It gives me pleasure to contribute to the debate on the Children Youth and Families Amendment (Aboriginal Principal Officers) Bill 2015.
This is an important piece of legislation designed to support Aboriginal children and families by ensuring that Aboriginal children subject to Children’s Court of Victoria orders remain connected with their community and culture.
We are all aware of the history of disconnection and loss that resulted from the removal of children from their homes and families over a long period of time.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by Australia in 1990. In article 20, in reference to situations where children have to be removed from their own family environment, it states:
When considering solutions, due regard shall be paid to the desirability of continuity in a child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.
It seems to me that this legislation represents a step in what has been a journey for legislators throughout the country. The Bringing Them Home report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families gathered compelling evidence of the hardships suffered by Aboriginal children who were separated from their families. It was tabled in the federal Parliament in 1997. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008 to the stolen generations embedded in our history the knowledge of the devastating effects that resulted from these policies.
In the Bringing Them Home report, under the heading ‘Self-determination’ recommendation 43c(1) states:
… the transfer of legal jurisdiction in relation to children’s welfare, care and protection, adoption and/or juvenile justice to an Indigenous community, region or representative organisation …
Our communities now expect the deeds of the past to remain of the past.
One of the terms of reference of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children from their families was to:
… examine current laws, practices and policies with respect to the placement and care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and advise on any changes required taking into account the principle of self-determination by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples …
However, there remains a significant over-representation of Aboriginal children in the Victorian child protection system. In his second-reading speech the minister stated that Aboriginal children make up 1.6 per cent of the Victorian population but they constitute over 16 per cent of the children and young people on care and protection orders.
Listening to the debates on this bill in the Parliament, I note that there have been a number of speeches in which one side takes credit for something and the other side is criticised for not having done enough, but the reality is there has been very little progress in this area. In this regard I refer to the Koorie Kids — Growing Strong in Their Culture submission. It states:
Although the Victorian government has committed to reducing the gap in the rate of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal child protection substantiations by 75 per cent by 2023 the rate continues to increase. In 2010–12 the rate for Aboriginal children was 62.5 per 1000 as compared to non-Aboriginal at 6.4 per 1000. This increased to 67.4 per 1000 for Aboriginal children in 2012–13 compared to 7.2 per 1000 for non-Aboriginal substantiations.
Things are not going all that well, and it is really important that legislation like this does something to address those sorts of changes.
I have been well aware of this situation, having been a practising lawyer in my own electorate of Shepparton district for many years. My electorate has one of the highest populations of Aboriginal people outside of Melbourne. The impact of disadvantage on Aboriginal communities is well known to all of us, and certainly to those of us who practise in the legal profession and particularly to those who practise in the Children’s Court jurisdiction. People in that jurisdiction have talked to me about their concerns in relation to the large number of mothers of Aboriginal descent whose children are being removed from their care and placed in out-of-home care.
These mothers face really complex social issues — often family violence, drug and alcohol issues — but it is not only the mothers who are having their children removed from them; it is the children being removed from their mothers. When you have this sort of situation it is so important that the children retain some connection with their families — if they cannot live in their homes, at least helping them to be connected in some way with their families is an important objective.
The Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry, led by former judge Philip Cummins, delivered its report in 2012. One of the recommendations was that there should be:
A plan for practical self-determination for guardianship and Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and culturally competent service delivery.
The commissioner for children and young people tabled a report called “… as a good parent would …” in August this year. It was a joint report of Bernie Geary and Andrew Jackomos, who is the commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people. It highlighted the serious problems faced by children and young people in out-of-home care. In the cases referred to in the commissioners’ report a number of those children were Aboriginal children.
Among the report’s recommendations was that a professional system of foster care be put in place. The overwhelming takeaway message from that report for me is that the residential services currently provided do not meet a standard that in any way equates to what a good parent would provide for the care of their children. Where children have been removed from their own homes, clearly the next most desirable circumstance is for children to be placed with family members. In speaking to this bill on this issue, I would like to acknowledge the unbelievable work that grandparents, aunties, uncles and extended family members do in our community in caring for children who are unable to be cared for by their own parents.
My reading around this bill and the reason it was introduced highlighted that it is part of a process of government that governments from both sides of politics have been supporting over a number of years. Taskforce 1000 met for the first time in May 2014. Its job was to examine current plans for all Aboriginal children currently in out-of-home care and to identify and respond to particular issues that impact on the stability, development and cultural connectedness of those children. The name Taskforce 1000 was chosen at the time because that was how many Aboriginal children in Victoria were in out-of-home care, and I dare say there are more now.
Earlier this year Taskforce 1000 met in Shepparton. Many local agencies attended that meeting and cases of children in our area who are in out-of-home care were described to those present. The ultimate purpose of these Taskforce 1000 meetings is to try to come up with some better solutions for these children.
Three of our local neighbourhood schools in Shepparton are the most disadvantaged in our area. They have set up their own project — a service to each school that involves assessment by a multidisciplinary team, which is comprised of a paediatrician, teachers, a teacher’s aide and child protection workers. This team assesses children to determine what they might need and to try to address their issues at an early stage. They are suffering from environmental trauma, and they need their issues addressed at an early stage, otherwise we will just have this trajectory of intergenerational disadvantage going on time and again. The schools are working on the children to help them develop the resilience they might need to deal with what inevitably will be very difficult circumstances for them. That program is looking for funding, and I commend it to the government to look at.
I have not talked about the mechanics of this legislation, particularly, but rather the fact that it arises from a trajectory that federal and state governments have been on for a long time. The Bringing Them Home report was probably one of the first major steps in addressing the outcomes that people faced as a result of all those years of removal and disconnection, but we have now had our own inquiries in our own state, and it is clearly time to do something about the issue.
At this stage we only have two agencies, as they are called under the legislation, that will be authorised to deal with Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. It is important that all the other organisations in our state are upskilled and supported so they are able to step in and take on those roles too. In our area Rumbalara is an Aboriginal-controlled organisation. I hope the day will come when it will be able to step into the breach and be involved in making decisions about children in out-of-home care.
For all those reasons I support the legislation, and I hope its implementation will be strong.