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Indigenous families launch class action against Queensland's child protection failures

Giovanni Torre -

First Nations children and parents have launched landmark class actions against the Queensland government for their systemic failure to reunite families removed under child protection laws.

The cases allege Queensland's Department of Child Safety, Seniors and Disability Services breached the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) and failed to follow the Child Placement Principle in the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld) by refusing or failing to reunite or restore family relationships, failing to support children within the system to learn and practice their culture, language, or maintain their connection to Country, and failing to place children with Indigenous family members.

The Child Placement Principle in the Child Protection Act requires the Department to place Indigenous children removed from their parents with family, or First Nations carers if possible. It is only when these options have been exhausted that First Nations children should be placed outside their community with non-Indigenous carers.

It is also claimed that in some cases, the Department failed or refused to provide information about removed children's First Nations families.

Bottoms English Lawyers Special Counsel, Jerry Tucker, is leading the class actions, which cover First Nations parents and children across Queensland.

"The cases do not make allegations about Departmental decisions to remove a child, but instead focus on their actions once a child is removed, specifically the actions taken when placing a child in the care of others, and actions taken when families attempt to reunite with removed children," Ms Tucker said.

"We expect that the evidence will demonstrate a deeply concerning culture of failing or refusing to reunite or restore family relationships between removed children and their parents, even after the parents have wholly or substantially complied with the Department's stipulated conditions.

"Systemic failure to adhere to the Child Placement Principles breaches internationally recognised human rights, and has resulted in fractured family units as well as severing connections to culture and community."

Ms Tucker said every one of the families' stories are "shocking and heartbreaking".

"We know there's so many more out there. We're encouraging as many people as possible who have been through similar experiences to register their interest in the class action and join our pursuit of justice for First Nations families," she said.

Lead applicant for the parents case is Aboriginal man Brett Gunning, who has spent more than a decade trying to reunify with his three children. He was removed from his own biological mother at 30 days old.

"DOCS kept moving the bar. I kept reaching their milestones and then once I did, they kept moving the bar higher and higher. I could never obtain my children," he said.

"This is just intergenerational abuse of my family, from my grandfather to my mother, my mother to me, now me to my kids. Four generations. I've suffered greatly with depression; I've had to leave everything behind."

Lead applicant for the children's case, Madison Burns, was taken into the care of the Department when she was born. She was placed in numerous foster homes, residential group homes and motels until she was 18.

"DOCS saw me deteriorate. As a kid, you start blaming yourself. You start getting into your own head that it's me – and that's why they won't tell me why this stuff is happening to me," Ms Burns said.

"I know nothing about my culture. I have dark skin and I know I'm Aboriginal and that's it," she said.

"When DOCS told me there were no foster carers, and residential group homes were full, I would ask "why remove us? If you can't even give us somewhere to go."

She said the Department refused to tell her anything about her First Nations relatives.

Ms Tucker said the applicants and many thousands of group members across Queensland seek both financial and non-financial remedies from the Queensland Government.

"They want a well-resourced consultation process designed to facilitate the restoration of family relationships for those impacted by the Department's actions. They want training for staff to interact with First Nations families in a trauma-informed and culturally sensitive manner. They want a formal and public apology for the Department's child removal practices. They want financial compensation," she said.

"But most of all, we want to remedy the negative effects of the Department's actions on generations of Queensland families, including the significant intergenerational trauma which has followed the Department's actions."

National Indigenous Times has contacted Queensland Minister for Child Safety, Craig Crawford, for comment.

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