A major Australian community service organisation has announced it will transfer its responsibility for the foster care services of hundreds of Aboriginal children to Indigenous-led services, hoping to ensure decision-making about foster care for Aboriginal children is more often made by Indigenous people.
- Life Without Barriers has recently announced it will end foster care services for more than 1,000 Indigenous children
- It will transfer those services to Aboriginal-led organisations
- There are hopes the decision is part of a “changing of the tide”, but concerns about systemic racism remain
Life Without Barriers, which has more than 1,000 Aboriginal children in its care around Australia, says it will start phasing out all foster care services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Chief executive Claire Robbs said the move was an acknowledgement of the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care, and a step toward reconciliation.
“What we’re doing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the care system is not working — it is not OK,” Ms Robbs said.
“Far too many are coming into care and not being cared for in culture.
“We need to stop. We need to completely rethink how we’re doing that.”
Indigenous children over-represented
Indigenous children make up just 5 per cent of Australia’s child population but 42 per cent of children in out-of-home care, according to the Family Matters Report 2022 by the National Voice for Our Children.
But less than half of Indigenous children in the child protection system are living with Indigenous carers.
Keiran Dent, a general manager at Wungening Aboriginal Corporation in Perth, runs a program that helps keep Aboriginal children either in the care of their parents or with a foster carer in the same family.
Since the West Australian program started in 2018, it has been able to ensure more than 90 per cent of children, from about 300 families a year, can remain in the care of a family member.
“A strong cultural identity is central to wellbeing and that can only occur to its fullest extent within an Aboriginal family unit,” Mr Dent said.
“We see strong cultural identity as being necessary for all areas of a child’s wellbeing — physical health, mental health, emotional health, spiritual health.”
‘Historically, we have been denied’
Mr Dent says the program is an example of a “changing of the tide” that is reversing a power imbalance.
“We would say that these are spaces where we should have always had a role in providing care and protection for our children,” he said.
“But, historically, we have been denied that right.”
Mr Dent pointed to one family’s experience at Wungening as an example of how Aboriginal corporations were better placed to support Indigenous families and children.
He said a “terrified” family brought their newborn baby to the service when it was about to be removed by child protection staff at the Department of Communities.
Had the family not approached Wungening, Mr Dent said the child could have remained in foster care indefinitely while the department went through its usual process of assessment to seek another appropriate carer.
Wungening was able to intervene and arrange for the child to be returned to a family member who the service could vouch for.
“We really fast-track the process by really pushing the department to assess that family carer immediately, and place the child immediately,” M Dent said.
“That child still lives with that aunty to this day.”
Systemic racism unaddressed: clinician
Last year, the WA Department of Communities launched the Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (ACCO) Strategy to improve cultural safety across its services.
Mr Dent welcomes the shift toward more Indigenous decision-making but says service providers and the government need to be prepared to overcome the challenges that come with sharing power.
Nyamal woman Tracy Westerman, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Indigenous Psychological Services, welcomes Life Without Barriers’ decision but says any shift needs to overcome problems with systemic racism.
“It’s great to see Indigenous-led organisations get the funding for reunification, but the actual problem lies with a lack of focus on preventing the removal to begin with,” Dr Westerman said.
“All of our evidence shows child removals are heavily racially biased and solutions, therefore, need to be on addressing systemic drivers, such as Child Protection cultural competencies.
“For example, cultural differences are consistently being confused for child maltreatment risk due to culturally biased assessments.”
Dr Westerman, who was WA’s Australian of the Year in 2018, said such assessments have been discontinued in Queensland.
Her 2019 cultural audit of child protection staff at the Department of Communities, which was leaked to the media, described widespread racism and an environment where staff felt culturally unsafe.
A department spokesperson said it has been continuing work to improve its relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“[The Department of] Communities is committed to providing and offering an open, inclusive and representative workforce that is reflective of the people, programs and functions the department seeks to support,” the spokesperson said, and added that the department had an Aboriginal workforce representation of 6.4 per cent.
The spokesperson said Aboriginal organisations have had greater involvement in decisions to take children into care since law reforms in 2021.
Child protection staff at the department must now consult with an Aboriginal member of the child’s family, an Aboriginal organisation approved by the department leadership, or an Aboriginal officer within the department who has relevant knowledge of the child.
“The state government continues to prioritise keeping children safely at home with their families, and to support more culturally responsive care arrangements,” the spokesperson said.
Change of focus needed
Life Without Barriers worked with the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, based in Melbourne, for two years to help prepare for their transition.
Secretariat chief executive Catherine Liddle says changes to the system should make it more focused on funding early interventions to support families so they could avoid having their children taken away in the first place.
“As it is, only a fraction of the dollars that go into working with our families and children actually hit the ground of community-controlled services, even though their outcomes are significantly better,” Ms Liddle said.
The department spokesperson said the state government has made record investments into early intervention and family support services in an effort to address the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child protection system.
“Last year, for example, under the [Earlier Intervention and Family Support] Strategy, 86 per cent of children referred to the Aboriginal In-Home Support Service and 85 per cent of those referred to the Intensive Family Support Service remained safely at home with their parents after 12 months,” the spokesperson said.
Ms Robbs said Life Without Barriers would work with Aboriginal-led organisations to facilitate their takeover of the services, including transferring funding and staff depending on the needs of the organisation.