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Commissioner for Aboriginal Children says progress even more vital after referendum loss

Dechlan Brennan -

Progress for Indigenous children and young people is even more vital in the wake of the Voice to Parliament referendum defeat, a new report tabled today in the Victorian parliament has argued.

The annual Commission for Children and Young People report highlighted the work that has taken place around protection of Indigenous children in Victoria over the last year, which includes advocating for the raising of the criminal age of consent and contributions to the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Yorta Yorta and Indian woman Meena Singh, argued the referendum result would only make "systemic advocacy, oversight and reform" that centred Indigenous children's voices, more vital.

"Our work this year shows we have achieved significant progress, despite remaining challenges, and we must grasp new opportunities for further gains with even greater energy in the absence of a national Indigenous Voice to Parliament."

The report highlights the commissioner's appearance before the Yoorrook commission as the centrepiece of her inaugural year in the position.

She argued at Yoorrook - in two separate appearances - a necessity for reforms centred on Aboriginal children and young people to allow them to have a say in both the decisions that impact them, as well as the formation of the systems that implement those decisions.

In the Yoorrook interim report from September, it argued, "(an) Aboriginal child in our community can be in a pipeline to the justice system before being born".

"It is hard to imagine a scenario that more profoundly demonstrates systemic failure."

The report argued that the government should, "transfer decision-making power, authority, control and resources" to Indigenous people, which would give full effect to self-determination in the child protection system.

The Commission for Children and Young People report said: "Commissioner Singh critiqued the government systems which are set up to keep all children and young people safe from harm as being siloed and unreflective of the needs and lived experiences of Aboriginal children and their families".

Her evidence further emphasised an importance on cultural connections, mirrored in the interim Yoorrook report, saying they acted as a "protective factor:".

Commissioner Singh further argued the importance of well-funded and resourced Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) to help "nurture and create opportunities for Aboriginal children and young people to lead remarkable lives and maintain connection to community, family and culture".

"We have also made it clear that the priority must be to support Aboriginal families through relationships and trust built before need arises, so children are not drawn into child protection in the first place. The necessity for culturally safe spaces is vital," the report stated.

During her evidence to Yoorrook, Ms Singh advocated for the role Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People be legislated and granted the same powers equivalent to Victoria's Commissioner for Children and Young People.

This was recommended in the Yoorrook report, which also recognised the role of the commission by recommending new powers which enable them to receive complaints from Indigenous children and youths in child protection and out-of-home care.

They would be able to intervene in legal proceedings relating to their rights. under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act.

Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People, Liana Buchanan, said Indigenous children's lives were just as important as anyone else's, and therefore demanded a commissioner with equal powers to advocate on their behalf.

"We welcome Yoorrook's response to our work, and its recommendation to strengthen the powers of the Commission and entrench the role of Commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people in legislation," she said.

Ms Singh's work - through both the media and the Aboriginal Justice Forum - was a factor in Victoria's move to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in 2024, and 14 in 2027.

"Aboriginal children and young people are starkly over-represented in the youth justice system, and, while we are pleased to have seen some progress this year, our position remains that a minimum age of 14 without exceptions should be adopted as a priority," Ms Singh said.

Ms Singh and the Commission advocated both publicly and directly with the government.

"Our advocacy highlighted the importance of raising the minimum age to 14 to reduce the chronic over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people in the youth justice system and reflect the medical evidence about children's brain development and capacity," the report said.

The commission also said 2022-23 saw the commencement of a new Child Safe Standards, part of which requires organisations working with children to establish "culturally safe" environments for Indigenous children to flourish.

"It's vital that Aboriginal children and young people feel safe and supported in their culture, and this new Standard will go a long way to achieving that within organisations that work with them," Ms Singh said.

The Victorian government has yet to respond to the report.

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