Leticia Quince went into the New South Wales foster care system when she was 12.
As a young girl, she spoke out about sexual abuse in her family home. This, combined with ongoing neglect, saw Leticia and her five younger siblings removed from their family and placed with a loving, non-Indigenous carer. She says foster care was the best thing that ever happened to her.
Now 19, Leticia advocates for other youth in care, determined to give them the same support she received.
Though her time in foster care was largely positive, she says the system is far from perfect.
Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up around a third of all kids in the care system.
Drawing on her own experiences, and those of other youth in care, here Leticia shares five ways the system can change for the better, in her own words.
1. Be sensitive, from the beginning
You start from the beginning: how a child is removed.
I hear dreadful stories of how young people are removed and how police are enforced in these situations of the removal process. Not only does this experience traumatise a child, but it makes us see that police are bad people, that the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) are bad people.
There's no way of sugar-coating a removal, it's hard and it is traumatising. But there should be process in tact where the children and the young people are able to have a say in what's going on, and not just being told, not being blindsided.
A lot of the time you hear of young people being told that they're going on a holiday, that it's only for a weekend. How is that fair on a young person when you're meant to be looking after them and helping them get out of a vulnerable position?
2. Make decisions with young people, not for them
They need to have caseworkers where they can communicate with them on a level that a young person can understand.
Instead of making decisions for them, make decisions with them. Because, especially when they're getting older, they need to be learning independence and how to make decisions for when they do leave care.
My first caseworker... it was not a good relationship. She didn't listen to me, she communicated to me poorly. She basically spoke to me in all these words that were made to an adult, and I was a 12-year-old girl. That kind of experience made me not want to speak to FACS and not want anything to do with them.
And then a while after I actually got a really amazing caseworker and he is someone that still calls up now and again and checks how I'm going. He was actually an Indigenous caseworker, and my caseworker before wasn't. He had my wants and needs as a priority, and asked me questions and asked me what do I want to do, or what's my say on this? Instead of just making decisions for me, like other caseworkers have done.
3. Recruit Aboriginal carers and caseworkers
I feel it's very important to have Aboriginal carers and caseworkers, but I've heard many stories that some of the reasons why we have this limitation. In a country where Aboriginal people have been removed from family for a long time, it's difficult for an Aboriginal worker and caseworker to be the one that takes part in that.
Also there's that idea that Aboriginal, for instance kinship carers get frowned upon... because they've accepted to take care of their nieces and nephews.
If you think about it, wouldn't you rather your young people, your children, to be put with a carer that's someone you know, instead of them being put with a stranger, where they have to redevelop a rapport?
4. Maintain connection to culture
I was informed that I was Aboriginal since I was as young as I can remember. So I've always had this knowledge, but I wasn't aware of where it stemmed from.
I was placed with a non-Aboriginal carer, and as much as she has assisted and supported me in researching and trying to find out about my Aboriginal culture... I didn't have much connection to my culture, in the sense that I didn't know where my mob came from. I'd asked these questions numerous times to find out... like who are my mob, where do I come from, who are my grandparents? And they can't tell me.
It's extremely important, because it's part of who you are. You feel lost when you don't know, because it's like, there's a piece of you that you can't fulfill.
Note: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle is designed to see children placed with Indigenous carers where possible. This has been implemented with varying degrees of success across all states and territories.
5. Support young people leaving the care system
Leaving foster care, it was difficult because I have so much attachment to my foster family.
I had a lot of support from my foster family, from one of my Aftercare workers, who was able to help guide me as well and assist me financially, mentally, emotionally, through the transition.
A lot of the time, you hear of young people that after leaving care, they get no support whatsoever. They get left to fend for themselves, and that's not fair, because they've already been put into this place of vulnerability after getting removed. They get left to the big wide world, missing out on some of the essential understandings of connection to family, and connection to culture, and learning life skills - and here they are stuck on the street.
Sometimes I just don't see it being any different than a young person staying with their family, if they're getting left in another, it might be different, but still a vulnerable position.
Note: Leticia has received support from the Aboriginal Aftercare State-wide Service, set up in NSW to help Indigenous young people transition out of care