Aboriginal children and their families are vastly over-represented in the child protection system and (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2015) mainstream approaches to addressing the unique issues and challenges faced by Aboriginal children and families coming into these systems are not fit for purpose.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over-represented in the child protection systems at a rate eight to ten times that of non-Aboriginal children.
In some jurisdictions of Australia, the rate of Indigenous children in foster, kinship and residential care on any one night has reached almost one in ten. This rate is almost ten times higher than non-Aboriginal children and has steadily increased over the past decade. Contrast this with rates of non-Indigenous children in out-of-home care, which have stabilised in most jurisdictions.
It has been projected that 80% of Aboriginal people 16 years old or under in some jurisdictions will become the subject of a notification to a child protection service. Nationwide, only 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from the care of their parents are placed with extended family members.
Western academics are only now realising what has been known in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for millennia - the connection of mind, body, spirit and heart. Science is now establishing strong links between physical and emotional harms to children and poor outcomes in the areas of adult health, mental health, criminal justice and education.
In many jurisdictions, there has been a crisis-driven response to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in child protection. Often presaged by sophisticated and highly regarded public inquiries into the issue, the responses on the other hand have featured short-term thinking, but large amounts of funding, a lack of sustainability or evidence in strategy planning, a sense that we need to “do to” communities rather than “do with”, and a need to contain the problem, rather than adequately conceptualise it and build capacity for response.
For Aboriginal children and their families, significant spending on responses has yielded little, if any, benefit on the ground. This paradox is the result of long-standing mutual distrust between families and child protection services, a reliance on responses that are mobilised only after harm is suspected, and a failure to address the factors that drive abuse or neglect in Indigenous families.