Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Aboriginal Principal Officers) Bill 2015

Written on the 13 November 2015


12 November 2015

COUNCIL 

Second reading 

Motion of Mr HERBERT (Minister for Training and Skills).

GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)

 

I am pleased to be able to rise to speak this morning on the Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Aboriginal Principal Officers) Bill 2015. In doing so, I acknowledge that there has been significant work in this area by successive governments to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 to make further provision regarding the authorisation of principal officers of Aboriginal agencies. The intentions of the bill are to provide practical measures to allow a smoother transition and application of Aboriginal guardianship measures and to allow principal officers to perform the functions and exercise the powers specified in section 18 of the act.

By way of background, because there is a bit of history to section 18, this was included in the 2005 act to empower Aboriginal agencies to have responsibility for the protection and care of Aboriginal children. At the time it was hoped we could mirror what was happening in international jurisdictions that have Indigenous communities, such as Canada and New Zealand. It looked at involving the state welfare system in decisions that affect children should they need to come under that system and in doing so support the child within their own culture.

The coalition supports the bill and acknowledges the work done in this area. I especially commend the work of my colleague Ms Wooldridge, who is in the chamber this morning, who as Minister for Community Services undertook significant work in this area. Members will recall the Cummins report, which was instigated by Ms Wooldridge as minister. The 2012 Report of the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry recommended the amendment of section 18 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. This bill is a continuation of the work undertaken by the coalition government, which acted on that recommendation.

One of the actions undertaken by the previous government was the introduction of the Children, Youth and Families Amendment Bill 2014. It was second read by the then minister on 7 May 2014. In her speech she said:

This bill to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 is a further example of this government's continued commitment to all vulnerable children and in particular to vulnerable Aboriginal children, as we continue to reform and enhance Victoria's child protection system.

It was one of many initiatives undertaken by the coalition government. I also acknowledge the work of former Aboriginal affairs ministers, Mr Bull and Mrs Powell, who undertook initiatives towards closing the gap. They did significant work to improve health and education outcomes, employment opportunities, greater awareness of drug and alcohol abuse, and family violence. These are all areas that are concerns for vulnerable Victorian communities, not just Aboriginal communities, because some of the statistics we see unfortunately have wider implications than just to the Aboriginal community.

In looking at this bill, the previous government commenced the work and worked closely with a number of stakeholders. I acknowledge the input of the various agencies and stakeholders that have done considerable work in that respect, in particular the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, or VACCA, which has provided significant advice and feedback.

For some years the number of protection applications made to the Children's Court in Victoria has been increasing, and unfortunately there have been significant delays in some of the decisions. There is a range of reasons that may occur and why children require representation. In Victoria Aboriginal children and young people make up 1.6 per cent of the Victorian population but the number of Aboriginal children and young people within state care or subject to protection orders is at around 16 per cent. We would all agree that there is significant overrepresentation of this demographic. We need to do as much as we can to ensure that future generations do not see these sorts of figures. Hopefully we will see a decrease in the trend in the statistics. I note from a report tabled this week that there are still significant numbers of Aboriginal children requiring out-of-home care placement.

I note the comments of the commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people, Mr Jackomos, who cites various factors leading to the removal of children, such as family violence, parental alcohol and substance abuse, neglect and mental illness. These are complex areas, but there is still an over-representation of Aboriginal children in terms of the number of children in out-of-home care. We need to work collectively on those numbers to see them decrease.

As I said, the former government was working towards that aim of decreasing that trend. It instigated the Cummins inquiry, which recommended the implementation of section 18 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, and it introduced the Children, Youth and Families Amendment Bill 2014. I also note that the former government undertook a number of other initiatives, including Taskforce 1000, which is an ongoing project to improve the outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people and inform future planning by reviewing their circumstances. As part of that project approximately 1000 Aboriginal children in out-of-home care were identified and issues surrounding their representation in the out-of-home care system were looked at. I know a review is being undertaken in relation to Taskforce 1000. I look forward to seeing what the government will continue to do with that initiative because it has been very informative. Again, that was an initiative of the former government.

