Indigenous children need a road to safety

TRAGEDY: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda says more needs to be done to protect Indigenous children in the wake of the suicide of a 10-year-old girl this week.

TRAGEDY: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda says more needs to be done to protect Indigenous children in the wake of the suicide of a 10-year-old girl this week.

The recent death of a 10-year-old in the Kimberley is a tragedy and I pass on my condolences to her family at this particularly distressing time.

This tragedy has heightened my conviction that the lives of all of our children in Australia are precious and should be protected at all costs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in the child protection systems of every state and territory at unacceptable levels. Our kids are nine times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be subjects of a care and protection order or in out-of-home care.

But the road to safety is not always as clear-cut as we might hope. We need to acknowledge that removing at-risk children from their families does not guarantee their safety, and may also compromise their quality of life and access to opportunities. We know that educational and developmental outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system are often poor. We also know that there is a significant overlap between children in the child protection system and those in contact with the criminal justice system.

We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are best served when they are supported to maintain their connection to family, community and culture. The experiences of the stolen generations demonstrate the devastation of severing these connections.

As such, efforts to improve the safety, welfare and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children hinge on enhancing the participation and self-determination of our families and communities. Our communities need to be empowered to lead the design and delivery of services. Evidence demonstrates that we are best placed to identify and implement solutions to the challenges facing our people.

Indigenous childcare agencies, led by SNAICC and the state-based sector peaks, are doing a great job representing the interests of our children in what is a very fraught space. However, they lack decision-making power in a system that is overwhelmed and often not accountable for its outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.

To this end, I recommended the appointment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's commissioners in every state and territory and the development of a target in relation to child welfare for closing the gap.  

I also highlighted that greater investment in child-protection research, healing initiatives and early childhood services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are urgently needed. We know that integrated child and family services embedded within communities that draw on community strengths and networks of support are most effective in supporting vulnerable children and families. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child and family services need to be properly resourced to design and deliver these integrated services.

These are just a few of the steps needed to tackle what is one of the most challenging human rights issues facing Australia today.

It is clear that the answers to this issue are not straightforward. However, we must not shy away from this challenge. We must concentrate our efforts on more than throwaway lines, or knee-jerk reactions. Instead, let's direct our thinking, our policy and our funding to creating safe environments that truly provide for the best interests of our children and families.

- Mick Gooda is the the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

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