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Leading Indigenous mental health groups urge governments to reform child protection systems

Giovanni Torre -

In response to the tragic death of a 10-year-old Indigenous boy by an apparent suicide while in state care earlier this month, leading Indigenous mental health organisations have called on federal and state governments to urgently invest in social and emotional wellbeing and mental health supports for Indigenous children in state care.

On Wednesday, the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association; Black Dog Institute - a global leader in mental health research; Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia - the national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, and suicide prevention; Indigenous Allied Health Australia; and Thirrili, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to contribute to the broader social wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, united in their call for reform.

Thirrili interim CEO Tania Brown said: "The death of any child by suicide is a tragedy. The death of a child by suicide while in state care, is a national disgrace and an indictment on Australia's child protection system."

Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia chair, Professor Helen Milroy AM, expressed grief and sympathy for the child's family and community.

"As Indigenous people, our hearts are broken and continue to break every time we lose one of our young ones to suicide, especially when they are in the care of a system that's supposed to protect them," she said.

The alliance of groups said suicide is the leading cause of death for Indigenous children and young people, and Indigenous people in Australia have the highest suicide rate out of any population worldwide.

The groups also noted that evidence shows that children removed from families are at a higher risk of suicide, and have an increased likelihood of contact with the criminal legal system.

Their joint statement observed that in the 16 years since Kevin Rudd's Apology to the Stolen Generations, removals of Indigenous children have tripled, with First Nations children now representing more than 40 per cent of the total population of all children who have been removed from their parents, but only six per cent of the total population of children in Australia.

Indigenous Allied Health Australia chief executive Donna Murray said on Wednesday: "We don't need another inquiry or Royal Commission; what we need is action."

"We need to break the cycle of injustice, and that starts with providing Indigenous children with the wellbeing support they need to live well in their communities," she said.

The groups noted that while government spending on child protection has increased over the past five years, the proportion of expenditure spent on family support and wellbeing has decreased and the proportion of spending given to Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations to deliver this support continues to sit between 0.6 per cent and 21 per cent, depending on the state or territory.

Black Dog Institute director of First Nations Partnership and Strategy, Dr Clinton Shultz, said that to prevent similar tragedies in the future, more must be invested into support services to help children and their families stay well and connected within their communities.

"These services should be led and operated by First Nations communities, not external contractors," he said.

The groups urged federal and state governments to implement the recommendations from the more than 40 government reports into Indigenous child protection since the 'Bringing Them Home' report in 1997, including increased investment and access to culturally-responsive, community-led support services; increased cultural responsiveness training for child protection and mental health workers; and increased investment to build a more sustainable Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing and mental health workforce.

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