Victorian Indigenous leader calls for urgent changes to child protection and justice systems

Co-chair of Victoria’s First Peoples’ Assembly says ‘we can’t wait until 2024 for a state-wide treaty and then begin negotiations on this work’

Geraldine Atkinson, co-chair of Victoria’s First Peoples’ Assembly, has warned that urgent reform of the state’s child protection and criminal justice systems cannot wait until a treaty is reached and should happen now.

Atkinson appeared at the Yoorrook Justice Commission on Tuesday morning, telling Victoria’s Indigenous truth-telling inquiry that work was needed to counter the over-representation of First Nations people in the systems.

Her testimony came after the premier, Daniel Andrews, last week vowed to overhaul the state’s child protection system, saying too many First Nations children were being taken away from their families by the state.

Atkinson, a Bangerang-Wiradjuri woman, told the inquiry a similar overhaul was needed in the criminal justice system and while reforms would be prioritised in a state-wide treaty after negotiations begin next year, action should happen earlier.

“We can’t wait until 2024 for a state-wide treaty and then begin negotiations on this work. This work needs to start now,” she told the inquiry.

“We know what needs to be done. We just need the power to do it.”

Atkinson said the assembly would seek an interim agreement with the Andrews government and Aboriginal-controlled community organisations to reform child protection policy. She said the assembly could lead and coordinate the overhaul.

A spokesperson for the Victorian government said it looked forward to the Yoorrook commission handing down its recommendations.

“Only by reconciling with the past, and its impact to this very day, can we achieve a fairer, more just future for Aboriginal Victorians – because without truth, there can be no Treaty – and without Treaty, there can be no justice,” the spokesperson said.

“We know that more needs to be done to address the over-representation of Aboriginal Victorians in the child protection and justice systems – that’s why we’re implementing a range of reforms with self-determination at their core.”

In a submission to the inquiry, the assembly said immediate solutions for the child protection system include allocating family support services to Indigenous families and making the kinship care payments equal to the foster care allowances, to better ensure families were kept together.

“What happens in child protection eventually leads to what happens in the criminal justice system. That’s just not just for our children. It’s for the parents and the families as well,” Atkinson said.

She said a treaty would hold the government to account on recommendations that arise from Yoorrook and ensure they “don’t gather dust”.

The Yoorrook commission is currently examining the connections between the child protection and criminal justice systems and the over-representation of Indigenous Victorians.

Last week, in an open letter to the state’s attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, the assembly urged the Andrews government to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

Andrews last week said his government backed a nationally consistent approach on changing the age of criminal responsibility.

Last month, the Northern Territory passed legislation to raise the age of responsibility from 10 to 12 next year, but Indigenous and legal advocacy groups say it doesn’t go far enough and still locks children in detention.

Victoria is the only state or territory that has enacted the three key elements of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Hearttruth-telling, treaty and voice. The federal government has also committed to enacting the manifesto in full.

South Australia had moved towards a treaty, before the Marshall government scrapped the push after being elected in 2018. The current Labor government says it will restart the process, but only after establishing an Aboriginal voice to the state’s parliament.

Queensland, the Northern Territory and Tasmania are also working toward treaties.


Adeshola Ore

The GuardianTramp

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