It is appropriate that the ACT Legislative Assembly has agreed to establish a formal inquiry into the circumstances of the removal by ACT Community Services of a number of Aboriginal children from their mother and the ruling by the Court of Appeal, five years later, that the decision to remove the children could not be justified.
This case raises worrying questions about the appropriateness of existing decision-making in relation to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children in contact with the care and protection system, as well as the management and operation of that system and of the justice system.
It is deeply concerning that on a matter as sensitive as an appeal by a mother against a decision to remove her children from her care, the appeal process dragged on for more than five years. There also remain unanswered questions about the basis of the decision by the ACT government, following the ruling of the Court of Appeal, to return the matter to the Magistrates Court and seek new orders for the long-term removal of the children. The inquiry to be conducted by the Assembly will serve a useful purpose in addressing these concerns.
The latest A Step Up for our Kids snapshot report provides clear evidence of the scale of the crisis engulfing Aboriginal families in touch with the care and protection system. The snapshot report reveals that the number of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in the ACT in the year to June 2018 increased by 15 per cent from 226 to 261. To put this in perspective, an Aboriginal child in Canberra is 16.3 times more likely than a non-Aboriginal child to be in out-of-home care. That is the highest relative rate of removal of Aboriginal children in Australia. Incredibly, more than 10 per cent of all Aboriginal children in Canberra have been removed from their family by the ACT government.
Coincidentally, at the time the Legislative Assembly was giving consideration to conducting an inquiry into the issues raised by this case, the Our Booris Our Way review of child protection practice and the treatment of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children and their families caught up with the system issued a third periodic report and a further set of recommendations.
In its first report, issued in June 2018, the review team deliberately highlighted the fundamental importance of embedding the Aboriginal Child Placement Principles in both policy and practice. This is something which the ACT government had consistently neglected to do. A central tenet of the principles is the need to ensure that the Aboriginal community, and specifically an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation, is involved in all decisions affecting an Aboriginal child in contact with the care and protection system.
This latest report provides an abbreviated critique of the practices and procedures of both the Community Services Directorate and ACT Together, the consortium contracted by the ACT government to manage the much vaunted A Step Up for Our Kids strategy for responding to the needs of children in the care and protection system. Notably, ACT Together is comprised solely of non-Aboriginal mainstream organisations, namely Barnardo's, the Australian Childhood Foundation, Premier Youth Works and OzChild, and its engagement to manage all Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal children under A Step Up for Our Kids is clearly, while the Aboriginal community is excluded, not consistent with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principles.
The latest A Step Up for our Kids snapshot report provides clear evidence of the scale of the crisis engulfing Aboriginal families in touch with the care and protection system.
The Our Booris review team makes a number of trenchant criticisms in its latest report of both the Community Services Directorate and ACT Together. They find for instance that: "The emerging data demonstrates a deficiency in the quality, regularity and consistency of child protection case work and cultural practices." They went on to find, in respect to the preparation of cultural plans, that while "compliance with having a cultural plan was high, the quality is not".
Damningly, the steering committee determined that, of the 108 cultural plans it has reviewed, a total of only nine involved consultation with the child's community, only one involved consultation with an Aboriginal agency and only two involved consultation with an Aboriginal person in the community. Of the 108 cultural plans reviewed, bizarrely only 35 were actually provided to the relevant child's carer.
Most worryingly, however, the report notes that: "The apparent bias of ACT Together towards non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander foster carers is cause for grave concern given the level of responsibility afforded to ACT Together. We understand that [the] A Step Up for Our Kids strategy has been undergoing a mid-contract and strategy review; however we have not seen a lot of evidence that there is quality control over case work including the required documentation. The issue must be addressed before moving to any new contract arrangement. We feel it is imperative to raise this with you early given the gravity of the issue and we anticipate that future recommendations will draw from this information."
The finding in the Our Booris report of "apparent bias by ACT Together towards non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander foster carers" is indeed a matter of grave concern. "Apparent bias" has a fairly broad but generally accepted interpretation. A basic test for such bias is whether a fair-minded lay observer with knowledge of a matter might reasonably apprehend that a decision maker, through his or her behaviour, has given rise to a suspicion that he or she is not impartial.
The finding by the Our Booris review of apparent bias towards non-Aboriginal foster carers and by extension, one assumes, against Aboriginal foster carers is indeed gravely concerning and demands an urgent response by the government. It should be immediately referred to the ACT Human Rights Commission for further investigation. It would also, in my view, be appropriate for ACT Together to be asked to explain why its contract to manage A Step Up for Our Kids should be continued.
- Julie Tongs, OAM, is the chief executive of the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service.