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Wiradjuri advocate Barbara Causon - fighting for the rights of First Nations children in the ACT

Jess Whaler -

Despite Canberra being a relatively small jurisdiction, often considered a quite progressive one, there is still considerable disadvantage being experienced by the Australian Capital Territory's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

First Nations children and young people are over-represented in out of home care and juvenile justice systems. Many Aboriginal families live well below the poverty line, have unstable housing, carry intergenerational trauma, and face many barriers in accessing support services to assist them.

In 2017, the ACT Government announced a review into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system. This Review, known as 'Our Booris Our Way', was a wholly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander co-designed and led review, regarded as a leading example of practical self-determination.

Over a two-year period, the Our Booris Our Way review resulted in 28 recommendations being made to the ACT Government, which were all aimed at improving outcomes for First Nations children and young people. The recommendations focused on three major themes: reducing the number of First Nations children entering the system; improving First Nations children's experience in the system; and restoring children to their families or extended family.

In turn, the ACT government agreed to implement each of the recommendations including the establishment of an Our Booris Our Way Implementation Oversight Committee, which is also wholly Aboriginal-led. This was a very deliberate recommendation made to ensure that there was Aboriginal oversight of implementation and that the final report did not just end of sitting on a shelf like many significant reports right across the country on Aboriginal issues.

There has been a lot of work done to change procedures and practice but full implementation of each of the recommendations is still some way off, even more than three years after the final report was provided.

The pace of change has not met community expectations and many of the potential improvements sought are yet to be realised. But there is some change occurring as a result of the Our Booris Our Way review, including significant progress on implementing the recommendation relating to the establishment of the ACT's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People Commissioner, a role designed to support the rights of the Territories' Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people. Legislation to support this role has been passed in the Assembly and it is expected that this critical role will be advertised shortly.

Working hard to create a strong foundation for the Territories incoming Commissioner is Wiradjuri woman Barbara Causon, who is undertaking the interim role of Advocate for ACT's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People.

"There is much work to be done to improve outcomes for our children, young people and their families. We need stronger partnerships between government and the local Aboriginal community. There absolutely must be real engagement and opportunity for our local community to determine the solutions and support needed. I have no doubt that a true partnership will lead to greatly improved life outcomes for our kids," she said.

When asked about the correlation between Out of Home Care and incarceration rates, Ms Causon said that right across the country there is evidence that children who have spent time in the out of home care system are more likely to collide with the justice system.

Ms Causon said that to prevent children coming into contact with the juvenile justice, and potentially adult justice, systems, the question of "how do we keep our children and young people safe at home, so that the trajectory that often ends up with them being in the justice systems is circumvented" must be addressed.

"We need much more attention on the early support phase, well before families come into contact with these statutory systems," she said.

"Systems need to be Aboriginal-led. We have the solutions to the issues confronting our families, but we need governments to listen to us and walk with us for the benefit of our kids.

"System improvements need to be Aboriginal-led. We need to ensure that our voices are heard and families are actively involved in any decision making about their children. Governments needs to listen to and work with the local Aboriginal community to achieve real change and build strong futures for our children and young people."

Ms Causon raised four children largely as a single parent, including one with severe disability. She learned very early on that her children and other First Nations children needed a voice.

She previously chaired the Our Booris Our Way review and the Implementation Oversight Committee. Her extensive knowledge is supported by thirty years of working as a senior executive within federal government settings largely on First Nation issues and says she is now committed to working with government to drive better outcomes for First Nations families.

"Our children belong in families. My hope is that we can all work together to keep our families safe and together."

Ms Causon's role is based within the Office for ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People, and her small team are available to support First Nations families who have concerns regarding their children.

"Our team is independent of government and can help families to navigate complex systems and processes... Families can contact us if they need support via email or phone. Our team is all Aboriginal and we have people who are very experienced working with children, young people and their families."

She said the team is often advocating for individual families around the best interests of children and their families, and has been raising a number of concerns regarding our children currently in the child protection or juvenile justice systems.

If you or someone you know needs support for any issue involving our children, please contact the Office for ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People by emailing [email protected] or by phoning 0422 284840.

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