Legal experts have criticised new child protection laws pushed through Northern Territory parliament on February 18 for not including safeguards to protect Aboriginal culture and risking a repeat of the damage done to the Stolen Generations.
The new legislation allows children who are removed from their parents by the Department of Children and Families to be placed on Permanent Care Orders, which would mean that their carers would have control over most decisions to do with the child, free from judicial or DCF review.
Prior to these laws, this power was limited to those children who had been fully adopted by a new family, not just court-appointed carers.
Minister for Children and Families John Elferink said this provided more stability. On February 18, he said: “Children who are taken into care have already been subject to abuse, neglect and/or trauma and it is important that they are provided with a long-term stable environment moving into adulthood.”
But the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) said that relies too much on intervening too late and would disproportionately affect Aboriginal children and families.
Aboriginal children represent 86% of children under the care of DCF. Only 41% of these children are placed with Aboriginal carers. Therefore, Aboriginal children are disproportionately affected by the new laws and loss of language and culture are a likely result.
NAAJA CEO Priscilla Collins said on February 17: “We know the intergenerational effect of cultural dislocation on Aboriginal people and the government needs to take more care before attempting to introduce this type of legislation.
“Under permanent care orders there will be no monitoring of the permanent placement and an Aboriginal child’s relationship with their family and culture will be left to the discretion of the carer.”
NAAJA called for “care plans” for children placed under the orders to allow for cultural support, and support for Aboriginal language. NAAJA also said that the laws were extreme and the provisions to inform parents of the process were too lax.
NAAJA also called on the NT government to adopt the practices of the national laws on child protection and work on preventative strategies so that children did not have to be taken at all.
Collins said: “The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s children adopts a preventative approach to child abuse and neglect on the basis that this approach will deliver better outcomes for children.
“Proper investment in intensive family support services must be a priority. It’s disappointing that the government is pushing through such a significant change without voicing any commitment to prevention and early intervention.
“We are asking the government to take time to consider our recommendations and implement better legal and cultural safeguards to protect Aboriginal children in the child protection system. The best permanent home for children is with family.”