State ‘not a good parent’ to vulnerable Indigenous kids, report finds

Victoria’s child protection system has been accused of not acting like a good parent to Indigenous children in its care, opposing bail for vulnerable young people or asking the courts to take them into custody.

A two-year inquiry by the Commission for Children and Young People investigating the over-representation of Aboriginal children in custody has laid bare generations of trauma that is still being felt in long-standing, systematic failures across education, healthcare, law enforcement and criminal justice.

Justin Mohamed, the chief executive of the Commission for Children and Young People, said systemic inequality has not changed in the 30 years since he first began his career as a Koori juvenile justice worker. Credit:Wayne Taylor

It has called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to 14 and for changes to legislation to prohibit children under the age of 16 being sentenced to or remanded in custody.

It also made stark findings against the child protection and education systems that heavily contributed towards the institutionalisation of Aboriginal people.

“Thirty years ago, one of my first jobs was as a Koori juvenile justice worker,” said Justin Mohamed, the chief executive of the commission.

“What really struck me was the things that young people told me 30 years ago about their treatment by police, their sense of lack of support, the brokenness and feeling unsafe, was said to me 30 years on when I did this work on the inquiry.”

The child protection system, the commission said, “does not act as a good parent would for too many Aboriginal children”, and it far too often appeared to abdicate its responsibilities when a vulnerable child was put before the courts.

“This included child protection not attending court when the child or young person had a criminal matter,” the report stated.

“This can significantly impair the ability of the legal representative and the court to be informed of the child or young person’s circumstances and to identify and address the causal factors that have contributed to the alleged offending.

“During the inquiry, the commission also heard of cases in which child protection opposed bail for children and young people for whom it had responsibility. In some cases, child protection suggested that it needed more time to organise appropriate housing and supports for the child or young person, while in others it argued that custody was the safest place for the child or young person.”

Mr Mohamed said that as well as being over-represented in child protection, Aboriginal children were “over-represented in dropping out of high school, and you start combining that with poverty, past trauma, and the justice system starts circling in”.

“Children who make a mistake need to get that support so they can pick up their life and move forward, instead of that cycle of remand, courts, released into community under supervision orders, and then finding themselves back in prison,” he said.

The commission examined the cases of all 296 Aboriginal children who had contact with the youth justice system (including those on supervised bail, diversion and community orders, and in custody) between October 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019, as well as interviewing Aboriginal youth, workers and families.

It found Aboriginal youth were disproportionately targeted by police, sentenced by the courts, and removed from their families and communities.

Aboriginal children told the commission they valued education and wanted to attend school, but many reported negative experiences. They said the current school system was not designed for, or responsive to, the specific needs of Aboriginal students, while some described the system as “racist or otherwise hostile”.

There is a clear link between exclusion from school and contact with the youth justice system. In 2019, the Youth Justice annual survey found that 65 per cent of Aboriginal children and young people under Youth Justice supervision (in the community and in custody) had been previously suspended or expelled from school.

Mr Mohamed said police would far too often be called if Aboriginal children living in residential care vandalised the facilities and potentially charged with damaging public property – an offence police otherwise would not have attended to if the child lived at home with their parents.

Children in the child protection system caught shoplifting would rely on an over-stretched system being available to support them while being questioned by police, Mr Mohamed said, making it a significant barrier to accessing help and intervening before the situation escalated.

The commission’s two-year inquiry culminated in a 600-page report tabled in the Victorian Parliament last week, and made 41 findings and 75 recommendations to the Andrews government to implement over the next five years.

The recommendations include establishing Aboriginal community-controlled crisis accommodation centres in every region for Indigenous youth; developing and funding an ongoing Aboriginal education support officer at Parkville College in youth prisons; and fully resourcing a 24-hour bail system for children and young people.

“Aboriginal children and young people and their communities have been targeted by the state in an unbroken chain of harmful interventions since early colonisation,” according to the report.

“For many Aboriginal people, these state-inflicted interventions have directly caused generations of trauma and broken connection to Country and community. The devastating consequences of this have led to inequalities in life experiences, including a higher prevalence of low educational attainment and earning, housing insecurity, unequal health outcomes, and early mortality.”

A Victorian government spokeswoman said $12 million had been invested in the last state budget on a range of programs to address the recommendations and findings of the report, and that since 2018 more than $160 million had been directed towards reducing the number of Aboriginal children in child protection and out-of-home care.

“We acknowledge this report reflects the voices of Aboriginal children and young people, their families, Aboriginal frontline workers and community members. We will carefully consider the report’s findings and recommendations,” the spokeswoman said.

“There is a national conversation happening about whether the age of criminal responsibility should be raised – Victoria is continuing to participate in those discussions.

“Victoria has the lowest rate of children in care in the country, but the proportion of Aboriginal children is too high. We’re doing something about it as part of our early intervention approach to supporting families as soon as they come on our radar – giving them the tools they need to stay together.”

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