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Child commissioners highlight complicated issues around out-of-home care in Victoria

Dechlan Brennan -

A new report from the Commission for Children and Young People has highlighted the removal rate of Indigenous children in the state surpasses "those of the Stolen Generation era".

The 2022-23 report tabled in Victorian Parliament on Wednesday also highlighted a vast discrepancy in the reporting of violence perpetrated towards non-Indigenous people as opposed to an Indigenous person, as well as an 18 per cent increase in reportable conduct to the commission.

At 10 per cent, Aboriginal children and young people continue to be over-represented among alleged victims of reportable conduct. The commission said this is highly concerning when First Nations children make-up around two per cent of the state's youth population.

Reportable conduct against a child includes sexual offences, sexual misconduct, physical violence, any behaviour that causes significant emotional or psychological harm, or significant neglect.

In July 2022, 11 new Child Safe Standards came into force in the state, bringing it in closer alignment with the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.

Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Yorta Yorta and Indian woman Meena Singh, told the National Indigenous Times the first standard, creating a culturally safe environment for Aboriginal children, was "so important".

"We know from so many other inquiries and other reports that when Aboriginal children and young people are respected for their identity, when they're heard and their identity is positively reinforced, they're much more likely to feel safer and are much more likely to talk about something negative happening to them, rather than if they don't feel safe and they don't feel respected," she said.

"We really need to approach any sort of abuse - and stamping it out - as everybody's responsibility. Not just the organisations that are required to implement child safe standards, but also the much broader community. Everyone has a role in keeping all children and young people safe."

Liana Buchanan, Victoria's Commissioner for Children and Young People, said that any thoughts of child abuse being a thing of the past needed to be dismissed.

"While media reports continue to detail inquiries into past abuse in organisations, the Commission's figures released today are a wake-up call that abuse in multiple forms is still happening and will continue to profoundly harm the lives of children and young people unless it is prevented and addressed," she said.

Liana Buchanan new numbers of reportable notifications are "deeply alarming" (Image: Youtube)

She told National Indigenous Times the increase in reportable notifications can be looked at as both "deeply alarming," but also a sign that more people are reporting unsafe child conduct.

"When you look, almost a third of them (reportable notifications) are substantiated, so any harm to children is deeply troubling," she said.

"On the other hand, I think that increase is probably a reflection of progress; by that I mean I think community awareness of child abuse - including in organisations - is increasing.

"I think more adults in organisations know what to look out for; they know the red flags and know how to report their suspicions if they have them."

Ms Singh - who's work in the previous year included two appearances before the Yoorrook Justice Commission to advocate for more "systemic advocacy, oversight and reform" that centred on Indigenous voices in the child-protection system - said the work of the commission was "very much focused" on the tertiary; what happens to the children and young people when they are in out-of-home care.

"We need to make sure that the kids that have to be removed, are put into places and spaces where they're looked after and protected," she said.

"The majority of children in out of home care are placed with kinship carers, so kinship carers provide so much support, not only to the children that they look after, but also to the broader community because they're literally caring for children that aren't their own."

The Yoorrook interim report highlighted a concern that children in out-of-home care were at a greater risk of losing their culture and "Aboriginality," stating: "Processes to identify Aboriginality in the child protection system are not working well. This has far-reaching implications for First Peoples children, families and services".

"More must be done to ensure First Peoples children's identity is confirmed early and correctly and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) are paid for the work they do to assist with this process."

Commissioner Singh said their principle was to prioritise placing Indigenous children and young people with Indigenous families, saying culture was a "massive" part of the process.

Despite the negative publicity, the overwhelming majority of children - both Indigenous and non-Indigenous - were not in care, and enjoyed normal, happy lives. By recognising what works in those settings, she said it could help guide important steps to maintain culture in children and young people who had been placed in out-of-home care.

"We need to make sure that things that keep children safe with their families are replicated in the spaces where children are removed too. So often we don't see that happening," she said.

"The Department of Families, Fairness and Housing is required to have cultural support plans for every single Aboriginal child in out-of-home care; we know that doesn't happen…sometimes they simply don't go far enough in engaging an Aboriginal child with their culture and their community."

However, she argued that this was when a child had already been removed, focus remains on preventing that happening with funding and education.

"I always say that protecting children and young people isn't just up to child protection. It should be a whole government response," Ms Singh said.

"We need to see appropriate safe housing. We need to see appropriate responses to family violence. We need to see responses specifically for Aboriginal children and young people that are culturally safe.

"It means we need greater investment into ACCOs to be able to provide the upfront services that help Aboriginal children stay with their families."

The report on Wednesday also highlighted a submission by the commission to the National Senate Inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations Women and Children, which argued, "the media and public sentiment differ significantly when a non-Indigenous person is subjected to violence compared to a First Nations person".

"Such disparities not only devalue Aboriginal lives but silence their voices and hamper efforts to rectify embedded systemic racism."

Commissioner Buchanan said, "Every single child matter's, every single adult who has been a victim of violence, family violence or other violence, they all matter. And we are still working towards a place in Australia where that is the reality".

"I just think there should be equal outrage and equal attention from media and community and governments whenever a child dies or is harmed. Our observation was that's not the case, and that some women, for example, and some children, if they die, if they go missing, if they are harmed, they don't receive the same level of media attention and community outrage."

The report was tabled in parliament on Wednesday and so far, the government has yet to respond.

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