The Closing the Gap target to reduce numbers of Indigenous children in care by 45% within 10 years is unrealistic and likely to fail

closing the gap paper cut out
  • Published Date: 05 August 2020

By Jacynta Krakouer

Jacynta Krakouer (BSc, MSW, MSP Melb) is a Mineng Noongar lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne in the Department of Social Work. She is completing her PhD on cultural connection for Indigenous Australian children and youth in out of home care in Victoria. She is also a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group for the Family Matters campaign. Twitter: @JacyntaKrakouer

A new national agreement for Closing the Gap (CTG) has just been announced by the Commonwealth Government, resetting the previous agreement.

Negotiated in partnership with Aboriginal peak organisations, the new CTG agreement contains 16 welfare targets designed to diminish Indigenous ‘disadvantage’.

One of the CTG welfare targets aims to reduce the number of Indigenous Australian children in out-of-home care by 45 per cent by 2031.

If this CTG target is to be successful, it will require significant investment by all Australian governments, particularly in prevention and early intervention.

There are two main mechanisms through which we can reduce the numbers of Indigenous children in care: prevent children from entering out-of-home care in the first place and exiting children from out-of-home care.

In 2018-19, only 17 per cent of the nearly $6 billion spent on child protection was directed to prevention and early intervention. This sum was not specific to Indigenous children and families. Yet the new CTG agreement is currently not tied to any funding increases.

The Family Matters campaign to end Indigenous overrepresentation in care has called on all Australian governments to better resource prevention and early intervention for 5 years, to no significant avail.

The lack of current government investment in prevention and early intervention makes this CTG target idealistic.

Exiting children from out-of-home care can risk cultural connection

The increasing trend of Indigenous overrepresentation in care is also likely to impede reaching the target.

Over the last 5 years, the number of Indigenous Australian children receiving child protection services has risen by 8,587 (from 42,914 at June 30, 2014 to 51,500 at June 30, 2019). Exactly how Australian governments will reduce the numbers of Indigenous children entering care – in a context of increasing overrepresentation – is unclear.

Aboriginal community-controlled organisations are not involved in statutory child protection services, and they consequently have minimal power to tackle entry into care.

On the other hand, exiting Indigenous children from out-of-home care will reduce the numbers and increasing exits from care may enable the target to be met.

That said, we do need to be concerned that efforts to meet this target may result in higher placement rates of Indigenous children in permanent care.

Permanency legislation has already been adopted in Victoria and New South Wales; however, this legislation is not conducive to Indigenous understandings of cultural permanency. Indigenous children need more than stability of placement: they also need to derive a sense of stability, belonging and permanency in their culture.

Without this, the threat of disconnection from Indigenous culture, community and family is substantial.

Instead of permanent care, exit from out-of-home care can also be achieved through reunification with family.

However, systemic issues have resulted in reunification being poorly pursued in out-of-home care. In New South Wales, the Family is Culture review led by Megan Davis found that reunification was not identified as a possibility in 84% of the children who had case plans on their files.

When reunification is pursued, Indigenous children may be reunified with their non-Indigenous side of the family. Similarly, permanent care may also take place with the non-Indigenous side of the family.

This creates significant concerns about cultural connection, but in a context where governments are focused on reducing the numbers of Indigenous children in care, cultural connection may become a second order priority. Connection to Indigenous family, community, and culture will be jeopardised for Indigenous children in care.

It is paramount that current practices around reunification and permanent care for Indigenous children are overhauled.

While the CTG target may be met through exiting Indigenous children from care in these ways, what is the human cost of doing so? If we are not careful, permanent care and poor reunification efforts with Indigenous family will result in assimilation. The Stolen Generations will continue.

Ironically, not all Australian governments have committed to reduce the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care by 45% by 2031. This raises questions about the intention of the CTG target in the first place.

Symbolic policy has been an ongoing issue in Indigenous affairs that results in policy failure on the ground. If the target is not met, will the blame for policy failure fall onto Aboriginal organisations?

Given the lack of unified government commitment to this CTG target, in a context of increasing Indigenous overrepresentation, the target is likely to fail.

Failure to grasp the complexities of child protection and out-of-home care systems – and the reasons that Indigenous children enter these care systems in the first place – has resulted in a new CTG target that is unrealistic and may cause harm to vulnerable Indigenous children.