Each year SNAICC – National Voice for our Children, the national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, conducts a comprehensive review of the progress of all states and territories in implementing the Child Placement Principle.
As SNAICC CEO Richard Weston explains below, the Principle was founded in the intent for systemic change to counter embedded racism that caused the Stolen Generations. A guiding principle in child protection, it aims to enhance and preserve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s connection to family and community and sense of identity and culture.
SNAICC’s latest review finds pockets of significant reform occurring across the country – including in Queensland where 33 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled Family Wellbeing Services have achieved half the rate of re-notifications to child protection compared with mainstream, non-Indigenous organisations.
But it finds that overall implementation of the Principle remains “poor and limited” and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be separated from family and culture at alarming rates.
Stating that “persistent implementation failures demand increased accountability”, SNAICC is calling, along with over 140 organisations across the country, for the establishment of a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s commissioner to provide much needed oversight.
Richard Weston writes:
The experiences that children have in their early years set the stage for their lifelong physical and mental health, and social and emotional wellbeing. It is well established in international evidence that adverse childhood experiences are a strong predictor of social and health challenges that have a lasting impact across the life course.
Spending time in out-of-home care is often a result of those adverse experiences. Children who spend time in out-of-home-care are at greater risk of negative health and wellbeing outcomes – including poor mental health; lower educational attainment, substance misuse; and over-representation in youth justice systems.
This burden falls disproportionately on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who in 2019 were 10.6 times more likely to be living in out-of-home care than their non-Indigenous peers.
The impacts start early during children’s critical developmental phases, with 46 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their parents by age 4.
The risks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are further compounded by inadequate protections within child protection law and policy for children’s cultural and identity rights.
The long-term impacts of adverse childhood experiences for members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants documented in Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports provide overwhelming and credible evidence that removing children from their families and cultures have ongoing negative health and wellbeing outcomes.
It was concern for the future generations of our children that led Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to develop the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (the ‘Child Placement Principle’).
The Child Placement Principle was founded in the intent for systemic change to counter embedded racism that caused the Stolen Generations by explicitly recognising the value of our cultures in our children’s upbringing.
The Principle also recognised the vital role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities to participate in the decisions about the safety and wellbeing of our children.
The five elements of the Child Placement Principle span from a priority for prevention of harm and keeping families safely together, to the right of connection to family, community, culture and Country for children who need to live away from their parents for their safety and wellbeing.
The partnership element reflects the importance of enabling the role of independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations in child protection decision-making, drawing on their deep cultural knowledge and relationships, whilst the participation element recognises the rights of children and their families to actively participate in all child protection decisions that affect them.
The placement element defines the hierarchy of preferred placement options, with kin or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers, for children in out-of-home care.
Full implementation of the Child Placement Principle is vital to ensure that our children grow up with a positive sense of personal and cultural identity and with supportive family and community networks, which are evidence-based factors that contribute to improved health and wellbeing for children, and to healing for our communities.
As such, full implementation is recognised as a key national policy priority for improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at risk of entering, or in contact with, child protection systems through the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009 – 2020.
“Alarming rates” of separation
It is also a key recommendation of the Family Matters campaign, which is led by SNAICC. That is why each year SNAICC completes an annual comprehensive review of the progress of all states and territories in implementing the Child Placement Principle.
The reviews are developed with input from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) and state and territory governments.
Released in January 2020, they highlight that there has been significant work undertaken in states and territories to strengthen adherence with the five elements of the Child Placement Principle, but that overall implementation remains poor and limited.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be separated from family and culture at alarming rates, and there is a lack of comprehensive approaches to involving children, families and communities in decisions and services related to the care and protection of children.
The compliance reviews find that the proportion of child protection expenditure on early intervention and prevention services is very low nationally, at an average of only 17.1 per cent of total expenditure, and well below the national average in Western Australia (4.8 per cent), Tasmania (13.1 per cent) and the Australian Capital Territory (13.4 per cent).
Data released by the Productivity Commission in January 2020, shows the national proportion of investment in prevention and early intervention has dropped even further in the last year to just 15.9 per cent.
Early intervention and prevention services, particularly culturally safe services delivered by ACCOs, are essential for upholding the rights of our children to grow up where they belong – within their families and communities.
Positive reform, worrying gaps
In Queensland, 33 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled Family Wellbeing Services have been rolled out across the state to provide culturally responsive support to families experiencing vulnerability.
Data from the initial 12 months of operation show that the Family Wellbeing Services have achieved half the rate of re-notifications to child protection compared with mainstream, non-Indigenous organisations.
We’ve seen some positive reform to develop partnerships that strengthen the role of ACCOs in child protection service design and delivery.
In Victoria, the Department of Health and Human Services continues to progress its commitment to transfer case management of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care to ACCOs by the end of 2021.
ACCOs are reporting high rates of success in reunifying children to their birth parents or placements in kinship care. This will ensure that our children grow up connected to their families, cultures and communities.
For children who have to be removed to ensure their safety, placement with kin or family members, or other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers must be prioritised.
However, nationally, only 63.6 per cent of our children were placed with their family, kin or other Aboriginal and Torres Islander carers in 2018. The result of a placement away from kin or family can be permanent disconnection from community and culture.
Many community stakeholders reported that requirements to support cultural connection for children placed away from their kin are rarely properly planned for or carried out.
Promisingly, we are seeing significant policy reform concerning kinship care in some states and territories, which has the potential to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are in placements that enable the highest level of connection to family, community, culture and country.
In the Northern Territory, Territory Families funded the development of a new Aboriginal-led kin care model for identifying, recruiting and supporting Aboriginal family and kin carers and has committed to its full implementation across a five-year period.
Other states and territories are demonstrating significant investment in ACCO-led kinship care programs, including Victoria and a new program recently announced in South Australia.
At the same time, legislative amendments in NSW, passed without proper consultation, have raised serious concerns among Aboriginal organisations.
These amendments make it easier for children to be permanently removed from their families or adopted. Permanent placements with non-Indigenous carers create enormous risks to our children’s stability of identity and the maintenance of their vital family and cultural relationships.
These findings suggest that whilst there are pockets of significant reform occurring across the country, all jurisdictions require clear and strengthened commitments to support full implementation of the Child Placement Principle.
SNAICC has recognised that persistent implementation failures demand increased accountability and has joined with over 140 organisations across the country to call for the establishment of a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s commissioner to provide much needed oversight.
Read the full Child Placement Principle compliance reviews by state and territory
Support our call for a dedicated national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s commissioner
Richard Weston is CEO for SNAICC – National Voice for our Children, the national non-governmental peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.