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Aboriginal Child Commissioner latest to criticise Victorian government over failure to adopt Yoorrook reforms

Dechlan Brennan -

The Victorian government’s failure to implement the majority of the Yoorrook Justice Commission recommendations has continued to receive pushback, with the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People the latest to criticise the official response.

Commissioner Meena Singh appeared before the historic Truth-telling inquiry twice as a “voice” for children who had experienced the child protection and youth justice systems in Victoria. Her testimony was accompanied by previous evidence and findings handed down by the Commission for Children and Young People.

On Thursday, Commissioner Singh said: “There is very little to be positive about in this response.”

“Despite Yoorrook’s focus on Aboriginal children and young people in hearings and in recommendations, that focus is virtually absent in the government’s response,” she said. 

The hearings heard from members of the stolen generation, as well as many Indigenous Victorians who had been victims of racial injustice.

It also heard from former Premier Daniel Andrews, who wrote to the hearings last year and expressed his “great shame” regarding the overrepresentation of First Nations children in Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice systems.

The Commission made 46 recommendations for change to the child protection and justice systems in Victoria. On Wednesday, the government announced they would only be supporting four of the recommendations, and a further 24 “in principle".

A further 15 were announced as “under review,” whilst three, including raising the age of criminal responsibility and refusing to jail children under 16, youth bail reform, and expanding the remit of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to pursue human rights abuses, were all rejected outright by the government. 

Indigenous groups including the First Peoples’ Assembly and the Victorian Legal Service were highly critical of the decision, whilst the chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Professor Eleanor Bourke, labelled the rejection "disappointing".

Commissioner Singh said Aboriginal children had already given - and continue to give - their “energy, and passion, at significant personal cost, to this truth-telling process".

“After the trauma in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the referendum on the Voice to Parliament in October last year, this response is a missed opportunity for the Premier and the Victorian Government to demonstrate their commitment to the Aboriginal community and the futures of Aboriginal children and young people,” Commissioner Singh, a Yorta Yorta woman, said. 

“Our children are strong and resilient, even when they bear the brunt of intergenerational trauma, separation from their families and erasure of their culture and identity through colonialism and government policies. 

“They deserve a response to this important truth-telling process that respects their identity and provides them with a vision going forward.” 

On Wednesday, National Indigenous Times asked Minister for Treaty and First Peoples Natalie Hutchins if Indigenous people should worry, having given personal testimony and seeing many of the recommendations by Yoorrook not adopted by the government, about giving evidence at future Truth-telling hearings.

“I would absolutely encourage anyone that wants to have their story told…about how colonisation has affected them, that they should either write to, or appear before the commission, because this is all going to be part of Victoria’s history going forward,” Minister Hutchins said in response.

One of the recommendations under consideration is to legislate the role of the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People as part of the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012. 

Commissioner Singh criticised this, especially in the wake of the scathing Productivity Commission report, which showed many of the Closing the Gap metrics going backwards. 

“Last month we saw that, as a nation, we are not on track to Close the Gap when it comes to reducing the numbers of Aboriginal children and young people being removed from their families,” she said. 

“Victoria has the highest rates of removal of Aboriginal children and young people in the country. But the Victorian Government has yet to give even ‘in principle’ support for the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People to be enshrined in legislation, even as the federal government has committed to a National Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children.”

Commissioner Singh said without a timeline for actual funding or implementation, “support in principle” will be of little comfort - and provide limited assurances - to First Nations people urging change in the state. 

“What we need to see now from the Victorian Government is a clear plan for how the recommendations from Yoorrook will be taken forward,” she said. 

“We need to see direct engagement with Aboriginal community leading to action to achieve a shared vision for reducing the numbers of Aboriginal children and young people engaged with the child protection and youth legal systems. 

“I am committed to working with the Victorian Government and will continue to advocate for urgent change and the rights of Aboriginal children and young people in this state.”

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