A new program enabling Aboriginal-led teams to respond to Aboriginal families on child protection orders will help prevent another generation of children losing their connection to culture, Ballarat leaders say.
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Ballarat and District Aboriginal Cooperative is taking on legal responsibility of Aboriginal children on protection orders as part of the Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care program.
The organisation has established one team in its program called Gobata Burron, meaning 'take care of children', with two case managers and a team leader.
The team is working to transition 18 families on child protection orders from the management of the Department of Health and Human Services to BADAC, with a plan to expand to cater for up to 36 families.
Finally we are able to do something that will change the trajectory of an Aboriginal child in care.- Karen Heap, BADAC chief executive
BADAC chief executive Karen Heap said she hoped the new program would help reunite families faster and maintain children's connection to their culture while in out of home care.
"Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care is about making decisions for our children rather than the Department making decisions for our children," she said.
"Finally we are able to do something that will change the trajectory of an Aboriginal child in care."
The state government invested $44.2 million in the 2020/21 budget to support the Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care program.
Ms Heap said the investment came after an investigation into Aboriginal children in out of home care that revealed concerning stories.
"Siblings were separated, they weren't engaged with each other at any stage throughout their placements. They could be living just down the road from each other and they would never know," Ms Heap said.
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Ms Heap was part of an alliance of 14 Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations that worked with the state government and the child protection sector to develop a policy document on children in care.
Ms Heap received an award for her work in 2018.
"We already lived through a stolen generation era of time," she said.
"Then we were going back into a lost generation because children were being put into the care system and we as an organisation wouldn't know where they were and how they were keeping connected with their families.
"I could see it as it was happening, that we were going to have another generation not necessarily stolen, but a lost generation of kids that were in the system somewhere and we wouldn't know how to connect with them.
"Then it becomes a problem as they come of age, when they need to find their families again and find how to connect. It becomes generational and that is what we have to stop."
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Aboriginal children are overrepresented in out of home care. Data shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were eight times as likely as non-Indigenous children to have received child protection services in Australia in 2018 and 2019.
Poverty, assimilation policies, intergenerational trauma, discrimination and forced child removals have contributed to the over-representation.
BADAC chief operating officer Jon Kanoa said a lack of understanding of cultural differences in child-rearing practices and family structure had also played a role.
He said the Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care program was an important part of self determination.
"We want to make sure our children that are in child protection are feeling as supported as they can be and culturally supported," Mr Kanoa said.
"You might have a child protection practitioner that doesn't understand Aboriginal culture and something happens around sorry business or intergenerational trauma and the case manager doesn't understand.
"We can empathise with families and understand why the family has made a decision."
We need to start at the start and look at what we need to do to prevent them getting into child protection.- Karen Heap, BADAC chief executive
Gobata Burron program manager Angela Heard said case managers 'walked beside' families and supported them to achieve their reunification goals.
Ms Heard said families often needed that support as they often did not have the resources to achieve child protections requirements on their own.
"The other thing is with community as Aboriginal people we can have harsh conversations with our parents, whereas I think if child protection workers in the past have tried to have harsh conversations it is not accepted as well," she said.
"We know our community."
Mr Kanoa said a child's safety and best interests was always the priority.
If a child does need to be removed from their family, the preferred option is to place them in the care of a family member.
If that is not possible, placement with an Aboriginal foster carer is the second priority and thirdly in the mainstream foster care system with carers who are culturally trained.
Data shows more Aboriginal children are placed with kin or an Aboriginal carer in Victoria at 79.1 per cent, compared to the national rate of 64.3 per cent.
The Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care program is already well established in Bendigo and Echuca, with teams of up to 50 staff that includes case managers, team leaders and lawyers.
A state government media release says early results show Aboriginal children are reunified with their families faster under the program.
Ms Heap said this was an important first step, but she hoped for more focus on prevention in the future.
"We need to start at the start and look at what we need to do to prevent them getting into child protection," she said.
"We need to be able to capture early issues. That is where government needs to send us.
"We are talking about people who have not necessarily had parents who had a parenting role model, who have possibly been part of the stolen generation.
"If you are brought up in an institution you are not taught how to be in a family or how to love anybody. You come out and have children of your own, how do you teach your children?
"We need to have those programs put in place to help our families be families. I hope soon we will be able to get extra funding to do that kind of work."
Ms Heard said BADAC's new Keeping Families Together was a good example of a small piece of the prevention puzzle, supporting young mums to help keep their babies in their care.
This will become even more important as Aboriginal people is the fastest growing demographic in Ballarat.
Data shows 50 per cent of Aboriginal people in Ballarat are aged under 24 and 50 per cent are aged under nine.
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