Family Matters Report 2023


Each year since 2016, Family Matters has told the continuing story of our children and families affected by child protection systems around Australia. Two key themes have characterised those stories: one is the way our children, families and communities remain safe and strong in their cultures. The other is how governments continue to disappoint us. Under the data and evidence outlined in the Family Matters 2023 report lies the suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families that continue to be separated at disproportionate rates.

It is not because there is a lack of solutions. At SNAICC, and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations around the country, our people and communities continue to develop strategies for meaningful change. Family Matters brings together the perspectives and actions that our communities have been calling for over many years. We are frustrated by the limited commitment to back these solutions.

Target 12 in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care by 45% by 2031, remains very much off-track. The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children affected by the child protection system is increasing. In 2022 there were 22,328 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia, the highest number ever recorded. Most disturbingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 10.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care – the highest rate of over-representation ever recorded. Through Family Matters we continue to call for accountability to deliver on the commitment in the National Agreement. All governments need to do more to transform child protection systems, consistent with the Family Matters Roadmap and the Priority reforms.

The Productivity Commission draft report this year from its Review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap found that governments across Australia are not meeting their commitments. The report questioned whether governments have grasped the scale of systemic change required.

This year (in 2023) our communities have been further let down by the Referendum that sought to recognise our people in the Constitution and establish a Voice to Parliament. The Referendum sought to enact the call in the Uluru Statement from the Heart for a Voice for our people in matters that affect us. The Uluru statement acknowledged the ‘unprecedented rates’ of child removal, and our enduring love and hope for their futures. It recognised the ‘torment of our powerlessness’ in repeated failures and government inaction to implement these meaningful, community-based solutions to address these enduring structural problems and create a better future for our children and the generations to come.

That aspiration was denied and the Referendum result returned us to the status quo that has failed us for so long.

This disappointing result has not and will not silence us. The simple truth of the Uluru Statement remains: when our communities have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. SNAICC and the Family Matters National Leadership Group continue to call for the means for our people to make decisions in the matters that affect us, and to hold governments to a higher standard of accountability, to do better.

It is time to establish a National Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children, who will be the champion, the voice and facilitator for our children, young people and families, and who will hold governments to account. Similar independent and empowered roles must be present in every jurisdiction, providing a national system of oversight to uphold the rights and interests of our children.

We need independent scrutiny of the systems that intervene in our children’s and families’ lives. Periodic reviews through inquiries and Royal Commissions have produced extensive reports and recommendations about the dimensions of these challenges, but little action from governments once the inquiry wraps. Ongoing oversight through empowered, independent, rights-based advocates provides a better opportunity for lasting change.

Enabling self-determination for our people is the way out of this crisis. This report outlines the promising path our communities and their community-controlled organisations are forging. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations are establishing holistic systems of care, and increasingly exercising greater authority in decision-making, and this is leading to positive outcomes for our children. Through dismantling government systems perpetuating colonialism and restoring authority for raising children in safe and nurturing hands, we will see lasting change.

We still have a long way to go in realising this vision.

This slow progress continues to expose our children to avoidable harms that are detrimental to their futures.

The Family Matters report has consistently called for a system-wide reimagining and transformation of child protection systems. To achieve this, systems must be rebuilt on new foundations, what we refer to as the four Building Blocks.

Giving families equitable access to high quality and culturally safe supports is the first vital building block. Second is enabling communities to make decisions about their children. Third are laws, policies and practices that are culturally safe and responsive to our needs. And fourth are mechanisms to ensure that governments and services are accountable to the communities they serve. With these foundations in place, we know that our children can thrive.

At a national level, reforms are underway that can drive meaningful change. Safe and Supported: the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, has been designed with us – a ground-breaking commitment to shared decision-making. In January this year, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Action Plan 2023-26 of the framework was released. The plan includes commitments to transfer authority of child protection to community and to our organisations, investment in the community-controlled sector and our workforce, data sovereignty and full implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle to the standard of active efforts. It includes establishing robust national standards for oversight and advocacy through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioners, including the establishment of a National Commissioner. This Action Plan can be a game changer, but only if the matched by real, resourced action from governments.

At a state and territory level, some governments are already moving forward in partnership with local communities. Governments in Victoria and Queensland are transferring authority to ACCOs to lead child protection decisions and practice about their children. Queensland has legislated requirements for active efforts to implement the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle’s five elements, and the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia are progressing legislative reviews to bring their legislation into line with the Principle. South Australia has progressed community-led design for a new children and families peak body and is undertaking law reform to progress the transfer of authority to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, while the Australian Capital Territory is progressing establishment of its new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioner. The Northern Territory has launched a 10-year Generational Strategy to improve services for children and families, along with the First Action Plan which includes commitments to transfer authority for child protection decision-making to Aboriginal
communities, and to develop the ACCO sector. Western Australia has designed a 10-year roadmap to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in partnership with Aboriginal communities and organisations. Numerous jurisdictions have established greater oversight through Commissioner roles, although there remains significant variability in the positioning and powers vested in these roles.

At the heart of this report is a call to urgent action. We need governments to address the ongoing harm that is caused when they remove Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from families. As the report says, families matter. Strong families mean our kids have a bright future.

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