The number of Indigenous children entering the child protection system could increase by more than 50 per cent over the next decade without wide-ranging structural reform despite new Closing the Gap commitments, according to Australia’s peak advocacy body for First Nations children.
The Family Matters Report, released by SNAICC , has found that a “staggering” 21,563 Indigenous children were in out-of-home care at the end of the last financial year – representing around one in 15 First Nations children in Australia.
The rates of First Nations children being removed from their homes continues to rise.Credit:Ben Plant
The report also said current trends are “deeply concerning”, despite last year’s historic National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which included a commitment by all jurisdictions to reduce the rate of children in care by 45 per cent in the next decade.
“The number of our children living in out-of-home care is projected to increase by 54 per cent over the next decade if the current trajectory is not interrupted by profound and wholesale change to legislation, policy and practice,” the report said.
“Modelling from the University of Melbourne shows that if early intervention and prevention efforts could reduce the rate of entry to out-of-home care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children by just 5 per cent per year, the Closing the Gap target to reduce over-representation by 45 per cent by 2031 can be met,” it said.
Australia’s children’s commissioner Anne Hollonds told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that there had been an “unacceptable” lack of progress on improving outcomes for First Nations children.
“This report is heartbreaking and distressing, and it really points to the fact that we do have a human rights crisis on our hands in this country,” she said.
"When you grow up in out-of-home care your outcomes are likely to be poor on many, many levels."
She argued that governments needed to prevent the underlying socio-economic problems that cause children to enter care in the first place.
SNAICC CEO Catherine Liddle said the report demonstrates a need for governments to listen to Indigenous communities.Credit:SNAICC.
“This goes to the heart of one of the things we struggle with across the board in this country when it comes to child safety, we spend more money on the symptoms of the problem,” she said.
Social Services Minister Anne Ruston agreed that the number of children in out-of-home care was “heartbreaking”, and said the federal government was spending $290 million a year on funding prevention programs.
“Where possible we are engaging Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations to deliver the programs for Indigenous communities to provide a range of culturally appropriate practical supports for families including life skills and parenting skills coaching, family meetings and goal setting to support and sustain change, parenting groups and building cultural connection and safety,” Senator Ruston said in a statement.
The chief executive of SNAICC, Arrernte and Luritja woman Catherine Liddle, said Aboriginal communities need to be included in policymaking.
“What we’re seeing is the impact of service delivery that wasn’t designed for our communities, by our communities … there’s very little self-determination for families,” she said.
The report found that Victoria had “by far” the highest rate of Indigenous children being admitted to out-of-home care last year, and the highest rate of children in permanent guardianship, custody, or third party parental orders.
Despite this, Ms Liddle is hopeful that recent policy changes in the state will see the numbers shift.
“Victoria has had some really good results where it has used its Aboriginal community controlled services,” she said.
“At this moment in time they only have delegated authority for 50 per cent but as those numbers start increasing we expect to see better results.”
Victorian Minister for Child Protection Anthony Carbines said: “We’re shifting our responses to focus on early intervention, so families are supported as soon as they come on our radar – giving them the tools they need to stay together.”
Meanwhile, New South Wales recorded the highest number of adoptions of any state or territory last financial year, at seven. Just two of those children were adopted to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.
“Those numbers could even potentially look worse than that, sometimes getting visibility of how many children are permanently removed are quite difficult,” Ms Liddle said.
NSW Minister for Families Alister Henskins said the government was upgrading intervention service centres for Aboriginal families and children across the state and had recently appointed former Legal Aid CEO, Wiradjuri man Brandon Thomas, to a new role in the Department of Communities and Justice to improve outcomes.
"We are investing in evidence-based family preservation and restoration programs which aim to keep families together. These early intervention programs are the cornerstone of our child protection investment and will help drive down the rate of children entering care," he said.
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