'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

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 NSW government has enhanced protections for Aboriginal children and young people in line with recommendations of the Family is Culture report,” he said.

“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.”


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