When former Prime Minister Rudd delivered the apology to the Stolen Generations 12 years ago, he noted: “The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.”
The National Apology was undoubtedly a momentous occasion to formally acknowledge the injustice in our nation's past in order to move towards reconciliation.
However, it is with sadness that we must also confront the reality that even in 2020, Aboriginal children in Australia are still facing disproportionately high rates of removal from their families and are all too often failed by current child-protection systems.
According to the recent report of Family is Culture independent review, chaired by University of NSW Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Megan Davis, widespread incidents of noncompliance with legislation and policy is still shockingly common among NSW Department of Communities and Justice (formerly Family and Community Services) caseworkers and managers.
This noncompliance has resulted in many instances of newborn Aboriginal children being removed from their families – leading to a situation where in NSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children are now 11 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous children.
In some of the worst cases documented in the report, Aboriginal children who “did not appear to be at risk of harm were removed from their families.” In one case, a first-time Aboriginal mother was deemed to be a “danger” for not giving details about her child's lunch-time routine, despite the child only being one day old at the time.
Other case studies show Aboriginal mothers being in hospital and suddenly being told their baby has been taken into state care.
The report is based on over 1100 case files of Aboriginal Children entering the NSW child protection system in the 12-month period between 2015 and 2016. It found that over the period nearly one in 10 Aboriginal children entered State care within two weeks of birth, and in many cases their mothers weren't even given the opportunity to take a photograph or keep a momento before losing the child into State care.
AbSec, the NSW Child and Family Peak Aboriginal Corporation, an organisation that I head, is deeply concerned about these findings and is waiting for the NSW Government to respond to a series of practical recommendations that have been put forward by Professor Davis. Moreover, we are particularly concerned that the situation for Aboriginal children in NSW is getting worse since these findings were collected.
AbSec has this week released its annual report card indicating that in the past 12 months to June 2019, the number of Aboriginal children reported at risk of significant harm has risen by more than 15 percent in the past year and more than 33 percent since 2015.
The report card also found a 12.8 percent increase in the number of Aboriginal children entering out-of-home care in the same period, and that two in five children in out-of-home care in NSW are Aboriginal children.
Our response to these shocking findings of severe failings within the NSW child protection system have focused on the need for community-based prevention and early intervention that directly addresses the needs of Aboriginal families in crisis. That would mean establishing a state-wide network of holistic Aboriginal controlled organisations to deliver necessary support for Aboriginal families and children across NSW, among other urgent measures.
AbSec’s report card demonstrates that little change has occurred for Aboriginal children and families since 2015. This, to us, must mean real and genuine action has to be taken – using the blueprint that has been provided by both AbSec and Professor Davis’ report to embed genuine change in these government systems for Aboriginal children, families and communities.
What the findings demonstrate is that even after over a decade since the National Apology for the Stolen Generations, the NSW child protection system is still in a state of crisis when it comes to protecting Aboriginal children or strengthening families. It must be acknowledged that this system won’t change and deliver better outcomes for Aboriginal children, families and communities, without a real shift in thinking and a new direction that comes from Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal-led solutions are the only way forward. Our organisations, with our communities, must be given oversight of this system, focusing on changing the culture within it through government policy that represents our perspectives, and be supported to deliver crucial early intervention supports that prevent kids from entering out-of-home care to begin with.
Our kids deserve nothing less than us taking immediate action to change the devastation that is occurring in our communities across NSW - the sooner the government starts genuinely and respectfully working with Aboriginal communities and organisations, the better.
So, while we reflect this week on the importance of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, we must also face the reality that - more than a decade on - serious problems still exist in child protection systems across Australia.
As a nation, we cannot continue to sit by and ignore these realities, we must call on our governments to do what is right, and let Aboriginal-led solutions drive the change that is needed for our Aboriginal children and families.
– Tim Ireland is the Chief Executive Officer of AbSec