Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle

Policy and practice considerations
CFCA Paper No. 34 – August 2015

Barriers impeding the implementation of the Principle

The gap between the intent and application of the Principle has been identified as being due to barriers such as:

  • the increasing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the statutory child protection system;
  • a shortage of Indigenous foster and kinship carers;
  • poor identification and assessment of carers;
  • inconsistent involvement of, and support for, Indigenous people and organisations in child protection decision-making;
  • deficiencies in the provision of cultural care and connection to culture and community;
  • practice and systemic issues impacting the operation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child care agencies; and
  • inconsistent quantification, measurement and monitoring of the Principle across jurisdictions.

The increasing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the statutory child protection system

As described earlier, rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children entering care have significantly increased over the past decade (see Table 3). The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has increased by 140% in the past decade, as compared with rates of non-Indigenous children, which have increased by 50% (AIHW, 2014). Across Australian jurisdictions, between 6% and 28% of Indigenous children have been the subject of a notification to child protection services in one 12-month period (Productivity Commission, 2015).

Table 3: Children in out-of-home care by year, at June 30
  Number of children Rate per 1,000

Source: AIHW, 2014.

Year Indigenous Non-Indigenous Total Indigenous Non-Indigenous
2013 13,952 26,422 40,549 57.1 5.4
2012 13,299 26,127 39,621 55.1 5.4
2011 12,358 24,929 37,648 51.7 5.1
2010 11,468 24,279 35,895 48.4 5.0
2009 10,512 23,374 34,069 44.8 4.9
2008 9,070 21,539 31,116 41.3 4.6
2007 7,892 20,349 28,379 36.1 4.4
2006 6,497 18,957 25,454 29.8 4.1
2005 5,678 18,017 23,695 26.4 3.9
2004 5,069 16,736 21,795 23.7 3.6

The causes for this over-representation and the increasing rates of Indigenous children in care are multiple and complex. They are, however, largely recognised as a combination of factors including the intergenerational effects of forced removal of children, poor socio-economic status, and cultural differences in child-rearing practices (AIHW, 2014). These factors are further exacerbated by a lack of culturally appropriate early intervention and support services, with many services being triggered by involvement with child protection services, rather than before problems reach this crisis point (Department of Education and Child Development, 2014).

In some jurisdictions, as many as three-quarters of notifications to child protection services are deemed to require support other than a child protection response (Bromfield, Arney, & Higgins, 2014; Northern Territory Government, 2010). Many of these children do not receive such a response, and the concerns about their wellbeing may go unaddressed (Arney, 2010). Problems that could have benefited from early support worsen until they reach a threshold for statutory intervention (Northern Territory Government, 2010). Community members and policy-makers liken this focus on responding to harm rather than preventing it as "the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff".

A shortage of Indigenous foster and kinship carers

A significant barrier impeding the implementation of the Principle is the shortage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers (Bromfield, Higgins, Higgins, & Richardson, 2007; Higgins et al., 2005; Richardson, Bromfield, & Higgins, 2005; Richardson, Bromfield, & Osborn, 2007). This is related to a number of factors including the insufficient number of adults to provide care, inadequate methods for identifying kin relationships and assessing carers, carer burnout, fear and mistrust of child welfare systems and eligibility criteria that exclude some carers (Ban, 2005; Bromfield et al., 2007; FaHCSIA, 2012; Higgins et al., 2005; Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak, 2011; Richardson et al., 2007).

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children comprise approximately one third of the out-of-home care population, Indigenous people comprise only 2% of the total Australian population. Also, compared with non-Indigenous children and adults, there is an imbalance in the youth dependency ratio,3 which means that there is a greater proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults potentially available to care for them (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2014). For example, nationally the youth dependency ratio for non-Indigenous people is 0.27, but for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people it is 0.6 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013). This has implications for the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to meet the needs of children requiring out-of-home care (Bromfield et al., 2007). In addition, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers may be providing multiple forms of care, including foster care, kinship care, care for their own children and informal care for biologically related or unrelated children (Bromfield & Osborn, 2007; Higgins et al., 2005).

