Australia is failing to safeguard cultural connections for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care

Content type
Short article

November 2016


Alwin Chong, Fiona Arney

Child protection and out-of-home care have been the subject of multiple inquiries and reviews, and 2016 has been no exception. This year there have been four separate royal commissions into child protection and the related factors of family violence, child sexual abuse, juvenile detention and the systemic failures in these areas.

The Victorian Commission for Children and Young People recently released two reports examining the failure of both government and non-government organisations to implement policies and services for Aboriginal children that will safeguard their cultural connections.

The inter-generational issues that have stemmed from the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities - and the resultant trauma experienced by so many - have been the focus of concerted action and advocacy by Aboriginal leaders, peak bodies, organisations and community groups since the 1970s.

But in these most recent reports, we see familiar concerns. These include the widespread lack of implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle and the lack of cultural care planning for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle (the principle) is often described and legislated as a “placement hierarchy”.

Under the principle, placement choices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who can’t remain with their parents start with family and kin networks. That is followed by non-related carers in the child’s community, and then other Aboriginal caregivers and non-relative foster carers.

The principle emphasises five aspects:

  • prevention
  • partnership
  • placement
  • participation, and
  • connection.

These aspects of the principle are often overlooked, or not implemented, because they are not included in legislation.

Nationally, the impact of the principle has crudely been measured through figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare which assess the Aboriginality of caregivers and their relationship to a child.

However, the reports from the Victorian Commission, together with similar audits in Queensland, have highlighted the reality behind the numbers. These reports show minimal practice compliance with the principle, and high levels of variability within and across jurisdictions.

For example, a number of children are not correctly identified as Aboriginal, which means there cannot be adherence to the principle for these children. Similarly, despite policy intent and available programs, there is minimal compliance with several practice aspects including the use of family decision making meetings and strategies to maintain cultural identity.

We’ve examined why this policy and practice disconnect exists when it comes to the safety and well being of Aboriginal children. There are several factors that act as barriers to implementation of the principle, not least of which is the increasing over-representation of Aboriginal children in child protection systems across Australia.

Adapted by Alwin Chong and Fiona Arney from the publication: ‘Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle: Policy and practice considerations.’ CC BY-ND

If we’re going to improve conditions for Aboriginal children in child protection and out-of-home care, we must focus on breaking inter-generational cycles of trauma. We also need to make sure children feel “culturally safe”. That means they don’t face challenges to or denials of their cultural identity; of who they are and what they need.

We must recognise the protective properties of cultural connection, rather than viewing culture as a risk factor, and engage communities in determining the solutions most appropriate for them.

In addition to the work being undertaken as part of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, major national grass roots initiatives are driving this change.

National Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organisations - for example, SNAICC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, Winangay Resources, and the Australian Centre for Child Protection - are leading the Family Matters and Positive Futures initiatives to find alternative approaches to support Aboriginal children, their families and communities.

As we come to recognise the devastating mental, physical and social impacts of trauma, grief and abuse across generations, and understand just how widespread this problem is for all children, the need to treat child abuse and neglect as a public health issue is clear.

This approach means better understanding the problem, its causes and impacts, and the strategies to best prevent and respond to it.

This approach must be supported by community determination, a strong research and evidence base, a trained and culturally competent workforce and effective interventions, including health promotion.

The almost 19,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care each year need the highest quality support if we are to break these cycles of harm.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.