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New report reveals child protection systems failing Indigenous children and families

Giovanni Torre -

The latest national report from SNAICC – National Voice for our Children has found child protection systems are failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families, exposing them to ongoing harm and trauma at increasing and unacceptable rates.

SNAICC released the 2023 Family Matters Report on Wednesday, examining progress, if any, towards achieving the outcome of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people growing up safe and cared for in family, community, and culture.

"Tragically," the group said in a statement. "That goal seems to be further out of reach, with the Family Matters report finding the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care continue to grow."

At 30 June 2022, there were 22,328 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-homecare (OOHC), with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children 10.5 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children. This is an increase in both the total number and the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care.

SNAICC chief executive Catherine Liddle said the current trend was "completely unacceptable", calling on all governments to take substantial and immediate action to keep children safe and turn around the rising tide of family separations.

"Removing our children from family, culture and community causes ongoing harm, and too often does not lead to safer outcomes," Ms Liddle said.

"It is devastating that less than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care are living with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers, which is a sharp decline from over 65% ten years ago.

"The over-representation of our children in out-of-home care is increasingly frustrating because we have the evidence and the solutions to turn this around."

Ms Liddle said the report shows the immediate and effective impact government can make by appointing a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Commissioner.

"It is critical this Commissioner has the legislative power to investigate and make recommendations on issues impacting our children," she said.

"The report also calls for the Commonwealth, States and Territories to co-invest in a new national program for ACCO family support services that shifts responses towards prevention and early support services that will help to reduce child removals. It's time we change the story and do things differently if we want to see brighter futures for our children."

Current trends indicate that the National Agreement on Closing the Gap's Target 12 (to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent by 2031) will not be met. A substantial transformation of child protection systems and practice is needed to change course and achieve this target.

"Closing the gap for our children requires genuine effort from Governments and mainstream organisations to transform the way they work with us," said Ms Liddle.

"With increased ACCO leadership, models like the Connected Beginnings Program are changing these outcomes for the next generation by leveraging the expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to support children and families with school readiness and educational support to close the gap.

"We have seen positive changes with non-Indigenous organisations like Life Without Barriers starting to transition the care of around 900 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children to community-controlled organisations."

The SNAICC CEO noted that the transfer of authority to ACCOs to make child protection decisions in some jurisdiction is having "a huge impact", increasing reunifications and connecting children to family, community and culture.

"The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2021–2031, Safe and Supported, offers a framework for protecting children that was designed with us. The Framework and its Action Plans require substantial new resources and dedicated effort to be fully implemented," she said.

"We know community designed and led initiatives produce better outcomes for our children."

SNAICC urged all governments, State, Territory and Federal, to take urgent action on the evidence and solutions outlined in the 2023 Family Matters Report or risk causing further harm to generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Federal Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, told National Indigenous Times the government's goal "is, and always will be having children not need out-of-home care".

"Because all children and young people in Australia have the right to grow up safe, connected and supported in their family, community, and culture, no matter their background. However, we want to ensure that when they do, the solutions are child-centred, culturally safe and informed by their voices," she said.

"Safe and Supported is our ten year blue-print to ensure our vulnerable children have the right systems and supports to thrive. The dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander action plan was developed in true partnership and through shared decision making, with equal representation, between all Australian governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Through Safe and Supported we have invested in the $44 million Improving Multidisciplinary Responses program to support families and children who are at risk of, or already in contact with, the child protection system.

"This government is also committed to building the Aboriginal Community Controlled Sector and delivering on Priority Reform 2 from the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. We are also responding to the recommendations from SNAICC in its Stronger ACCOs, Stronger Families report and is increasing the involvement of ACCOs in delivering child and family services."

The Minister noted that in August this year, the federal government announced 15 Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations would share in $44 million worth of funding to deliver the Improving Multidisciplinary Responses program.

"It was co-designed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives and involves shared decision making throughout all stages of its implementation. These are just a few examples of how we are delivering on our ongoing commitment to supporting the development of the ACCO sector, and to reducing the rate of overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent," she said.

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