It should be emphasised that the problems in carer recruitment and retention are not caused by a lack of willingness to provide care. On the contrary, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to provide care than their non-Indigenous counterparts and are often motivated by a sense of duty or obligation to meet the needs of children within their families and to preserve their families' and the child's identity, and a legacy of shared care-giving within families (Bromfield et al., 2007; Higgins et al., 2005; McGuinness & Arney, 2012). However, in addition to the factors identified above, reasons for difficulties in recruitment and retention also include a lack of financial and practical capacity to provide appropriate care. While kinship care is the preferred option of care for Indigenous children, Indigenous kinship carers are more likely to come from a low socio-economic background and live in poorer conditions (McGuinness & Arney, 2012). They often receive less practical and financial support from child welfare bodies than their foster-carer counterparts, including less training, less information and less caseworker support (FaHCSIA, 2012). Furthermore, when training to provide care is available, it is often culturally inappropriate (Richardson et al., 2007).

It has also been shown that many carers are older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women (often grandparents), some of whom work in professional positions in carer agencies themselves and feel obligated to take on the responsibilities of providing foster care, as well as caring for their own children (Bromfield et al., 2007; Higgins et al., 2005). Care provision involves not only the financial and practical burdens, but also significant emotional and physical demands. Many children in out-of-home care have highly complex needs and issues, in particular mental health and behavioural problems stemming from their own traumatic abuse experiences (De Lisi & Vaughn, 2011; Lange, Shield, Rehm, & Popova, 2013; Sawyer, Carbone, Searle, & Robinson, 2007). This contributes to high levels of stress and risk of burnout for carers.

Poor identification and assessment of potential carers

Factors that further impede the identification and registration of family members as carers include tight time frames for decision-making (e.g., within 24 hours; Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013a). Kinship carers are often unable to be recruited in advance, and immediate needs for placement of children may mean that children are placed with non-Indigenous carers while family members are sought.

Inconsistencies in practitioner knowledge and skill are a significant issue regarding adherence to the Principle. Some practitioners possess a high level of skill in searching for and assessing potential carers, whereas other practitioners may fail to delve further than the first identified placement for the child. Lack of familiarity with kinship systems and relationships with communities may mean that workers do not know how to identify children's family and kinship ties beyond the immediate family. Hence there may be Indigenous kin who are able and willing to care for children, but who are not known to workers (McGuinness & Arney, 2012). Poorly resourced cultural support can hinder family finding (Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013a) and there is a need to involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with knowledge of kinships, social structures and local communities for successful recruitment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers.

Where family members are able to be identified, feelings of mistrust and fear of mainstream welfare organisations can affect their willingness to engage and participate as carers (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2014; FaHCSIA, 2012). In addition, systemic barriers to carer recruitment include high levels of disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; for example, chronic housing shortages and overcrowding may mean that potential carers may not be assessed as suitable (Northern Territory Government, 2010). Restrictions regarding the care history or criminal history of potential carers and their family members will also limit the potential number of adults who can be registered as carers because of higher rates of adult imprisonment, criminal history and substantiations of child maltreatment in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population (Allard, 2010; Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013a).

Until recently, there have been minimal training and guidelines for kinship carer assessment, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (McGuinness & Arney, 2012; Spence, 2004). Mainstream procedural approaches to assessment, recruitment and training of carers have been identified as barriers to recruitment of Indigenous carers (Libesman, 2011; McHugh, 2011). Carer assessment procedures undertaken by mainstream child protection services do not necessarily account for cultural differences in Indigenous family structures, living arrangements and parenting practices (Higgins et al., 2005). For example, sharing the care of children between multiple adults, not all of whom are biologically related, does not fit with Anglo-centric assessment models based on concepts of a biological nuclear family being the "safest" configuration (FaHCSIA, 2012).

