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Indigenous groups urge reform of NSW child protection system

Dechlan Brennan -

Indigenous organisations have responded to a series of troubling revelations in the NSW child protection system by reissuing their calls for reform to better support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, as well as prevent further children entering out-of-home care.

AbSec - the NSW Child, Family and Community Peak Aboriginal Corporation - chief executive John Leha said the child protection system "remains geared towards removing children rather than investing in early intervention services that could support them to live safely at home with their families".

"Aboriginal communities disproportionately bear the brunt of this misbalance," he said.

Mr Leha pointed to decisions going the recommendations from the Family Is Culture report, as well as those put forward by the Auditor General and the Department of Communities and Justice (DJC) in the secretive Tune Report, which found the child protection service was "ineffective and unsustainable".

Data from the Productivity Commission shows 44 per cent of children in the out-of-home care system are Aboriginal. According to a 2023 SNAICC report, the DJC removes Indigenous children at more than 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.

A joint statement from AbSec and the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT said the "roadmap to effective change" was already laid out in the 2019 Family is Culture report.

"Its recommendations point the way to achieving the Closing the Gap target of reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent before 2031," they said.

Last week it was reported two Aboriginal children were being kept in the UK - without passports or visas - after being placed in the care of a non-Indigenous family without any access to their Wiradjuri mother or culture.

On Tuesday, it emerged that Anglicare had refused to assess the Aboriginal aunt of an Aboriginal baby as a long-term carer because she was in a same-sex relationship, seeking instead to have the baby adopted by a non-Indigenous couple, with the knowledge of the NSW government.

The NSW government also relies on the Structured Decision-Making (SDM) - an algorithm-based tool - to evaluate a child's risk of coming into contact with the system. The "racially biased" tool was quietly ditched by Queensland in 2022, with high rates of false positives in the system only exacerbating Indigenous over-representation.

ALS NSW/ACT chief executive Karly Warner said the NSW government need to "honour the commitments" made to closing the gap in child protection.

"There are things they could do right now to make a difference, like scrapping SDM tools and reforming the way caseworkers respond to prenatal reports," Ms Warner said.

"When expectant parents are flagged in the system, they should get the culturally appropriate support they need to safely birth their babies and bring them home."

The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle is a key tenet of child protection. It legislates Aboriginal children should be raised, where possible, in connection with their community.

The principle states its objective is "to ensure that, recognition is given to an Aboriginal child's right to be raised in their own culture and, to the importance and value of family, extended family, kinship networks, culture and community in raising, — 'growing up'— Aboriginal children."

"It's the most horrific injustice when the system rips newborns from their mothers' arms in the hospital, and it happens far too often," Ms Warner said.

A DJC spokesperson didn't address questions about the usage of SDM, however told National Indigenous Times the NSW government was "currently undertaking a large body of work to significantly reform the child protection system."

"We know that Aboriginal families have been disproportionately impacted by child protection practices in the past," the spokesperson said. "This is a serious issue and reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child protection system is a key priority of the NSW Government."

It is understood the DJC is working with AbSec to co-design a culturally informed Aboriginal Family Preservation Framework, with the result to be implementation by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs.)

Both the ALS and AbSec said they wanted the NSW government to recognise - through action, "not just lip service" - the role Aboriginal community-controlled organisations play in supporting families, both in and out of the child protection system.

"Racism in the so-called child protection system remains rife," Mr Leha said.

"Non-Indigenous caseworkers are too often conflating poverty with neglect and failing to appreciate the effects of intergenerational trauma, including the challenges facing parents who were themselves stolen from their families.

"When does the cycle end?"

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