The cost of late intervention for Indigenous children hurts Australian taxpayers – and ensures history keeps repeating
Every year, the Family Matters campaign provide recommendations to Australian governments to tackle the issue of Indigenous overrepresentation in Australian child protection systems. Where I live in Victoria, the system is at crisis point.
In 2014 when the then commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Andrew Jackomos, launched a systemic inquiry into Indigenous child protection, there were just over 1,000 Indigenous children and young people in care. Now, five years later, the numbers are closer to 3,000. Indigenous overrepresentation in care is getting worse, not better.
The fact of the matter is that Australian child protection systems are an industry that support thousands of jobs. Australians from various professions – lawyers, social workers, education specialists, medical professionals, psychologists – benefit financially from “Indigenous disadvantage” and overrepresentation in care.
I can’t lie and pretend that I’m not one of them. I am a Noongar researcher, academic and social worker who has spent my career working with, and for, Indigenous children, families and communities in child protection systems. But I take comfort knowing that what I do is listen to Indigenous Australians experiencing the brunt of the suffering, trauma and hardship every day. I take their stories – their lived realities – to heart, and do my absolute best to try to give back and work towards changing a broken system that continues to fail them every day. I take on board the seriousness of the principles of Indigenous self-determination, the paramount importance of listening – and acting on – what Indigenous people want for our kids.
For the past four years, the Family Matters campaign has called on all Australian governments to increase prevention and early intervention support to Indigenous Australian families who are struggling to care for their kids. And while some Australian governments have taken some recommendations on board, investment in out-of-home care supports – like foster care and kinship care – far exceed that provided to families before child removal occurs.
The lopsided investment in tertiary child protection systems is staggering. A new report shows the cost of child protection in Australia is just under $5.9bn annually, while only 17% of this expenditure goes to family support services. As articulated in the How Australia Can Invest in Children and Return More report: “The cost to government of late intervention in Australia is $15.2bn each year. This equates to $607 for every Australian, or $1,912 per child and young person.”
Evidently, the cost of late intervention – that is, statutory services removing children from families when removal could have been prevented – hurts Australian taxpayers. Economically, it makes sense to intervene earlier and provide supports like in-home maternal child health nurse visits, subsided support to cover the rising cost of electricity bills, and culturally appropriate, affordable counselling services. It makes sense to tackle the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander overrepresentation crisis by preventing child removals in the first place.
Indeed, poverty is associated with a higher likelihood of families – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – being involved with child protection systems. Child protection reports increase by remoteness and the poorer the socioeconomic area. Family violence, parental substance abuse, mental health issues and homelessness are also associated with a higher likelihood of Indigenous children and families encountering child protection.
But all of these reasons for Indigenous child removal stem, in no small measure, from Australia’s colonial legacy. Invasion continues to have a direct impact on the lives of Indigenous people, and financially, Australian taxpayers are bankrolling the cost of failing to intervene early enough to heal intergenerational trauma.
The national Indigenous-led and controlled Family Matters campaign continues to advocate for increased prevention and early intervention supports to keep families together and reduce overrepresentation. As the quantitative analysis of Australian child protection data provide a strong indication that overrepresentation will continue to worsen, I have to ask myself why the Family Matters recommendations are not being more readily adopted by all Australian governments.
I think about the notion that we’re in the midst of a second stolen generations. Nationally, 20,421 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living in out-of-home care at 30 June 2018, a rate 10.2 times higher than non-Indigenous children. The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care now exceed the numbers removed throughout the stolen generations.
But then I wonder if the stolen generations never ended, but instead, just morphed into child protection.
And in another striking parallel, Indigenous children today are still removed for their “best interests”, the same language that was used to justify forcible removals in the 20th century.Read more
The similarities between past and contemporary Indigenous child removal practices raises a host of questions. On whose values do we determine the “best interests” of the Indigenous child? Are we still trying to assimilate Indigenous children into non-Indigenous society? Why aren’t we listening – and acting on – the demands of Indigenous Australians who continue to articulate Indigenous-led solutions to the overrepresentation crisis?
In 2008, the then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the actions of successive Australian governments in forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures as part of the stolen generations.
A hundred years from now, will we look back on contemporary Indigenous child removals and again, apologise for the actions – and inactions – of Australian governments to reduce Indigenous child removals?
One thing is for certain: saying sorry means you don’t do it again.
Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s start listening to – and acting on – the solutions proposed by Indigenous Australians to reduce overrepresentation.
• Jacynta Krakouer is a Noongar woman who is an associate lecturer for the department of social work at the Melbourne School of Health Sciences