Indigenous advocacy groups have raised concerns about a child protection bill due to be before the West Australian parliament arguing the government has failed to engage with the community.
The amendments to the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill (2019) are aimed at improving child safety and mandatory reporting requirements.
But Indigenous groups are arguing the latest suite of amendments fails to adequately address concerns that Indigenous groups have been advocating for since the amendments were first introduced last year.
Hannah McGlade, advisor to the Noongar Family Safety and Wellbeing Council, said she is concerned Indigenous voices aren’t being included.
“This is a serious issue. We know that our state now has the highest numbers of Aboriginal children being removed, Dr McGlade told NITV News.
“We believe that the law is not meeting the human rights of Aboriginal children and families. We've picked up some real issues in the actual bill that we've tried to address with the government and haven't been successful.”
More than half of all children being placed in out of home care in WA are Indigenous.
Dr McGlade said the WA government needed to further engage with Indigenous peoples to ensure the needs of families and communities are being met.
Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales had each made efforts to ensure Indigenous peoples were at the heart of decision making, she said.
“These other states are progressing, but Western Australia is being very difficult and not working with Aboriginal people in the spirit of partnership that it should be," said Dr McGlade.
Dr McGlade said she would take her concerns to the United Nation in January when family violence and child protection is on the agenda.
The Head of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Richard Weston, said the government only needed to make minor changes to prioritise Indigenous decision-making.
“The changes being sought aren’t radical. They're just slight changes that enable Aboriginal people to be more involved, to exercise more responsibility, and to support the work governments are trying to do in keeping the numbers of our kids down going into out of home care,” Mr Weston told NITV News.
The Torres Strait Islander Merriam man was recently appointed New South Wales’ deputy guardian for Indigenous children in a bid to reduce the stubbornly high rates of children in state care.
“Community, families, and Aboriginal organisations have to become part of the process when children are at risk of being removed to get the best outcomes we can for the child,” said Mr Weston.
He said Indigenous organisations, advocates and child safety experts as well as the families and government departments need to all share a role in child safety.
“This is critical. I think it's one of the most challenging issues Australia has at the moment," he said.
“That's what we need if we're going to get the numbers down of Aboriginal kids in the at home care system.”
Calls for amendments to the bill
The Closing the Gap national agreement was signed by all state and territory governments in July.
The national agreement is aimed at having unprecedented levels of Indigenous voices at the centre to narrow the disparity for First Nations people in health, education, employment and justice.
But Mr Weston believes the WA government isn’t following the spirit of those hard won negotiations between governments and Indigenous organisations.
“The new agreement talks about effective partnerships with Aboriginal people. That means that government departments or ministers can't be making decisions without our involvement.”
Mr Weston agreed that some changes to the proposed bill were positive, including requirements that all Indigenous children have completed cultural support plans.
“They need to be connected to their culture, their identity valued and nurtured and we believe that's the best outcome,” he said.
An open letter to the WA government calling for amendments to the bill has garnered dozens of signatures, including The Aboriginal Legal Service, WA Council of Social Services, and Amnesty.
They need to be connected to their culture, their identity valued and nurtured
A spokesperson for Child Protection Minister, Simone McGurk, said the proposed bill will allow for further consultation than previous legislation.
"The Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019 requires consultation with a family member about the placement of a child in care. Currently, there is no provision for such consultation.
“Under the proposed amendments, consultation with three prescribed bodies - including a member of the child’s family - will be required. Currently, the law requires that only one body is consulted, with family not prescribed as one of those bodies," said Ms McGurk.
“The committee inquiry into the Community Services Amendment Bill 2019 called for public submissions and had numerous Aboriginal stakeholders attend hearings to provide evidence. We are accepting almost all of those recommendations."
A spokesperson for the WA government said there is ongoing commitment to limit children's interaction with the child protection system.
“This government has invested $97 million in Earlier Intervention and Family Support Services, including intensive, in-home supports for families and parents with children who are at risk of coming into care.
“Significantly, we are now seeing the lowest growth in Aboriginal children coming into care since 2004. The total growth of children in care is 2.2 per cent, which is the lowest single year growth since 1998.”