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Global perspective key to addressing Aboriginal child welfare

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Overseas child protection programs could hold the answer to curbing South Australia’s growing overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in state care, a child protection worker from the Riverland says.

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“I’m an Aboriginal person, so my whole world-view is based around being an Aboriginal person and being part of an Aboriginal family,” says Department for Child Protection social worker and Wiradjuri woman Anastasia Read.

“All these issues with children in care obviously hits close to home because it’s your families, your communities, the people that you know that are impacted.

“I’m starting to understand now that there are things that I can do when you’re not happy with the way things are.”

Working in the Child Protection Department’s Riverland office, Read is the one dealing with difficult business of child protection – removing children from their birth families and finding them new homes.

Many of the Aboriginal families who enter her office have backstories of domestic violence, mental health problems and drug and alcohol misuse, all of which Read says are exacerbated by intergenerational trauma.

“As a senior social worker my role is to lead good practice and take on the complex cases – so some of the things that are… difficult and challenging,” she says.

“What you have in the Riverland is a lot of on-the-ground practical issues and not enough support services for people to get help when they need it.

“Whereas in Adelaide you might have 20 services that you can go to for support, in Berri you might only have one, so there’s very long waiting lists for detox and people are forced to wait months before they can get the help they need.”

For South Australia’s Aboriginal communities, contact with the child protection system is a growing reality.

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.

“As a department, maybe it’s that we don’t understand enough about Aboriginal child-rearing practices,” Read says.

“Here, we’re dealing with such crises that connecting children to country isn’t at the forefront, it’s safety – the immediate harm.

“Also, there are multiple generations of family trauma, so we can’t place children sometimes within their entire family network, which could be 50 or 60 people.”

It is against this backdrop that Read has been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to travel to Canada, the US, Belgium and Sweden in July to talk to families, social workers and government officials about how different child protection models could help South Australia curb the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care.

The fellowships, awarded each year by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, recognise Australians who have excelled in their industry and who wish to further their understanding of a nominated research topic by travelling overseas.

Read says her six-week trip will culminate in a report to be presented to the Department for Child Protection detailing how other countries’ child protection programs could benefit South Australia.

She says she is most looking forward to spending time in Manitoba, Canada, where First Nations families who come in contact with the child protection system choose to be referred to either a statutory authority or an Indigenous-specific organisation.

“It’s a very different way of looking at things – it gives ownership back to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities.”

For Read, establishing a standalone Aboriginal Child Protection Department would also “bring the ownership of Aboriginal issues back into Aboriginal hands” by allowing Aboriginal people to make decisions about their own children’s futures.

“It never works for anybody if you’re not making decisions for yourself and your own family,” she says.

“I think historically things have been done by the Government, therefore people think that’s just what needs to happen – the Government needs to manage these affairs.

“People might get scared and will worry what might happen if Aboriginal people take control of their own people, but I just think there are so many reasons to support it.”

As part of her fellowship, Read will also explore how Sweden and Belgium use a “medical-based” child protection approach to increase the rate of self-referrals.

She says both countries offer child protection services at hospitals and GPs, removing the stigma associated with going to a service-specific building.

“It’s not like there’s a service in the Riverland and this building is child protection and you know when you go in there that you are tarnished with that brush,” she says.

“Theirs on the other hand is quite confidential, so you could go to see a GP to access child protection services and no one would know that it’s for a child protection issue.”

Read says the Child Protection Department and South Australian Aboriginal community have expressed an interest in her upcoming trip.

In August, the Department announced it would aim to grow its Aboriginal workforce to 10 per cent – up from five per cent – by 2024 in line with an across-government push to better involve Aboriginal people in decision-making.

The department has also introduced a new “cultural learning program”, as well as a Reconciliation Action Plan.

“I and many others work in a department that deals with (Aboriginal) overrepresentation everyday,” Read says.

“There can be a lot of negativity around the child protection space, but I feel like doing something like this can only be positive.”

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