Another initiative undertaken by the former government was the Koori Kids Growing Strong in Their Culture, which was established in 2013. Again it was looking at out-of-home care. I note that the latest Strong Families, Thriving Children strategic plan states that:

In 2013, during the development of a submission (Koori Kids Growing Strong in Their Culture) for the five-year out out-of-home care complementary plan for Aboriginal children it was recognised that there is a need for a strong, collective voice to drive better outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people. Therefore in 2014, an in-principle agreement had been formed by 13 of the Victorian Aboriginal community-controlled organisations involved in providing out-of-home care services to form an alliance to advocate for, and positively influence the future of, Aboriginal children and young people in Victoria, thus creating the Victorian Aboriginal Children and Young People's Alliance.

As you can see, over recent years a number of initiatives have been undertaken in relation to improving the circumstances of Aboriginal children and young people.

While I am speaking about those initiatives, I also mention the annual report of the Commission for Children and Young People for 201314, which was tabled this week, and the appointment of the first commissioner for children and young people, Mr Bernie Geary. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of Mr Geary and his outstanding achievements over some four decades working with Victoria's most vulnerable children. He is a man of great commitment and has always put first the interests of children, especially vulnerable children, in the work he has undertaken. I put on record my appreciation for the significant amount of work he has done on behalf of all Victorians, and most importantly Victoria's vulnerable children. Mr Geary is retiring from that position.

As the then minister, Ms Wooldridge also appointed the very first commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people, Mr Andrew Jackomos. It is an important position that looks at the representation of this important group of young Victorians. As I stated, much has been done by consecutive governments to improve the lives of our vulnerable children. We need to continue to undertake that commitment. It requires ongoing diligence and commitment in this space.

To return to this bill, as I said, it mirrors much of what has formerly been put to the house, but a number of new provisions, including the powers and functions of an acting principal officer, have been included in the bill. These changes will allow that the person who is in that acting principal officer role does not have to be an Aboriginal person, so it gives greater flexibility. These are practical measures that will enable outcomes and decisions to be made. Under the bill, the principal officer of an Aboriginal agency will be able to delegate powers to a suitable person within that Aboriginal agency.

Other matters addressed by the bill include the disclosure of information by the secretary to the principal officer of an Aboriginal agency. Under section 18, the secretary may disclose to the principal officer of an Aboriginal agency any information that is otherwise prohibited from being disclosed. That allows for information to be shared in cases where doing so would have previously been prohibited.

Another important element of the bill concerns the use of information disclosed to an Aboriginal agency and principal officer. That gives an Aboriginal agency the ability to make an informed decision as to whether or not to agree to an authorisation, and that includes any information from the secretary to the Aboriginal agency.

These important changes to the bill will enable the agencies to work effectively and empower them to make those decisions, and of course we can have a review by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to enable that to occur should it be deemed to be necessary.

These measures are very much in line with the previous bill. They will provide for improved outcomes for Aboriginal children who are in out-of-home care and leaving care and returning to their families. Whilst I am speaking about this, I want to acknowledge the work of VACCA. It has been working closely with the department, and under the previous government it commenced a pilot project to look at the practical measures by which section 18 would actually work. I would like to note the comments made by VACCA, which has been heavily involved in this trial, which has been completed. It noted that the project:

. . . has shown to have improved outcomes for Aboriginal children and facilitated Aboriginal children leaving care and returning to their families.

This trial was commenced in October 2013. It was to conclude earlier this year I note that it was extended to June of this year. I am very keen to understand the evaluation process. I have a number of questions in relation to the evaluation of this project, and I hope the minister can answer these in her summing up of the bill, rather than during the committee stage. It is important that we understand how this project was undertaken and what will happen. It is also my understanding that a further trial will be conducted in a regional area.

The questions I have include:

- Will the evaluation of the first project have an impact on that second trial?

- Has the evaluation been concluded, and are those findings as yet known?

- If not, when will it be undertaken and when will it be expected to conclude?

- Will the government commence investing in a full rollout, as is the intent of section 18, and commit to funding the program once the evaluation process has been undertaken?

 

I note that is of concern to VACCA and so it would want to understand whether and when that rollout will occur. Has the government undertaken preliminary costings on how much a full rollout will cost? If it is not going to be a full rollout, if it is going to be a partial rollout, has it also costed that process?

As I said at the outset, the coalition will be supporting this bill. There are important elements to it that were commenced under the former government. I am pleased that the current government has bought the legislation into the house and that we can conclude this issue and get on with improving those outcomes for some of our most vulnerable members of the Victorian community in the Aboriginal community. I look forward to hearing from the minister in relation to her response to some of those issues I have raised in my contribution.

I commend the bill to the house.

 

 


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