Winnunga Aboriginal Health Service questions ACT government approach on out of home care

Winnunga Aboriginal Health Service questions ACT government approach on out of home care

Canberra's Winnunga Aboriginal Health Service has asked the ACT government to explain why interstate providers are winning contracts over local organisations in a new early intervention child protection scheme.

Winnunga chief executive Julie Tongs has also joined calls from community organisations for changes to the Children and Young People Act to be deferred, including provisions that would reduce the maximum length of care and protection orders for children under the age of two.

Winnunga Nimmityjah chief executive Julie Tongs.

Winnunga Nimmityjah chief executive Julie Tongs.Credit:Melissa Adams

As part of the government's changes, the maximum length of initial protection orders would be reduced from two years to one year, a move opposed by groups including the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association of the ACT, the Domestic Violence Crisis Service and Mental Health Community Coalition ACT.

Ms Tongs said the changes would mean parents of children placed in care would not have sufficient time to improve their lives to ensure their children aren't placed in care permanently. She said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families would be disproportionately affected.


She has also asked Children and Young People's Minister Mick Gentleman to explain why Uniting Care ACT and NSW was last week contracted to provide services designed to strengthen vulnerable families, after Winnunga and 12 other groups tendered for the work which would involve Aboriginal families.

"We got some high level consultants to put our tender submission together so that would give us the best chance. We are bitterly disappointed to miss out," she said.

"Indigenous comprehensive primary health care should be in Indigenous hands. We've proven ourselves as a credible organisation over 27 years and I think that we still get overlooked.

"We have 57 families that have had children removed or are at risk of it who have already worked with Winnunga. They want to come to us because they trust us," Ms Tongs said.

Winnunga is seeking a written response to their unsuccessful tender and a briefing from the government. Ms Tongs said Winnunga's $8.5 million in government funding provided a $40 million benefit to the ACT.

Mr Gentleman referred questions to the Community Services Directorate.

Deputy director-general Sue Chapman said a briefing had been arranged but some aspects of the tender were commercial-in-confidence.

"There was a very clear and well developed service for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families within the Uniting Care tender called Jaanimili, which is run by Aboriginal people under the auspices of Uniting Care," she said.

"They have had good success. They've already got links here in the ACT... but they're already recruiting staff from Canberra who have links with local families."

Ms Chapman said the decision to change maximum timelines for protection orders reflected research showing young children needed stability.

"The proposed change makes us look at children's circumstances early, rather than waiting for two years. If the birth family is engaged and trying really hard to stabilise their own environment for that child, then we'll continue to engage with them.

"If they are not, we need to make much quicker decisions about stability and certainty for those babies. Waiting for two years is much too long."

Ms Chapman said tender decisions reflected a range of specified criteria. She praised Winnunga's record and said the organisation was respected for its work with the directorate.

The government's Step Up for Our Kids package, announced in January, has seen an additional $16 million for care of children living out of home.

ACT Children and Young People Death Review Committee chair Penny Gregory said the changes would ensure children weren't "lost in the system".

"The changes are a step closer to ensuring that the most vulnerable members of our society–children–are seen sooner and more often.

"By engaging an earlier trigger for these children and families, the circumstances which might lead to irreversible harm for the child can be ameliorated; this is a sensible step forward" Dr Gregory said.

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for The Australian Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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