UPDATED 8.10am November 7: The Minister comments
By ERWIN CHLANDA
Some 200 Central Australian children bound up in the child welfare system are victims of policies that are arguably based on race politics and implemented often by inexperienced and overworked staff of the NT Department of Children and Families (DFC), according to sources with long and intimate connections with the system, who spoke to us on condition of not being named.
The unsung heroes of the system are the foster parents and carers who, far too often, are exposed to arbitrary decisions by public servants pushing misguided politically correct agendas, irrespective of the damage they may be doing to the children in their department’s care.
This is especially the case with the pursuit of “kinship reunification” – returning children to family situations whether or not it is really the best for the child.
Absurdly, such decisions are encouraged – some say made obligatory – by key sections in the law governing the system according to sources.
Robyn Lambley, the Minister for Families & Children Services in the new NT government, says: “With the integration of the Department of Education and the Department of Children and Families we are hoping to provide a seamless service for children, particularly for Aboriginal kids living in remote areas.
“This amalgamation of agencies is an attempt by our new government to try to identify children from birth who may be risk of abuse and neglect.
“It is about providing more eyes and ears on the ground to observe and assist children. It is also about providing better coordinated services to identify carers in communities,” Mrs Lambley says.
“Despite the reforms initiated by the Board Of Inquiry into Northern Territory Child Protection in 2010, the former Labor Government made next to no headway in helping children and families in remote areas.
“There has been little success in identifying kinship carers to assist children in need. Our aim is to identify and support kinship carers on communities to care for Aboriginal children rather than bringing kids into town and placing them routinely with non-Aboriginal families.
“We think that combining education and Child Protection services optimises the chances of all children to be supported and assisted to get a good education and a healthy start to life.”
Many children in the system suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome
According to our sources, children have come into the system after severe and chronic neglect, abuse (including sexual abuse), and not being adequately and properly housed and fed. Many children in the system suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome and other serious health issues resulting from severe and chronic alcohol abuse by parents. The News has been shown documentation of this.
We have become aware of cases where wrangling over where a child is to live and who should look after it has gone on for months, even years. Another sad feature of the system is that many children with high health needs may go for long periods before they are properly diagnosed and treated.
Workers may be well meaning and according to our sources they are over stretched, but it is hard to escape a conclusion that, intended or not, the politics of race are a factor in how the system delivers services to vulnerable, needy children.
Our sources say there are substantial obstacles to making appropriate arrangements for Aboriginal children, especially with eminently suitable but non-Aboriginal foster families.
Requirements in the NT Care and Protection of Children Act mandate that Aboriginal children, if at all possible, must be cared for by Aboriginal people:- “Kinship groups, representative organisations and communities of Aboriginal people have a major role, through self-determination, in promoting the wellbeing of Aboriginal children.
“A kinship group, representative organisation or community of Aboriginal people nominated by an Aboriginal child’s family should be able to participate in the making of a decision involving the child.
“An Aboriginal child should, as far as practicable, be placed with a person in the following order of priority: a member of the child’s family; an Aboriginal person in the child’s community in accordance with local community practice; any other Aboriginal person.” Yes, any other Aboriginal person. Non-Aboriginal carers come later in that list of priorities.
“In addition, an Aboriginal child should, as far as practicable, be placed in close proximity to the child’s family and community,” says the Act. Any arrangements should be capable of “promoting the child’s ongoing affiliation with the culture of the child’s community”.
Significantly the Act also says: “When a decision involving a child is made, the best interests of the child are the paramount concern.”
‘Reunification at all costs”
But who decides what is in the best interest of the child? Is their best interest proximity to the “culture of the child’s community?” Or is it being cared for properly, even if that care is given by a non-Aboriginal family? Our sources say these questions are unresolved and a constant subject of conflict, with “reunification at all costs” alive and well at one extreme.
Most children have some form of legal representation but unlike the department and the parents representation is not automatic – a court has to decide a child needs a representative. It is quite possible for decisions to be reached and orders made affecting children without any scrutiny at all by someone at arm’s length from the department or the parents and family.
The assumption seems to be that the department and the parents and their lawyers should always be trusted to get the job done. Our sources say that many Aboriginal foster carers with the support of the department do good work looking after their relative’s children – something that must be acknowledged.
But it is non-Aboriginal carers and foster families that are often the meat in the sandwich. They are often successfully caring for children for years, forming strong bonds and clearly having the trust and love of the children, while always aware that they have no real say and there is always the risk the children might be taken away and placed with their original families, in pursuit of “kinship reunification.”
Getting to the point of making the best decisions for a child’s interests can be difficult because there are elements in the system which can slow down the process and even paralyse it.
The primary decisions are made by the CEO but other parties, such as the parents, may be nominated as persons who have to be consulted. When the parents are obstinate or uncooperative the process may be prolonged or scuttled.
While the carers and foster parents are doing all the heavy lifting, they do not have the normal decision making powers that parents have, although they are likely to know best what the children need. The new government has an historic opportunity to make things better for children by taking the issue away from those tempted to run a race politics agenda.