'Alarming rate': removal of Australia's Indigenous children escalating, report warns

NSW has the highest rate of Indigenous children in care and critics are demanding greater transparency

 Indigenous children make up 37% of Australia’s out-of-home care population but just 6% of the total child population. Photograph: naufalmq/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed and placed into Australia’s child protection systems continues to “escalate at an alarming rate”, according to the annual Family Matters national report.

The number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care will more than double by 2029, if states and territories “do not change our course of action”, the Family Matters report says.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up 37% of the total out-of-home care population but are only 6% of the total child population in Australia. They are 9.7 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous children, according to the report produced by the peak group representing all Indigenous child care organisations in Australia, SNAICC.

A “staggering” 81% of Indigenous children are on long-term guardianship orders, which means they are in state care to the age of 18 and are thus “at serious risk of permanent separation from their families, cultures and communities”.

In New South Wales, the use of permanent care orders is twice the national average.

The number of Aboriginal children being adopted has also risen, Family Matters said. Ninety-five per cent of adoptions have been to non-Indigenous carers, and they all occurred in NSW and Victoria.

In NSW adoption without parental consent was legalised in 2018, despite widespread community opposition.

NSW also has the highest rate of Aboriginal children in care: 40% of children in out-of-home care are Aboriginal, nearly 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.

The state’s Aboriginal child and family peak organisation, AbSec, is calling on the NSW government to use Tuesday’s budget to “support families at a time when so many are struggling” rather than take more Aboriginal children into care.

Currently in NSW, more than $2bn is spent on child protection and out-of-home care, but only $150m is spent on early intervention, AbSec said.

In 2019, a major review of the NSW system found “widespread noncompliance” with law and policy. The Family is Culture review found that child protection workers regularly gave “misleading” evidence to the children’s court, often took the most traumatic option by removing Aboriginal children – including newborns – from their families, and operated in a “closed system” without transparency.

Chaired by University of NSW law professor Megan Davis, the study looked at the case files of 1,144 Aboriginal children who entered the NSW out-of-home care system between 2015 and 2016.

Seven months after its release, the NSW family services minister, Gareth Ward, responded to the report’s 125 recommendations by announcing a deputy children’s guardian for Aboriginal children and young people, and the establishment of an “Aboriginal knowledge circle” of appointees to provide independent advice to the minister.

Ward said there had been a 35% reduction in the number of Aboriginal children entering out-of-home care in the past five years.

“The recently appointed deputy children’s guardian for Aboriginal children and young people will strengthen oversight and enforcement powers in accrediting [out-of-home care] providers to ensure a higher standard of practice.”

But AbSec said the review recommended a more substantial, independent Aboriginal child protection commission. It called on the NSW government to commit to the Closing the Gap targets by investing in Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to deliver early intervention and family support, as well as funding for restoration.

“How many reports must be written before there is real change for Aboriginal children? We keep asking this question and are continuously left waiting,” the AbSec chair, Dana Clarke, said. “The ask is not a big one but would make a huge difference for our children.

“The NSW government has the plan to create a system that works for everyone in the form of the Family is Culture recommendations; they must finally act on them in their entirety.”

The NSW Council of Social Services chief executive, Joanna Quilty, said: “There will be increased pressure on families due to financial stress in 2021, with Aboriginal families disproportionately affected. This highlights the need to build on successful Aboriginal community-controlled services that support families, keeping them together, instead of further entrenching disadvantage, intergenerational trauma and poverty through removals.”

The Family Matters report says a strategy is needed to achieve the Closing the Gap target to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45% by 2031.

It recommends an end to “the policy and practice” of adopting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from out-of-home care, the establishment of national standards for family support and child protection legislation, policy and practices, and for every state and territory to appoint a commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

“Our children are 9.7 times more likely to be living away from their families than non-Indigenous children, an over-representation that has increased consistently over the last 10 years. It is time to completely change this broken system that is not working for our kids,” the Family Matters chair, Sue-Anne Hunter, said.

“Permanently removing our children from their family and ties to community is not the answer to a happy, healthy and safe upbringing. We have learnt from the Stolen Generations that removal leads to continued disadvantage and intergenerational trauma for our children.

“Connection to culture is crucial for our children to develop their own sense of identity, connection and belonging.”


1 comment

  • Suzanne Russell

    Alarming statistical facts!
    Stable ongoing place in family is essential for all children, not just [privileged] white kids. I’m not suggesting that family problems don’t exist across the board, but do find it difficult to believe that there’s not some significant formal ‘bent’ against aboriginal families, resulting in the conspicuously disproportionate numbers of children being ‘seized’ and removed from family, community and culture.

    IF this were not so, (and therefore that aboriginal children’s living conditions were so dangerous that the disturbing figures did not at all reflect prejudice at official, governmental levels, (that is, that children in aboriginal families actually WERE inherently more vulnerable than kids in any other group,) then ALL THE MORE cause for shame and concern. Who is it that looks after such issues?
    We can’t have it both ways,
    i] too many children being removed from family and community in proper reliance upon fair and equitable statutory requirements,
    ii] too many children being removed from family and community because the ‘system’ is biased, and unfair to aboriginal families specifically.
    It’s highy improbable that both of these premises ring true.
    Either way, another royal commission is urgently warranted, to get to the core of why the statistics are so shameful. After that, the recommended actions should be taken without delay.
    If the official figures showed anything LIKE the same percentages of white children, or e.g , Chinese children, or other non-indigenous children, do you think the shocking status quo would be so very uneven? I know it would not!
    Citizens and governments need to take this shameful situation very seriously, for the future of our children, – whoever they are, and whatever their genetic background, – our nation as an honourable entity, and for
    the reputation and standing of Australia as a world citizen!

    Couple years ago I attended public meeting in Civic (A.C.T.) chaired by John Stanhope, and with at least a couple more speakers including the woman who manages Winnunga.

    I remember turning to the woman next to me at one point, & asking her, “HOW do they get away with it?!”
    She had no answer, & it appears that the subject scandal has only become worse since the time of that meeting.
    Most Australians, specifically but certainly not exclusively non-indigenous, would not be aware of these frightening figures, but they should be.

    It’s as if so much of our history – past AND continuing, – is veiled in secrecy & concealment, just as ‘dirty secrets’ tend usually to be.

    Steps towards reconciliation between the original caretakers & ‘the rest of us’ can hardly make appropriate progress when so many of us (including me and millions of others,) just don’t know what goes on.

    We cannot continue to live in ignorance and complacency and still think of ourselves as complete, and decent.

    How about some real and relevant ‘community service announcements’ via the media, especially via television.

    Everyone can see there are plenty funds available for endless government electioneering messages, masquerading as community service announcements.

    Come on, Australia! If the various governments are not willing to do anything about these unhealthy and unprincipled attacks on the basic fabric of family life, that is the foundation of the broader society, we the people must make the necessary changes ourselves, via our rights as electors.
    The alternative is the continuation of disgusting, selectively delusional contamination and distortion of our own story, and downright disrespect for and denial and ignorance of the rights of and the millennia of history, which are the birthright of our black brothers and sisters

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