suggests that we may need to be prepared to invest more in supporting at-risk children and families.
We cannot underestimate the complexity of this issue and we need to recognise that the ACT Government is concerned about the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the system, and announced a review in mid 2016. It’s important to get this right but the review will take two years, with all likelihood that the trends will continue to see Aboriginal children removed from their families at much higher rates than their non-Indigenous contemporaries.
What we do know is that we will not solve this issue without the intimate involvement of our local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The Family Matters Report was released last year and sought to measure the trends in order to turn the tide on the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care across Australia. It made this point in a number of their recommendations. They emphasised the need for a national approach, clear data and a commitment to ensuring that Aboriginal controlled organisations are part of the solution. These recommendations provide a good starting point for us here in the ACT to try and change the story for individuals as well as our whole community.
I think we need to invest more funds and resources to ensure that we can reverse the trend of the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the care and protection system, and work in partnership with Aboriginal Controlled Organisations to do this. What do you think?