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First Nations-led child protection, independent police oversight amongst Yoorrook recommendations

Dechlan Brennan -

The Yoorrook Justice Commission is calling on the Victorian State government to create an independent watchdog to tackle police complaints, stop detaining children under the age of 16 and to implement a First Nations-controlled child protection system.

Over the course of a year-long inquiry, Yoorrook - the first formal truth-telling process into historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria - has found evidence of systemic racism, police malpractice and human rights violations against Indigenous Victorians, in its second interim report published on Monday and tabled in Victorian parliament.

For the first time in Australian history, a state government will be required to respond to the reform agenda put forward by its own truth-telling commission.

At a press conference announcing the tabling of the report, Wergaia and Wamba Wamba Elder and Chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Professor Eleanor Bourke AM, said the hearings heard "stories of racism and discrimination, of injustice and trauma."

"Senior bureaucrats, Ministers, the Attorney-General and the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police all gave evidence," she said.

"Seven formal apologies were made by representatives of government for the past and ongoing harm caused to Aboriginal people at the hands of the state. These apologies were important. They are now on the public record. But the real test will be the actions, the actions required will lead to transformational change."

First Peoples' Assembly Co-chair, Gunditjmara man Rueben Berg said by agreeing to the Assembly's call for Truth-telling, the Government had made a commitment to First Peoples to not only hear the wrongs of the past, but to act to right them.

"The Victorian Government must honour its commitment to listen with action. Action that includes starting work on these urgent recommendations right now," Mr Berg said.

"Otherwise the apologies made by Ministers and police at Yoorrook will ring hollow. Any delay will only see more of our families torn apart and more of our people locked up behind bars because of unfair, outdated and busted systems."

Fellow Assembly Co-chair, Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, Ngarra Murray said some of the recommendations can and should be implemented immediately as quick fixes, the long-term structural reforms to deliver Self-Determination and end systemic injustice can be delivered by Treaty.

"This report makes clear that big transformational change is needed," Ms Murray said.

"Treaty will put Aboriginal people in the driver's seat by making sure we have the power to design the systems and make the decisions that affect us. It's our opportunity to end the pain and trauma these state systems continue to inflict on Aboriginal communities."

Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter says "now is the time for action". (Image: Danielle Bonica/ABC News)

The 46 recommendations by the commission amount to its most sweeping proposals yet, with an overhaul of the state's child protection and criminal justice systems being at the forefront.

They range from short-term and urgent changes; such as raising the criminal age of responsibility to 14, to longer and more transformative changes; such as establishing a dedicated child protection system for First Peoples children.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) said that all 46 recommendations were achievable.

"They are what our people have asked for over many years based on our lived-experience and vast expertise. Many of the proposed changes reflect the structures and processes that have been adopted in similar jurisdictions, such as Aotearoa and Canada," a statement said.

VALS CEO, Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman Nerita Waight, said the report was a "great show of our strength as a people."

"Despite all the promises and seats at different tables, governments have failed to deliver better outcomes for our people. Settler themes of governance, control and punishment have not ceased over the last 235 years – rather they have just evolved and become more insidious," she said.

"At VALS, we see the damage that the criminal legal and child protection systems do to our people every day. We also see the great work that our communities are capable of, but the potential of this work is often limited by governments that don't provide the support our communities need to improve the lives of our people.

"It is time that our people had the ability to design and implement transformational change to the systems that were designed to wipe us out, so that we can create systems that allow us to thrive on this land once again."

Child Protection

Under child protection, the report said the commission has heard evidence of the "established process" to identify unborn children who may be moved into the child protection system. It added this often is a pipeline to the justice system.

"In effect, this means an Aboriginal child in our community can be in a pipeline to the justice system before being born," the interim report said. "It is hard to imagine a scenario that more profoundly demonstrates systemic failure."

Wurundjeri and Ngurai Illum Wurrung woman and Yoorrook Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter said on Monday that Colonial structures and laws were forcibly imposed on First Nations people, which has had a damaging impact.

"The present-day failures of Victoria's child protection and criminal justice systems for First Peoples are still deeply rooted in the colonial foundations of the State," she said.

"Inquiries have taken place before to understand these failures, but the changes that followed did not change the system itself. As a result, the situation has not improved for First Peoples.

"In fact, it has gotten worse."

The report argued that the state government should "transfer decision-making power, authority, control and resources to First Peoples, giving full effect to self-determination in the Victorian child protection system."

"Yoorrook heard evidence of systemic racism across health services and the lack of culturally appropriate support to new mothers and how this can result in removal of their babies," the report said.

"Even after the explicit assimilationist intent written into child removal policies was finally removed, the administration of the laws was still infected by racial bias."

"The Assembly, as the elected Voice for First Peoples, looks forward to working alongside our communities and organisations, who are the experts, to deliver this transformational reform," Mr Berg said.

The Yoorrook report heard of 'report fatigue' in this area. In the last decade there have been at least 19 inquiries about the child protection system in Victoria.

"Commissioners heard stories of babies being put on a path to the child protection system, and then the criminal justice system, from before they were born," Aunty Bourke said on Monday.

"We heard about a child protection system that was often too quick to remove children, because Aboriginal families did not fit white, middle-class views about how children should be raised. "

Daniel Andrews wrote to the inquiry earlier this year. He described the gross overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Victoria's child protection and criminal justice systems as a "great shame".

Police reform

In reference to police reform, the report noted that Victoria's police internal complaints system was failing Indigenous people.

"Evidence before Yoorrook shows that First Peoples are subject to racial profiling and over-policing," the report stated. "The system routinely denies or justifies police misconduct and fails to hold officers or management to account."

"The system routinely denies or justifies police misconduct and fails to hold officers or management to account. The vast majority of complaints about police are investigated by police which undermines effectiveness and generates mistrust. There is compelling evidence for the need of a truly independent police complaints system."

"First Peoples women and men are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal people," Ms Hunter said.

"First Peoples are more likely to be held on remand, and less likely to be given a caution by police."

She said the report must be a "catalyst for change."

"This report outlines a roadmap for reform to transform the child protection and criminal justice systems, putting an end to the systemic injustice suffered by First Peoples at the hands of the state."

In May, the state's chief police commissioner, Shane Patton, unreservedly apologised for the force's past and present actions that inflicted trauma on Indigenous people. The Victorian police force has denied allegations of racial bias in their policing and behavior.

The government has committed to raising the age of criminal responsibility from 12 to 14 within four years, however this has been criticised for being too slow. The report says the age should be raised to 14 with no exceptions and the detention of children under 16 should be prohibited.

Ms Waight argued that delay in the implementation of the commissions recommendations can't be delayed.

VALS CEO Nerita Waight says they see the impacts of the criminal justice system regulary. (Image: The Wheeler Centre)

"The recommendations in Yoorrook's report need urgent implementation. There is no reason to delay them. They are backed by evidence and experience. If the Victorian Government fails to implement all 46 recommendations over the next 12 months it will be because they have chosen not to prioritise our voices," she said.

Ms Hunter agreed.

"(The Premier) said he wanted to give 'much greater Aboriginal control of the child protection system when it comes to their kids than we've ever done,'" she said.

"I urge Premier Andrews to live up to these comments and commit to implement these recommendations in full. The evidence is in. Now is the time for action."

Both Berg and Waight thanked all 84 witnesses who came forward and told their story to the commission.

"So much effort and expertise has gone into the submissions and testimony that underpin the report and its recommendations. Our communities should be proud of the work they have done to advocate for transformational change," Waight said.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission has the same powers as a Royal Commission and will produce a final report by mid-2025.

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