The removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families is continuing nationally at an alarming rate according to the 2020 Family Matters Report.

Released on November 16, the report found there are currently 20,077 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.

These children represent 37 per cent of children in the out-of-home care but make up only six per cent of Australia’s population.

If rates of removal continue to rise, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care will double by 2029.

The report outlines concerns with the permanent placement of children and the rise in adoptions—81 per cent of First Nations children are permanently placed away from their birth family.

In 2013, the rate of First Nations children placed with First Nations families was 53.6 per cent. In 2019, the rate had dropped to 43.8 per cent. Between 2018 and 2019, there were 19 adoptions of First Nations children, 95 per cent of those were to non-First Nations homes.

Wurundjeri and Ngurai illum wurrung woman and Family Matters Chair Sue-Anne Hunter described this as a crisis point in First Nations child removal.

“Every single number in this report is a child and we need to remember that,” she said.

“If we look at what happened with Stolen Generation, and if we refer back to the Bringing Them Home Report … that is not what we want. We see what happens when kids are lost to community, culture and family.”

Hunter spoke of the need for early intervention.

“If we want to stop the numbers rising, we need to get to the families before. We need good family support services … we want good programs,” she said.

“We know what works for us, we know to talk to our family and how to be with our family and how to reintroduce culture in a way that is healing for the whole family.”

Butchulla and Gawara saltwater man Isaiah Dawe is the Founder and CEO of not-for-profit organisation, ID. Know Yourself. The Sydney-based organisation works to support young people in out-of-home care and is built upon Dawe’s own lived experience.

“For Aboriginal children, we could talk about the highest rates of suicide, the highest rates of incarceration, or removal into out-of-home care, homelessness, being disconnected to culture—it all stems from one place, it all starts in out-of-home care,” said Dawe.

Dawe draws a connection between removal policies of the past and the system today.

“If we are to move forward, we have to focus on the thing this country was built upon and that’s racism. That is relevant to the kids in out-of-home care.”

“It’s not that long ago that these things happened … it was my great-grandmother, my great-grandfather, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncles, aunties and us children too. Four generations removed. It wasn’t long ago; it affects us today,” he said.

Despite making major impacts in community, ID. Know Yourself has only acquired one year of funding from the NSW Government.

“When we say our mission is to break the cycle, how do we break that cycle in one year? We can’t do that, there has to be consistent and sustainable funding,” Dawe said.

“There’s investment in non-Indigenous programs that try to support our kids, but they’re damaging our kids … we’ve restored kids back to families, we’ve helped facilitate family visits for siblings, we’ve connected kids back to their cultural identities.

“These kids are healing, and they’re proud of themselves and who they are.”

Butchulla and Gawara saltwater man, Isaiah Dawe is the CEO of not-for-profit organisation, ID. Know Yourself. Photo supplied.

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap includes a target to reduce the rate of First Nations children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent by 2031.

Hunter said this is an achievable target.

“That is five per cent per year and … works alongside our Family Matters campaign—our aim is by 2040 we want to eliminate kids going into care,” said Hunter.

“We can now hold Government accountable to that.”

The report commends the appointment of Aboriginal people into commissioner roles for children and young people in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. It also calls for a national commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to oversee child protection systems.

“We need one in each state overlooking and holding each child protection department accountable. Because legislation is completely different in every state, we need someone looking over the top and pulling it together—really driving it at a federal level,” said Hunter.

“The choices we make for our children today will shape their tomorrow. Our kids have a right to be supported. Investing in their future must take priority.”

By Rachael Knowles