The Committee on the Rights of the Child reviewed Australia’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Geneva from 4-5 June 2012.
SNAICC was present in Geneva for the review, having been a part of an NGO collective engaged with this Committee over the past couple of years to prepare for this hearing. Positive discussions took place at the hearing between the Committee and members of the Australian Government, and more informally with NGOs. SNAICC highlighted with both the Government and the UN Committee persistent human rights issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and the need to change the way we do things.
See the preparatory reports the Listen to Children Report, 2011, and the Addendum Report, May 2012. See also other NGO reports prepared by the NATSILS, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Concerned Australians.
The UN Committee released its Committee on the Rights of the Child – Sixtieth session report 19 June 2012, providing comprehensive recommendations to the Australian Government on a number of serious human rights issues requiring redress. These recommendations highlight in particular Australia’s failure to take on board many of its prior concerns, and the gap in institutional protection of children’s rights in Australia, including in particular for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. There remains, for example, no national child rights act or national plan of action. The Committee expressed some dismay and surprise at the disparity in the enjoyment of human rights between most children in Australia and some particular disadvantaged groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. With the wealth of Australia, the Committee could not see how this was necessary or even possible!
The Committee highlighted in particular the continued “serious and widespread discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children including in terms of accessibility to basic services and significant over-representation in the criminal justice system and in out-of-home care.” The Committee also expressed deep concern about, inadequate standards of living, access to education and housing, higher suicide death, homelessness, high levels of family violence and continued difficulties in birth registration, amongst other matters impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Committee was very clear that Australia’s human rights obligations require far more from the Government. At the heart of what the Committee indicated was required was:
- meaningful participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in decisions impacting their children;
- clear positions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership at both state and national level empowered to make decisions on policies and programs designed for children;
- funding, staff and technical expertise to support community based programs; and
- long term national strategies that respond to the causes of disadvantage and build on evidence of what works.
Recommendations from the Committee
In its recommendations to the Australian Government, the Committee focused significantly on a gap in participation and decision-making by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for issues impacting their children as well as in Aboriginal representation in children’s rights monitoring mechanisms. To remedy this, it suggested:
- the Australian Government appoint a Deputy Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s issues at the national and/or state/territory levels;
- the Australian Government establish and resource an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Steering Group to inform the development, planning, implementation and review of each “Closing the Gap” target in the specific context of child development, well-being and protection; and
- the Australian Government ensure the effective and meaningful participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons in the policy formulation, decision-making and implementation processes of programmes affecting them.
The Committee provided its recommendations on issues across the spectrum of human rights, including health, education, disability, leisure, protection and identity. Most specific to areas within SNAICC’s mandate, we highlight the following issues.
Children in out of home care
The Committee drew attention to the large numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being placed into care separated from their homes and communities. It challenged the government to redress a series of inadequacies occurring in the current out-of-home care system. These ranged from:
- an absence of national data documenting the criteria and decision leading to child placement;
- inappropriate placements, including placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children outside their communities;
- inadequate screening, training, support and assessment of carers; to
- a shortage of care options.
The Committee expressed frustration at a number of points with Australia’s failure to implement the Committee’s prior recommendations, repeating calls for action. This included a call for Government measures to fully implement the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle and intensify its cooperation with indigenous community leaders and communities to find suitable solutions for Indigenous children in need of alternative care within indigenous families.
This has been a message repeated by SNAICC again and again over the years. SNAICC certainly joins the Committee in highlighting the need to work together to develop solutions that respond to local needs. We trust that the Government will take on board these strong messages from this international child rights experts body.
The Committee felt that more could be done to improve the situation of children in alternative care placements. It referred to clear action to improve the quality of service provision, as well as access to health care and education for children in care.
Moving into longer term solutions however, the Committee emphasised the need for prioritisation of early intervention approaches, to provide support to families in situations of heightened vulnerability and prevent or mitigate abuse and neglect of children. A national review of best practices in policy and programmes for positive reunification of children with their families was raised as an important step. On this issue, the Committee noted the disturbing consequences of children with imprisoned parents, often placed in ad-hoc and insecure alternative care placement that is not culturally appropriate and with low rates of family reunification.
Northern Territory Stronger Futures
The Committee called for a different approach to the punitive nature of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Bill (2007), which has been continued by the Stronger Futures Bills. It specifically mentioned the tudent enrolment and attendance measure which allows for punitive reductions to welfare payments for parents whose children don’t attend school. It called for measures that are proportionate and that do not discriminate in form or in practice.
The Committee urged the Government to review its progress in the implementation of the recommendations of its Bringing Them Home Report to ensure full respect for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to their identity, name, culture, language and family relationships.
A review of efforts to address homelessness of children and young people was suggested by the Committee, which should inform specific strategies for children, including specifically Aboriginal children, and children in regional and remote communities.
Early Childhood Education and Care
The Committee welcomed the introduction of the National Quality Framework, part of the major national policy reform agenda for education, skills and early childhood development in Australia. It expressed a number of remaining concerns however in the quality and coverage of care that require improvement, these issues specifically impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The Committee called on the Government to:
- prioritise holistic care for children between 0-3 in order to redress service inadequacy for this group;
- Consider free or affordable care to increase availability of ECEC services for all children; and
- Ensure adherence by all ECEC providers to the NQF.
In particular, we note the Committee’s concern about the dominance of private, profit-driven institutions, reflected through these recommendations.
The Committee called on the Government to protect and promote bilingual models of education, both at national and state level. It suggested that coordination and monitoring of state and territory governments should be provided within the “Closing the Gap” initiative to ensure that individual Aboriginal education strategies are based on previous policy success and undertaken with a long-term approach of collaboration.
This was a major issue of concern to the Committee. It urged the Government to undertake all necessary measures to ensure that all children enjoy the same access to and quality of health services, with special attention to Indigenous children and children living in remote areas.
The Committee recognised that it is the root causes of health problems within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities that need to be addressed to achieve change in health outcomes. It call for action to change socio-economic disadvantages communities experience.
Once again, the Committee also focused on measures that would support parents to care for their own children and the expansion of community based programs, recognising that parents and communities are best placed to respond to issues. Government role is to ensure the professional support and resources to enable this to happen.
Where to now?
This review is one step in a long term ongoing process of holding the Australian Governments accountable for the legal obligations that it has to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all children, including all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
How effective these recommendations are depends now on how the NGO community can rally together to develop joint strategies to pressure and support the federal and state/territory governments to take adopt the recommendations and take actions to implement them.
SNAICC is keen to start discussions on how we can take up the UN Child Rights Committee recommendations with others to see improved protection of rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
We are exploring different options at the moment on how to take up these recommendations to see real changes on the ground.
Contact us at [email protected] to join the discussion or stay posted for more information!