Listening to our children

Listening

After listening to the stories of almost 200 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care, Andrew Jackomos says we must face up to the truth about the struggles some Aboriginal children are facing, and work together to give them the care and support they deserve.

After 14 months as the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People I am at a loss to adequately describe the world I see many of our vulnerable children surviving in.

I am proud to say that the great majority of Koori children live in safe and loving families, where they are free from family violence, and are growing strong in their culture and in their respect for each other and their neighbours. They will do well at school and go on to become model citizens. This is my objective for all our children. Unfortunately it is far from the reality for many of our children: the very children that I have been appointed to advocate for and give a voice to.

Through Taskforce 1000, an initiative between the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Commission for Children and Young People, we have set out to consider the experiences
of the more than 1000 Koori children and young people in out-of-home care. After three months, I have so far had the opportunity to hear of the experiences of close to 200 children in care, from as far afield as Mildura, Latrobe Gippsland, and Melbourne’s western and southern suburbs.

Of the children whose cases we have so far reviewed, virtually all bar a handful are in out-of-home care due to a mix of primarily family violence, alcohol and drugs. Compounding this is intergenerational trauma driven by past government policies of child removal, parental involvement with child protection and out-of-home care systems, mental health, sexual abuse, incarceration, poor housing and transience.

I have heard of extended families continuing from generation to generation as clients of the service system. Their children and their children’s children are clients of the child protection and out-of-home care systems. Many of these children await reception into the justice system. I have heard one story of three generations of a family imprisoned at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

There is a significant link between Koori children moving from out-of-home care through to youth justice and detention. Particularly distressing is the gross over-representation of Koori children, let alone one child, aged between 10-14 remanded in Parkville at the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre. A significant number of these children have come from out-of-home care. As highlighted in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, there is an urgent need to consider community-based alternatives to remand and detention for our children.

“What extenuates the pain and grief for these children is when parts of the system, both within government and community, are falling down or falling apart.”

I have spoken with many committed workers in DHS, Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) and in the community sector, who work tirelessly with children to make a
difference to their lives; sometimes to the detriment of their own personal wellbeing and family life. Many come into the system fresh from graduation with high ideals of how they will make a difference. Sadly, many are soon burnt out and lose theiridealism. These are good people and they have my respect.

I have heard of foster and kinship carers, both Koori and non-Koori, who open their doors to take into their homes our most vulnerable children. I hear of and see many children who, since conception, have been traumatised and will carry the mental and physical scars of this for eternity. My previous life experiences did not prepare me for what I hear on a daily basis. What extenuates the pain and grief for these children is when parts of the system, both within government and community, are falling down or falling apart.

A few of the systemic failings I see include:

• A lack of resources in preventative and early intervention programs;
• A lack of programs to provide an Aboriginal perspective and knowledge about effective and culturally safe placements in child protection;
• A lack of training in cultural competency across the workforce and in the utilisation of services such as the Koori Family History Service;
• A lack of coordination of Koori sibling groups within DHS, and/or separation of sibling groups in kinship and foster care placements;
• Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making conferences for children being held in abeyance for years because of long term vacancies in DHS and the community sector;
• Children considered ready by DHS for permanent placement waiting for years to have their cases fully assessed; and
• Carers not being fully informed of entitlements their children are eligible for, or being reluctant to enter them into permanent care arrangements due to concerns that DHS will not fulfil prior agreements.

The most recent DHS data shows that where there are strong and dynamic ACCOs, such as in Mildura and Shepparton, with wrap-around services addressing family violence, women’s and
children’s advocacy and family strengthening programs, the ratio of children in out-of-home care is dropping. Where we don’t have strong ACCOs, the ratio of children removed increases at alarming trajectories. We all need to stop dithering, particularly government, and work with local communities to develop their governance skills and strengthen their ACCOs.

The Government is to be congratulated for amending the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic) to ensure that from 1 July 2016, all Aboriginal children in out-of-home care will have a cultural support plan. At the moment only the 300 or so Koori children under guardianship are required to have a cultural support plan. The amendment means that the 1000 or so children in out-of-home care will now require such a plan. This will require substantial investment to deliver.
Unfortunately, at 30 June 2013 only about 15 per cent of Aboriginal children in guardianship had a completed cultural support plan. I have concerns over how considered, meaningful and  implemented many of them are. A cultural support plan is not about just taking a child to a NAIDOC march, or sticking Aboriginal flags on the wall. There must be connections and socialisation with other Koori children and role models who will inspire and support the child as their life unfolds.

An initiative I have proudly supported has been the development of the Alliance. The Alliance will provide a collective voice for the 16 Victorian ACCOs delivering out-of-home care services for Koori children. I am fiercely optimistic that coordination of the ACCOs’ work through the Alliance and the unified voice and advocacy it can provide, will do much to serve our vulnerable Koori children, including the pursuit of better and more targeted programs in local communities and better links through to DHS.

The biggest threat to our children, our families and our culture is family violence. Whatever the causes and past injustices, it does not justify one case of violence today. And in but a handful of the 200 children we have considered, it is men violating the rights of Aboriginal women and their children. Without reducing the level and impact of family violence, and growing the respect for our women and children, we will not effectively reduce the numbers of our children being taken away.

“A cultural support plan is not about just taking a child to a NAIDOC march, or sticking Aboriginal flags on the wall. There must be connections and socialisation with other Koori children and role models who will inspire and support the child as their life unfolds.”

The State Government is in the process of reviewing its 10-year Indigenous Family Violence Partnership Strategy. To be more effective, the strategy needs to be moved from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria (OAAV) in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and placed where it belongs in DHS, along with that department’s mainstream responsibilities around preventing and addressing family violence.

Going forward, I urge the government to enter into an agreement with the Koori community to improve the lives of our vulnerable children in out-of-home care, as previous governments have done with the Aboriginal Justice Agreement.

We also need a specific strategy, albeit as part of the Vulnerable Children’s Strategy, developed in partnership with the Koori community and the broader community sector, to reduce the numbers of vulnerable children in out-of-home care and equip them to live independently when they leave  care.

The strategy needs to have transparency, accountability, measurables, milestones, and importantly principles that are a foundation for partnership.

We should not rest until we are satisfied that services, practices and structures are in place to enable our children to receive the best possible care and support, whether they are at home with
family, or in out-of-home care.

We will never make real progress while governments of all persuasions continue to hide the reality of the situation. We must confront the truth head-on, analyse and share the data we know is available and face up to the realities if we are to effect real change.

Andrew Jackomos is the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.

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