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Linda Burney says fixing child protection system must be top priority for WA government

Dechlan Brennan -

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney has told the Western Australian government that correcting any issues in the child protection system are paramount in the wake of the apparent suicide of a 10-year-old in state care.

The boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, died earlier this month in Perth while under the care of the WA's Department of Communities.

Ms Burney told ABC Radio she had spoken to WA's child protection minister Sabine Winton about the "tragic, sad situation," but believed the 'rights of the child' had come first in this situation.

"What we do know is this little boy was with relatives," Ms Burney said.

"And the important point for me is the work that needs to be done, the work that's being done, particularly at the federal level, in terms of keeping children safe.

"There has to be absolute attention when a child this young dies because they have taken their own life and that child is in out of home care. That means we have to redouble our efforts on issues of prevention, and that's exactly what we're going to do."

Asked about concerns from people that child protection - especially for Indigenous children - was not a top priority for the WA government, Ms Burney said: "I've certainly made it very clear in my discussions with the Minister that it is so important".

"There is going to be a coronial inquest which is appropriate, and that coronial inquest will make recommendations which have to be looked at extraordinarily carefully," the minister said.

"It is about prevention, not waiting until a child gets…to the edge of the cliff and falls off and have an ambulance at the bottom waiting for us."

The West Australian reported on Tuesday Premier Roger Cook had indicated he would back the timeframe of the inquest being sped up to get important answers.

Ms Burney declined to comment on accusations of systemic failures in the WA child protection system which allowed the death to occur, but noted, "when it comes to Aboriginal children in care, the weight of history is absolutely there".

A Department of Communities spokesperson said the "safety and wellbeing of children is always Communities' highest priority".

"The death of any child or young person is a tragedy, which has a devastating impact on the families, friends and communities involved," the spokesperson said.

In the wake of the boy's death, Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe lashed the federal government for a lack of action in implementing all the recommendations from the 1997 Bringing Them Home report and said they should be "deeply ashamed of the news of this young boy's death".

"The recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report clearly point to the need for federal leadership on this. That report is sitting on (Linda) Burney's shelf – she should read it and implement its recommendations urgently," Ms Thorpe said.

"Under Labor, government departments are taking babies just moments after birth, before mothers even get the chance to hold them or see their faces. It's atrocious cruelty."

Ms Burney acknowledged the number of Aboriginal children in care is growing - contrary to Closing the Gap targets - and must be "arrested".

"[T]here are a number of initiatives that we're undertaking, but there absolutely has to be a greater focus on prevention and the Aboriginal child placement principle," she said.

Ms Burney highlighted a number of funding initiatives, including 100 additional people to work in child protection across the country and a suicide prevention program in 12 communities, as well as the establishment of a federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Commissioner, who will start on July 1st.

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