Former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope has called for an inquiry into the wrongful removal of five Aboriginal children from their mother.
He is among a group of prominent Canberrans calling for change after it was revealed the ACT government was involved in a case described as being reminiscent of the stolen generation.
A Canberra mother fought for five-and-a-half years to have her children returned to her after they were forcibly removed and taken away in a police van in 2013.
They were subsequently placed under the care of the Community Services director-general until they turned 18. They were separated and put into three different foster homes, including one in NSW.
In late 2018, the ACT's highest court found the decision to remove the children from their mother was wrong. The case was then settled. Some of the children are in the process of being returned to their mother.
The story outraged Aboriginal and children's advocates, who said it was representative of broader, systemic issues in the child protection system.
In addition to Mr Stanhope, those calling for an inquiry are Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service chief executive Julie Tongs, Gugan Gulwan Youth Aboriginal Corporation executive director Kim Davison, independent children's lawyer Lessli Strong, Canberra Region Family Law Practitioners president Sage Leslie, and Blackburn Chambers barristers Philip Walker SC and James Haddock, who represented the mother in court.
Mr Stanhope, who now works in an advisory role with Winnunga, said the issue was so serious it demanded an independent review.
"As a parent, and grandparent, I cannot imagine what it must be like for this mother and her children to have been forcibly separated for nearly six years under circumstances which the highest court in the ACT has now ruled were not legally justified," Mr Stanhope said.
He called for an inquiry, "not to apportion blame or seek out scapegoats but to ensure that there are no cultural or systemic issues that might see it happen again".
"We must do everything possible to make sure that this never happens again and to assure ourselves that there are not other like cases in which children have been removed without justification," he said.
Ms Tongs said the case was a tragedy. She said the inquiry should look into the circumstances surrounding the removal of the children, and the government subsequently restricting the mother's visiting hours to one day every year despite the case being under appeal in the court.
She said it was "impossible to imagine the depth of the heartbreak, trauma and grief" the mother and children had endured.
"What this mother and her children have endured is in effect no different than the pain and suffering experienced by Aboriginal parents and children of the stolen generation, when Aboriginal child removal was government policy."
Gugan Gulwan's Ms Davison agreed, and said the ACT government needed to implement the Aboriginal child placement principles, as to date the ACT was the only jurisdiction without them.
Children's lawyer Ms Strong said there was an urgent need to investigate why children were removed from their homes and what happened after they were removed.
"We make inquiries into tragedies where children die, and we need to make inquiries into the children who are living through the system," Ms Strong said.
Family Law Practitioners president Ms Leslie said there needed to be an inquiry to address systemic issues within the care and protection department.
"There is such a veil of secrecy that it works to prohibit anybody really talking about those matters, so it's difficult to make cultural change and agitate politically for that to happen when you can only talk about your experience in broad terms, even with the permission of those in the system who would like to have their stories told," Ms Leslie said.
Barrister Philip Walker SC said the inquiry must have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, and to compel answers.
"If not, the extremely onerous secrecy provisions which govern child welfare administration in the ACT will make it illegal for some people to reveal what they know and it will enable departmental offices to decline to answer questions," Mr Walker said.
He said any inquiry that became too generalised would not be able to address the issues properly.
"I think it should be an inquiry by a committee of the Legislative Assembly, because I think the people who make the laws ought to see the consequences of the laws they have made and they are in the best position to hold the government to account."