The WA Government has announced a two-year trial of a family-led model to support Indigenous children at risk of being placed in protective custody, but human rights lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade believes the program should immediately be made a legislative requirement.

Announced on Monday, $715,000 will be invested into an Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making (AFLDM) pilot aimed at addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care.

In WA, Indigenous children are nearly 18 times as likely to be placed in out-of-home care than their non-Indigenous counterparts—the highest rate nationally.

The AFLDM model allows extended families, along with an independent Aboriginal facilitator, to work with the Department for Child Protection to make decisions on the best placement for children in need of intervention.

The trial will focus on three cohorts in a number of metropolitan and regional areas in WA, with an initial emphasis on keeping infants placed with parents and family members.

Children on time limited protection orders and children whose families are working with DCP’s intensive family support teams may also become part of the AFLDM trial.

The trial’s announcement comes as the inquiry into the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019 (WA) continues.

In a submission to the inquiry, the Department of Communities said they did not believe it was necessary for the Bill to include a requirement for AFLDM in child placement.

The Department called legislative entrenchment of the program “premature”, claiming it was unnecessary as the Children and Community Services Act 2004 (WA) already enables AFLDM to occur.

But some disagree.

Dr Hannah McGlade is a Noongar woman and Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University who made submissions to the inquiry.

Dr McGlade is also advisor to the Noongar Family Safety and Wellbeing Council and has been very vocal about the Amendment Bill.

She urged the McGowan Government to make AFLDM a legislative requirement.

“The Government and Minister McGurk say they do not want this in the law; they want to trial it first and I think this is not good enough,” she said.

Dr McGlade said unless AFLDM is required by law, the process will not be adopted widely enough.

“If we don’t have it in law, we’re not going to see it in proper practice, and Aboriginal families and children will suffer as a consequence.”

She highlighted the failure of the current processes for child placement, saying there is a significant need for change.

“There is no more serious human rights issue in this country today than the increasing level of Aboriginal child removal.”

“We know from the evidence that children are not experiencing good outcomes as a result of increasing government intervention; they are very often experiencing multiple placements, and even abuse in care.”

In her remarks to the inquiry, she said the use of AFLDM in Queensland and Victoria removed the need for a trial of the model.

“We have examples of where AFLDM has happened; we don’t need a trial to know that we will get better outcomes through processes that enable our families to participate in these decisions.”

Minister for Child Protection Simone McGurk said the experiences of other states cannot be immediately applied in WA.

“The jurisdictions that currently use Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making have implemented it in different ways,” said the Minister.

“For example, in Queensland the Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making process is completely independent from the relevant government department, while in Victoria the Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making meeting is co-convened by an independent Aboriginal convenor and a departmental convenor.”

Minister McGurk said the pilot is essential to the success of the model.

“We need to understand what model of Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making will work in a WA context,” she said.

“This work to establish the best model for WA is particularly important given the State’s unique geography and demographics, and must be done before we consider how it might be defined in legislation.

“Before the relevant laws are changed, it is vital that we understand what works, and ensure that we have evaluated programs prior to State-wide implementation.”

By Sarah Smit