An early version of a review of the ACT's high rate of Indigenous children in foster care has recommended cases involving Aboriginal kids be prioritised and given to workers with "demonstrated cultural competency", amid stories of staff failing to listen to or understand Indigenous families.
A preliminary report from the steering committee of the Our Booris, Our Way Review has also called out the lack of senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and case workers within the ACT child protection workforce and void of adequate and accessible legal support services.
The review began in response to concerns about the number of Aboriginal children in foster or kinship care in Canberra. Booris is a Wiradjuri word for children.
For the past two years, the ACT recorded the nation's second highest rate of Indigenous children in state care in the annual Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report.
While less than 3 per cent of children in the ACT are Indigenous, 28.3 per cent of kids in out-of-home care are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
One person interviewed as part of the review said: "I was judged on my past which was many years ago. Case workers don’t listen, and they don’t make it clear what I have to do to keep my kids or get them back."
"Some case workers make judgements without any knowledge of Aboriginal culture or what my family has been through," another added.
Those interviewed said once the children were removed, families were left behind with no support, and there was a "real power imbalance" between families and child protection authorities.
In a statement, the steering committee said members of their community were in a "difficult position ... facing a complex and opaque government system with a lack of funded independent cultural advice and advocacy".
"We are distressed that the ACT has an alarmingly high rate of removals of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from families, and this is disproportionate with our population and the intent for equality and opportunity for all people in the ACT," they said.
The group made four early recommendations, including that allocation of cases involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children be "prioritised" with child protection workers who demonstrated "cultural competency and willingness to work with the community".
"The current pattern of allocation across geographical region and age groups means that experienced child protection workers with experience working with Aboriginal families are not necessarily allocated these cases," their report said.
"The situation demands highly skilled and sensitive approaches to preservation, protection and restoration."
They also want the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Child Placement Principle - which aims to place children within family and kinship networks or with other Indigenous families - written explicitly into ACT child protection policies.
The group recommended the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) be brought into train child protection workers, and that family group conferencing be made available for all Indigenous families entering the child protection system, noting the results of the trial were promising.
Their report also pointed to a lack of senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and case workers within the ACT child protection workforce who are able to influence organisational culture.
It highlighted the difficulty faced by families accessing legal advice specific to child protection matters and the few opportunities to appeal decisions.
The report also found early intervention programs were difficult to access and fragmented with a lack of choice and control in being able to select trusted specialist and culturally appropriate services.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the Community Services Directorate was working to address the four interim recommendations.
"While this important work continues, the ACT government is implementing early intervention and prevention strategies in partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and organisations, including Family Group Conferencing and Functional Family Therapy," she said.
The final report is due in late 2019.