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Aboriginal Children's Commissioner granted inquiry powers as three-year term ends

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South Australia’s first Aboriginal Children’s Commissioner has finally been handed the powers of a Royal Commission to investigate “pressing systemic issues” facing Indigenous youth – only two months before the end of her three-year term.

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State parliament this week voted through changes which finally enshrine Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People April Lawrie’s role in legislation.

The amendments, which are yet to be assented, grant Lawrie the powers of a Royal Commission to conduct formal inquiries and to advise government ministers, state authorities and other non-government bodies on matters relating to Aboriginal children.

Premier and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Steven Marshall in 2018 appointed Lawrie, a former government bureaucrat who heralds from the Mirning and Kokatha peoples from the far west coast, following a request made by Aboriginal organisations.

At the time, the State Government controversially fast-tracked her appointment via a clause in the Constitution Act, which restricted her ability to conduct inquiries or formal investigations.

Lawrie’s three-year term ends on December 3 this year, meaning she only has just over two months to use her new legislative powers.

She told InDaily that the changes passed this week were “significant” and gave her “the strongest powers ever given to an Aboriginal Children’s Commissioner in Australia”.

But she said she was unsure whether the Government would extend her term into next year.

“I’m being really optimistic that I will be offered the role again – I have to think like that,” she said.

“I’ve been waiting all this time to have these powers.

“I’ve just done the run-up to the take-off board on the runway strip for long jump.

“I’m in acceleration mode, about to plant my left foot on the take-off board and if someone puts up the red flag and says ‘foul’ I don’t want that.”

Lawrie said if her term is extended, she would launch a “well-considered, measured inquiry” into the Government’s adherence to the Aboriginal child placement principle, which requires authorities to ensure Indigenous children remain in the care of their family or cultural group.

As part of that investigation, Lawrie said she would investigate the rate at which the Child Protection Department removes Aboriginal newborns from their mothers at birthing hospitals and places them into the care of non-Aboriginal carers.

She also wants to investigate how often the department separates Aboriginal siblings when they are removed from their birth parents.

“I want to look at all the pressing systemic issues and really interrogate where we have these dilemmas and these obstructions that actually prevent children being in the care of their family,” she said.

“I think an investigation into this issue will really expose a lot of not only deficiencies in the workforce, but also some deeply ingrained practice that’s probably hinged on cultural bias and prejudices against Aboriginal young mums, Aboriginal families.

“I don’t want it to be just a three-month exercise, I think this might actually be quite a detailed process which will take some time.”

Education Minister John Gardner told InDaily that it would be up to state cabinet to decide whether Lawrie’s term should be extended.

He said Lawrie had “certainly been a vigorous advocate for Aboriginal children and young people throughout South Australia in her time in the role to date, and has devoted her time to raising awareness of issues across the service system”.

“The Government’s appreciation for the work Commissioner Lawrie has already been undertaking is a matter for public record already, including as recently as this Tuesday in the Parliament,” he said.

“As Minister I was pleased to personally call Commissioner Lawrie when the Legislative Council passed the bill so that we could share our mutual pleasure about this significant step forward.”

Shadow Child Protection Minister Katrine Hildyard told parliament that Lawrie’s role was “crucially important in ensuring the voices of Aboriginal children, young people, their families and communities are heard”.

“It is work that I think we would all agree is crucially important in ensuring action on what is important to Aboriginal children, young people, their families and communities and action that will continue to make a difference in their lives,” she said.

The Government gave the office of the Aboriginal Children’s Commissioner a funding boost of $500,000 in the state budget – increasing to $1 million each year from 2022 – to support its work advocating for First Nations children.

Lawrie has also been given $616,000 to move into a stand-alone office, after sharing Commissioner for Children and Young People Helen Connolly’s office since her appointment.

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