Inconsistent involvement of, and support for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in child protection decision-making

The Principle outlines a strong focus on the prevention of child protection intervention; however, the lack of focus on this aspect of the Principle in legislation and the lack of resourcing affects agencies' abilities to provide preventative services to adequately address the needs of vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities before child protection involvement is required. Among their various roles and responsibilities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies across Australia provide support and services based on an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander childrearing practices to promote family preservation, prevent family breakdown, assist in child protection investigative processes, support children who may need to be placed in out-of-home care, utilise a holistic approach by supporting families to engage with other services (e.g., health, education, domestic violence and legal), provide family reunification services, and advocacy (SNAICC, 2005). However, the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies in this range of services varies on a jurisdictional and regional basis.

While the legislation in most jurisdictions provides a role for Aboriginal agencies with respect to making placement decisions for Aboriginal children requiring out-of-home care, some jurisdictions give greater recognition to Aboriginal agencies in decision-making than others (SNAICC, 2013). There is a lack of specificity in the legislation and policies with respect to which Aboriginal organisations will play a role in decision-making, the timing of their involvement in care and protection processes, and the level to which they will be involved. Complicating this further is that, at times, conflicting advice may be provided by different Indigenous staff in care and protection matters (e.g., different staff within an Indigenous organisation, or between staff in Indigenous and non-Indigenous agencies, and/or with family and community members).

There is no requirement for Aboriginal children to be placed via an Aboriginal agency and many Aboriginal caregivers, for historical reasons, will not work with state agencies. In addition, even if an Aboriginal child is placed with an Aboriginal family by a non-Aboriginal agency, particularly if not supervised by an Aboriginal worker, Aboriginal culture is suppressed because the placement is subject to the dominant rules, mores, and conventions that inform non-Aboriginal policies, procedures, and practices as well as the values of non-Aboriginal workers (Valentine & Gray, 2006, p. 539).

The sentiment that consultation of recognised Aboriginal agencies and individuals is being implemented as a tick-the-box exercise has been echoed from both mainstream statutory child protection staff and the staff of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations (Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013a). This is despite recommendations (e.g., the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry) that the responsibility for the placement of Aboriginal children should lie entirely with recognised Aboriginal agencies.

While Aboriginal agencies possess the appropriate cultural expertise, communication and negotiation skills and community connections, and are by far better placed to undertake cultural care work than non-Indigenous agencies, they may be inadequately resourced to do it. This includes having insufficient time, funding, staffing and practical staff supports to undertake the complex and time-consuming family location work, resources to find carers, as well as funding for the practical day-to-day work required to maintain the child's contact with family (Libesman, 2011). This has led to consultation processes that are ad-hoc, with insufficient time and resources and hampered by information-sharing restrictions.

Deficiencies in the provision of cultural care and connection to culture and community

Cultural care is one component of the child's best interests; however, cultural care planning has often been seen in practice as a tick-the-box process, with plans being limited in scope (e.g., being limited to participation in activities such as NAIDOC events). There is an absence of a unifying national practice framework across jurisdictions, underpinning cultural care planning for Indigenous children (Richardson et al., 2007). Research has shown that the integration of cultural care plans in departmental policies, resourcing for plans and how they are implemented in practice vary greatly between jurisdictions (Libesman, 2011).

Another limitation is that cultural care plans are often regarded as static documents, with the child's cultural needs at entry into care remaining their perceived needs throughout their time in care. Cultural support plans should be dynamic documents, which are revised and monitored on an ongoing basis to keep children connected at different stages of their time in care (e.g., initial placement compared with permanent care arrangements).

Non-Indigenous carers and workers require special support to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in their care receive appropriate cultural care. Carers and workers may not have cultural knowledge and training, or connections with the child's community. At present, there are insufficient and inconsistent supports offered to non-Indigenous carers and workers to help them keep the children in their care connected to their family, kin, culture and communities (Libesman, 2011).

