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Govt lagging on Aboriginal child placement target

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The SA Child Protection Department is struggling to reach its target to place more Aboriginal children in care with Aboriginal carers, but has almost doubled its spending on Indigenous-controlled organisations.

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New data provided by the Department to InDaily shows the number of Aboriginal children in South Australia who are fostered by members of their extended family or community has slightly risen from 62.5 per cent (711 children) in June 2017 to 63.4 per cent (850 children) in June this year.

However, this year’s figure is markedly lower than what was recorded 10 years ago, when 74.4 per cent of Aboriginal children were placed with members of their extended family or community.

The current South Australian placement rate also sits below the 2018 national average at 64.5 per cent.

Aboriginal children who enter the state’s child protection system are placed in accordance with a Federal Government-endorsed Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, which aims to preserve Aboriginal children’s connection to culture by ensuring authorities first consider a child’s extended family as potential foster parents.

If a child’s extended family is unable to provide care, a member of the child’s community or carers in another Aboriginal community are considered.

In 2017-18, the Department set what it described as an “ambitious” target of ensuring that at least 70 per cent of Aboriginal children and young people would be placed in accordance with the principle.

The Department’s deputy chief executive Fiona Ward acknowledged that the Government was yet to reach the target, but insisted it had a “focused effort and an ongoing commitment to want to do better”.

“Setting ourselves this ambitious target is a deliberate strategy – it challenges us to continually evolve and improve our practice so that we can genuinely achieve better outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people,” Ward said.

“It is going to be a long journey to achieve the lasting, sustainable change that is needed and that these children and young people deserve.”

The Department said the rising number of children placed in accordance with the child placement principle was due to a “significant growth” in the number of Aboriginal children being placed in out-of-home care.

While Aboriginal children account for just four per cent of South Australia’s total child population, they represent 33 per cent of children currently in care.

South Australian Aboriginal children are also ten times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Aboriginal children, with the gap between the two groups widening.

In response, the Department said it would increase its spending on Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.

It set a target in July to increase procurement from those organisations from 0.5 to 3 per cent of spending, but has since almost doubled its spending to 5.66 per cent.

Services currently procured by the Department include out-of-home care, residential care, foster care, family reunification services, Aboriginal advocacy and support services, as well as a range of corporate services.

Ward said the Department would continue to increase its spending on Aboriginal controlled organisations “as part of its strategy to ensure we achieve the best outcomes for children and young people”.

“Given the number of Aboriginal children and young people in he child protection system, the Department is working hard to ensure that the organisations we partner with, and the services we procure, are culturally safe and responsive,” she said.

“Procuring from Aboriginal businesses contributes to the growth and development of these businesses, and has flow-on effects to the Aboriginal business sector, including increased Aboriginal employment outcomes.”

SA’s Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People April Lawrie said she welcomed an increase in the procurement from Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, but she also called for mainstream non-government organisations contracted by the Department to make a commitment to transfer their programs to Aboriginal hands.

“It’s not just about self-determination but we know that when programs and services are run and owned by Aboriginal people it improves outcomes for Aboriginal children and their families,” she said.

“I only know of one CEO in the non-government organisation sector that has actually made that commitment, so we need to be looking at how more organisations can be transitioning their Aboriginal programs to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations.”

According to Lawrie, the current rate of Aboriginal children being removed from their families is “unprecedented” and, until recently, the number of children being placed in accordance with the child placement principle had been on the decline for the past 15 years.

“It’s only early days still but there needs to be a commitment that what they say they are going to do actually becomes practice,” she said.

“I’ve been working in government for 30 years and when I hear that they want to increase the number of children (placed in accordance with the principle) I ask, ‘what are they trying to sell and what are they actually going to make happen?’”

The Department has also set a target to grow its Aboriginal workforce to 10 per cent – up from five per cent – by 2024, introduced a new Family Group Conferencing program, and sought to improve professional development for staff.

A major Family Matters annual report published last week expressed support for the Department’s policy changes.

“Aboriginal families and communities in South Australia continue to want to take part in and have control over the decisions affecting their children, and continue to want them to have every opportunity to be raised in, and thrive in, safe and happy families and communities,” the report said.

“This is going to require a very significant scaling up of current initiatives designed to support Aboriginal families early, as well as those initiatives that seek to reunite Aboriginal children with their families in a timely manner.”

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