Two pilot programs placing Aboriginal families at the centre of child protection decision making could help bring down WA's high rate of Indigenous child removal.
The Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making (AFLDM) process supports the right to self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to make decisions about how to keep their child safe and connected to their family, culture, Country and community.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up almost 57 per cent of the children in out-of-home care in Western Australia.
The programs, one in Geraldton and one in Mirrabooka, are under way with the aim of protecting children and young people by supporting them and their families.
Wungening Aboriginal Corporation will deliver the pilot program in Mirrabooka, and has already had success, through its Wungening Moort program, which has been running for about three years.
It works in a "similar framework (to AFLDM) in terms of Aboriginal family involvement in decision making".
"Wungening Moort works with 140 families at any one time, roughly 200 over the of a year, so it has probably involved 500-600 families since the outset of the program," said Keiran Dent, general manager of Wungening's Early Intervention Family Support Team Strategy.
"Families feel more empowered when working with Child Protection to put forward their own plans and wishes in relation to the care and protection of children."
Mr Dent said the program saw about 90 per cent of children remain at home, or with family.
"Often families are quite passive in departmental meetings â" they feel unsafe, to be frank. The key thing is that having us alongside them, advocating for them . . . it means they are more likely to follow through with plans because they put them together themselves and there is ownership of decisions and plans made," he said.
Dr Glenda Kickett, vice-chair of the board of Wungening and a member of the AFLDM reference group, said AFLDM was "an innovative approach to supporting Aboriginal families".
"It gives them a voice at the table, a voice that has been missing for so long when decisions are being made for children and young people," she said.
"We want to make a strong statement on this to the Government, to build our families' capacity to keep our children safe at home, make sure that the voice at the table, that decisions, are in the best interest of the child, in support of safety and culture."
Dr Kickett said it tended to be forgotten that "culture is actually a safety mechanism".
"The way we have provided advice through the reference group, and the way the model is being developed and implemented, it is a strong cultural model . . . We want to make sure our children are kept on Country. They should be on Country and at home where they can have connection with family and culture."
Wungening CEO Daniel Morrison described the pilot as "high-stakes".
"We look forward to it being successful and rolled out to all districts in the State," he said.
"We need families to be engaged so it's not just the department making decisions.
"We know other States are looking to see how AFDLM pilots work. We appreciate that it's high-stakes because there is a lot of attention and interest.
"The challenge is on us to make sure it's a success for the betterment of our community."
Child Protection Minister Simone McGurk said the State Government "is committed to reducing the number of Aboriginal children in care, without compromising on child safety".
In 2020, the State reported the first decrease in children in care since 1997, with a 0.8 per cent decrease in Aboriginal children in care.
"Encouragingly, this trend has continued into the new reporting year, with the current number of Aboriginal children in care being fewer than 3000 for the first time since 2019," Ms McGurk said.
She said the Government's Earlier Intervention and Family Supports Strategy "supports the alignment of the service system to better meet the needs of families at risk of their children entering out-of-home care" with a key focus on addressing the "overrepresentation of Aboriginal children and families".
Under the AFLDM model, Aboriginal community controlled organisations are empowered to employ "Aboriginal convenors to facilitate culturally safe" processes which support families to decide on how best to "keep their children safe".
Ms McGurk said both locations would work with up to 30 families over a year.
"The information gathered through this process will help to determine the best model of service delivery for AFLDM in the years ahead," she said.
Lawyer and law academic Dr Hannah McGlade said Queensland and Victoria had included Aboriginal-led family decision-making processes in law, "which gives families important rights", and WA should do the same.
"In WA they passed the Bill without those rights â" against the recommendations," she said.
"The Bringing Them Home inquiry recommended that Aboriginal people be appropriately charged with managing Aboriginal child protection."
Dr McGlade noted while "safety is paramount", the department was "judging families in a negative light and not seeing their strengths".
"It is symptomatic of systemic discrimination and a reflection of the lack of cultural safety and competency among department staff, who are often young and non-Indigenous," she said.
By Giovanni Torre