Practice and systemic issues impacting the operation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child care agencies

Research has suggested that there is a lack of adequate and uniform procedural knowledge with regard to the application of the Principle. This is particularly so with respect to administrative procedures and record-keeping between statutory child protection departments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children receive an ongoing connection to culture and family (Libesman, 2011).

Some of these procedures include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations but see this inclusion as a tick-the-box exercise rather than as serving an essential role in decision-making about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and the building of cultural competence in non-Indigenous services. Related to this, incredibly short time-frames and the under-resourcing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies to provide cultural support and services may affect the information and service that can be provided, with resources being thinly spread in order to meet statutory and funding requirements (Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013b).

The importance of adequate resourcing and establishing effective, respectful working relationships between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and non-Indigenous departmental and NGO staff involved in child welfare cannot be underestimated.

High workforce turnover in government and Indigenous agencies has been identified as a significant barrier to supporting strong relationships and continuity of care across all aspects of child protection and out-of-home care service provision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The impacts of this turnover include the loss of cultural, community and organisational knowledge as well as the costs of training and support for new staff.

Related to high turnover and high workloads is incomplete record-keeping. The Queensland Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian's audit of the implementation of the Principle in that jurisdiction has repeatedly identified poor record-keeping in statutory services as an impediment both to the implementation of the Principle and to assessing compliance with it (Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian, 2014).

Libesman (2011) has also identified that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies may not place the same emphasis on documenting and reporting on outcomes and processes as non-Indigenous organisations, making it difficult to argue for their effectiveness. In this focus group research, some staff in Aboriginal agencies identified some weaknesses in compliance with record keeping and documentation requirements, potentially as a result of the perceived lack of relevance and purpose of documentation, and the precedence of other more pressing responsibilities including the provision of cultural support. The pressure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies to provide more services for specialised cultural advice and assistance than they are funded for, means there is less time available for administrative/record-keeping tasks (Libesman, 2011).

Inconsistent quantification, measurement and monitoring of the Principle across jurisdictions

One major issue affecting our understanding of the factors which impact on compliance with the Principle relates to how compliance data can be quantified, measured and monitored. SNAICC (2013) suggested that jurisdictions differ in the ways they monitor, measure, collect and report compliance data. These inconsistencies make data interpretation and reporting difficult, particularly when comparing and interpreting the data at a national level. The problems are created by differing legislation, policies and practices in government departments who employ varying methodologies to collect and report on the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care, the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and the placement decision-making processes. There is also a lack of community control over monitoring adherence to the Principle (Ban, 2005).

Current statistics only count children entering the care system, not those who are successfully prevented from entering the system or who are able to return home to their families. It appears that the collection of child protection data is "removal" focused, rather than "reunification driven". Using a broader suite of indicators that examine what decisions are being made about children as soon as they come into contact with child protection systems, those who receive family support and those who progress to out-of-home care may drive changes in practice. Reunification data, noting the number of children who return to their families of origin, will also be an important reflection of the application of the Principle. Because this information is not currently reported on nationally, this means that there is no national accountability regarding these functions of the system with regard to supporting the retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children within their families.

Another area in which concerns have been raised is the identification of the Aboriginality of children. Some authors have identified that in practice Aboriginality may be determined by skin colour (Valentine & Gray, 2006), and children may be de-identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander (the notion of "unticking the box") in instances where family could not be found or Aboriginality of children was not confirmed by others who may not know of the child's origins. The implications of "unticking the box" confirming Aboriginality is connected to issues around trans-generational removal and identity. Conversely, there may be situations where a child is first identified as having an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background when in contact with the child protection system, with no prior cultural contact or engagement, and there is no guidance or pathways for dealing with this situation.

3 Defined by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare as the proportion of the population aged under 15 years divided by the proportion of the population aged 15-64 years.