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Dr Paul Gray is a Wiradjuri man and Executive Leader of Strategy, Policy and Engagement at AbSec (Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat), the peak body for Aboriginal children and families in NSW. Prior to working at AbSec, Paul worked in various roles with the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. He was an inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholar receiving his doctorate from the University of Oxford.
Ten years ago, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, rose in the Parliament and apologised on behalf of the nation to the Stolen Generations. He apologised for the impact of laws and policies that removed our children from their families and communities, acknowledging these past wrongs and their ongoing impact today.
Reflecting on the Apology over the weekend, Mr Rudd noted that this symbolic act was a critical step in mending the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The Apology urged Australians to move forward together, to “turn a new page” towards a better future, where past injustices are not repeated, where new solutions are embraced in place of old approaches that have failed, and where Aboriginal people share equally in the prosperity and opportunity of our nation.
Optimism turned to frustration
As a new graduate working in child protection, I remember feeling optimistic for change for the full implementation of the contemporary child welfare recommendations set out in Bringing Them Home a decade earlier.
Central to these recommendations was the principle of Aboriginal self-determination, moving beyond the inadequate standards of consultation and participation to “Indigenous decision-making carried through to implementation”.
Bringing Them Home warned that unless policies and programs were built on a foundation of Aboriginal self-determination, being freely adopted by Aboriginal communities themselves, our efforts were unlikely to be effective.
But while governments continue to introduce new approaches, too few embody the principle of self-determination as recommended by Bringing Them Home. Reviews and inquiries continue to emphasise the need for greater self-determination, including here in NSW, and yet the role of Aboriginal communities too often remains limited to consultation and participation, beholden ultimately to the decisions of government about what is best for us and our children. The truth of this failure to shift from paternalism to genuine self-determination is demonstrated in the ballooning over-representation of Aboriginal children and families across the child protection system.
Since 2008, the rate of Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care in NSW has risen 49% – about 5 times the rate of increase for non-Aboriginal children. While Aboriginal children are over-represented across the statutory system, recent figures from the Report on Government Services demonstrated that this over-representation is most pronounced at the crisis end of the system, suggesting that existing approaches are less effective at diverting Aboriginal children and young people from out-of-home care relative to their non-Aboriginal peers.
Unfortunately, investment is still significantly weighted towards out-of-home care rather than prevention or family supports. For every dollar spent on out-of-home care, only about 26 cents are invested in family supports, with very little of this targeted to Aboriginal children and their families, investing in culturally embedded approaches designed and delivered by Aboriginal communities.
From this perspective, it’s easy to understand why many reflect back on the Apology as a missed opportunity. Paternalistic approaches persist, with limited investment in Aboriginal-led solutions. Same old approaches. Same results.
This “new page” is yet to be turned.
Small steps forward
Despite this, Aboriginal communities around the country continue to advocate for frameworks that empower our people to tackle these challenges, developing programs and practice that effectively support Aboriginal families and communities so our children can thrive. In particular, we remain indebted to Stolen Generations survivors and their organisations who, among other issues, continue to advocate strongly for systemic change in contemporary child welfare.
Small steps forward are being taken. For example, Victoria is working with Aboriginal organisations to delegate decision-making for Aboriginal children to Aboriginal organisations. Queensland is embarking on a multi-staged generational action plan driven by that state’s Aboriginal peak, QATSICPP. Just last week, Western Australia made a significant commitment to Noongar-led family support services.
Here in NSW, AbSec is articulating a model for a holistic Aboriginal child and family system to achieve better outcomes for Aboriginal children and families. Aboriginal communities are mobilising to implement the Guiding Principles to strengthen the participation of Aboriginal families and communities in decisions about their children, and programs to give young Aboriginal people a voice in policies that affect them are being developed. Aboriginal community-controlled organisations continue to deliver vital support services in their communities, despite chronic under-funding of Aboriginal-led approaches relative to identified need, although Family and Community Services have recently committed to greater alignment between investment and the needs of Aboriginal communities in their ‘targeted earlier intervention’ streams.
But more needs to be done. It’s long overdue for governments to fully embrace these approaches, and work with Aboriginal people and their organisations towards new solutions that reflect “Indigenous decision-making carried through to implementation”. There is a pressing need for greater accountability to Aboriginal communities.
We cannot wait another decade to take meaningful action. Unless action is taken, the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care is anticipated to triple by 2035.
And while some Australians argued against making the Apology on the grounds that none today were responsible for past injustices, this is happening now, by our governments, in our name.
It’s on all of us to do better, starting with the long overdue implementation of the Bringing Them Home recommendations. Otherwise the next apology will be for our inaction.
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