Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 December 2017


Family Matters Report 2017

7:59 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak about the escalating crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. Last week in the Great Hall, the National Voice for our Children released their annual report, The Family Matters report 2017: measuring trends to turn the tide on the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia. I seek leave to table this report.

Leave granted.

To the shame of this entire nation, last year's Family Matters report found that the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care was, most likely, going to almost triple within the next 20 years. This year, the projection has become worse—would you believe! It will more than triple by 2036. Shamefully, children in out-of-home care, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids, continue to be let down by all levels of government. The number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care continues to rise year on year, and it's at such a state of crisis many are calling them the second stolen generation. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, and this year was the 20th anniversary of the Bringing them home report. At the time of the apology, the government promised:

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

Yet it is happening again. It's happening right before our eyes, and, on top of this, most of the recommendations from that 20-year-old Bringing them home report have still not been implemented.

Although we, as a nation, have apologised for the trauma and hurt that happened in the past, these practices of removing children from their families continue. The Family Matters report has found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families continue to be grossly overrepresented in child protection and out-of-home care systems, and experience significant inequality on key indicators of social and economic disadvantage that contribute to entry and exit from out-of-home care. At the same time, they are underrepresented in universal and targeted services that could act to prevent their increasing rate of contact with child protection services. In my home state of Western Australia, Aboriginal children are 17.5 times—yes, 17.5 times!—more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children. This is up from 16.5 per cent last year. This rate is higher than anywhere else in the country. It is appalling, and it needs to change.

The report has found that children are commonly not being appropriately placed in care—that is, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle is not being followed. This is leading to a loss of connection to family and community, culture and country. Further, our first peoples are not being included in child protection decision-making, and this is to the detriment of these children.

Some key findings of the report include that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are overrepresented in the system at virtually every decision-making point in the child protection system that is currently reported at the national level. In 2016, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 9.8 times more likely to be residing in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children. That's an average; it's worse in various states, as I've just articulated, for example, in WA.

In 2015-17, only 17 per cent of overall child protection funding was invested in support services for Aboriginal children and their families. Only two per cent of Aboriginal children commenced an Intensive Family Support Service in 2015-16. The proportion of Aboriginal children placed with family, kin or other Aboriginal carers has continued to decrease over the last 10 years and is down to 67 per cent. There is strong evidence that early care and environmental factors have critical impacts on later health and wellbeing, and that interventions will be more effective the earlier in the lives of children they can be applied. What we're seeing in our system here in Australia, however, is the government putting money in the out-of-home care stage. They spend a lot of money there, and, when there needs to be cuts, the funding cuts come from those early intervention and family support services. We should be focusing on preventative measures so we can stop children having contact with the child protection system and ending up in out-of-home care.

The findings of the report are a reflection of the failure to properly support, help and protect Aboriginal children. They are the result of systemic failings and failures by government at every level to use resources on preventive rather than reactive measures. There are nine key recommendations in The Family Matters report, but there are several factors in many of them. Some of the recommendations are: the development of a comprehensive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's strategy that includes generational targets to eliminate overrepresentation; strong investment in a strategy and target for supporting preventive and early intervention services; sustainable funding for a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled early years sector; and national standards and legislation to ensure changed practices in the family support and child protection system so that it adheres to all five elements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle. That is absolutely critical, and there are five key areas that that needs to apply to. We need to commit to a sustained increase in investment in family violence response and prevention, with a key focus on resourcing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled organisations. We also need better development and publication of data to better measure the situation and respond in a timely manner to the issues that need to be addressed. And we need to establish state based commissioners, peak bodies and other representative bodies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

This report makes the point that, through COAG, all governments need to commit to a national strategy and generational targets to address the causes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed from their families. I've got to say here, though, that people are sick and tired of hearing the Commonwealth government blaming the states and territories and the states and territories blaming the Commonwealth. It's about time we put the interests of children first and overcame the constant ping-ponging between organisations.

I referred previously to supporting children early, and I make the further point that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that, the earlier you provide family supports and services, the brighter the prospects for these children. Evidence strongly supports the importance of Aboriginal participation and self-determination in service design and delivery to achieve positive outcomes for Aboriginal children and families. It is absolutely critical that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples determine the services that they are controlling and delivering to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and children.

The evidence is also clear about the need to maintain strong links to family and culture. It is an essential part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle I was talking about, putting children at the centre and ensuring that we have community led decision-making and service delivery.

The other key part of this report by Family Matters is their roadmap, which proposes four interrelated building blocks, underpinned by evidence and ethics, detailing the systemic changes needed to achieve this aim:

          This has been carefully documented. It has been carefully worked out by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They are further developing what needs to be done. Government needs to listen, take it on board and act now before we have another stolen generation.