The ACT government has failed to tackle systemic racism within the Community Services Directorate and does not actively try to reunify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children with their families after they are taken into care, a recent report concludes.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 12.9 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children in the ACT, which is above the national average of 9.6 times more likely. The ACT has the third highest rate of over-representation in Australia.
But family group conferencing, which offers Indigenous families the chance to hold a conference with child protection workers when important decisions are made about their child's future, prevented 54 children from entering care.
Between November 2017, when the program began, and July, 41 families have participated in conferences, which have involved 89 children. The ACT government said decisions about care arrangements for the other 35 children were made by extended family.
The Family Matters report, prepared by a national campaign to reduce the over representation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care, found the ACT had the lowest level of reunification in the country. In 2018-19, 24 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were reunified with their families.
Family Matters co-chair Sue-Anne Hunter said a lack of self-determination meant the approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in the ACT was seen through a Western lens.
She said if nothing changed, the rate of over representation would double in the next decade. "We don't want the echoes of the past in today, of the stolen generation," Ms Hunter said.
Ms Hunter said when children came into care, working out the best way to get them home should be the first priority.
"You should be looking at how you're getting [the child] home. That should be the first thing. So what do we need to put into place to get this child home? We don't want children in the system, so what do we need to do? That needs to be the thought. And it appears that that's not [what is happening]. There's no evidence that reunification is pursued. There's nothing telling within what we've received that people do that," she said.
Ms Hunter said the family group conferencing program was promising but it needed to be completely led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
"That program or process needs to be Aboriginal-led from the start. And from what I've seen in other states ... when it's Aboriginal-led, you have much better outcomes. The problem is when you have a statutory body in the room, or someone who represents a statutory body, people are scared to speak up," she said.
"When it's Aboriginal-led, our families are pretty harsh on each other when it comes to our kids. They usually set the bars pretty high."
The report recommended increasing investment in early intervention and prevention programs, including reunification services, while prioritising funding for community controlled organisations.
The report said only 6 per cent of ACT government child protection funding went to an Indigenous-led corporation, despite 29 per cent of children in the system being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.
Ms Hunter said it was positive the ACT's Community Services Directorate had engaged with the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care to run training for staff to better implement the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child placement principles.
She said many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families needed support to manage inter-generational trauma. "And if we catch them early and do that work early, then the children shouldn't be in care," Ms Hunter said.
The ACT Community Services Directorate said in a response provided to Family Matters, which was included in the report, the ACT government was committed to reducing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.