Governments must let go of their power over the lives of Australia’s First Nations children

14 May 2021

Without structural change, child protection systems will continue to fail Indigenous families.

As government systems continue their long history of intervening in the lives of First Nations children and families, it’s time for us to acknowledge the truth: in too many circumstances the children and families “helped” through these systems remain permanently harmed by them.

This month marks 24 years since Bringing Them Home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, but its transformational recommendations remain largely unimplemented. Subsequent reviews of the disproportionate impact of child protection systems on First Nations families have consistently echoed the call for structural change, identifying self-determination and accountability as key areas of reform. However, despite repeated commitments to address the overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care in recent years, these key areas remain largely neglected.

Child protection systems have gone to great efforts to appear to distance themselves from past practices that targeted First Nations children and families. Governments have acknowledged the harm caused by past policies that separated our children from their families, communities and culture, and the flawed assumptions that underpinned them – that they knew what was best for our children, and had the authority to intervene in our families and communities. They have stated a commitment to partnership and co-design to improve systems and practice.

But reforms have merely tinkered with established systems, failing to embrace the transformational change needed. Governments have steadfastly maintained decision-making over First Nations children and families. Rather than embedding self-determination into contemporary child protection systems, reforms seem more focused on rehabilitating governments’ reputations while reinforcing their ongoing exercise of authority over First Nations families. The involvement of First Nations communities in decision-making too often remains limited to participation and consultation, despite Bringing Them Home stating these approaches are inadequate.

Child protection systems and practice remain grounded in non-Indigenous perspectives about children and families, continuing to impose their view of what is best for First Nations children – the same assumptions that have underpinned government intervention in First Nations families since the earliest days of the colony. But while the colonial foundations of these systems remain intact, they have become carefully obscured by the language of reform.

System reforms continue to be determined by non-Indigenous people through non-Indigenous processes and too often, imposed over the objections of First Nations communities. Approaches led by, or developed in partnership with, First Nations communities are underresourced and inadequately implemented, undermining their potential impact.

These reforms have done little but paper over the glaring deficiencies of child protection systems and their intervention in the lives of First Nations children and families. Thirty-seven% of all children in out-of-home care are First Nations children. One in five First Nations children removed from their family into out-of-home care are removed in their first year of life. But much needed family supports, including for new and expecting parents, continue to be underresourced. The number of First Nations children removed from their families into out-of-home care, and increasingly on to long-term orders, continues to rise – it’s expected to double by 2029.

This overrepresentation of First Nations children in child protection is not a symptom of a broken system, but rather representative of the failure to dismantle systems designed to intervene in First Nations families and impose non-Indigenous futures on First Nations children. Regardless of the apologies and rhetoric of reform, this over-representation will continue until these systems are transformed.

If governments are genuinely committed to addressing the overrepresentation of First Nations children in out-of-home care, they must put the decisions in the hands of First Nations communities and invest in our solutions. Rather than trying to rehabilitate a system that remains grounded on the unjust foundations and assumptions of settler-colonialism, governments must let go of their power over the lives of our children and families and let First Nations communities determine our children’s futures.

There are positive examples emerging. The use of delegated authority in Victoria, with Aboriginal community-controlled organisations exercising decision-making responsibility for their children, shows that First Nations-led approaches can deliver improved outcomes. Jurisdictions are also strengthening accountability mechanisms, including appointing statutory officers focused on needs of First Nations children. These roles are critical for building the confidence of First Nations communities, but must be properly empowered, backed by legislation and adequately resourced to hold child protection systems to account.

While these initiatives show promise, they remain the exception. More than two decades after Bringing Them Home, governments must finally deliver on its recommendations. The family matters roadmap, guided by four key building blocks, provides a framework for transformational change.

First Nations communities must determine the futures of our children, free from intrusive interventions of government, and design and deliver the supports needed to heal our families so our children can thrive. Systems that wield extraordinary power must face extraordinary scrutiny, answering to First Nations communities for their action and inaction.

Until these flaws are addressed through transformative structural change, child protection systems will continue to fail First Nations children.

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