By Clare Tilbury* and Natalie Lewis**

In recent years, Australian state and territory governments have made changes to child protection laws and policies that aim to increase the number of permanency orders (including adoptions), and limit timeframes for family reunification for children living in out-of-home care.

Permanency orders transfer parenting responsibility for the child to another person until the child turns 18 years. Permanent carers hold the same rights and responsibilities as a parent for the child. In most jurisdictions, birth parents cannot regain custody of their children even if their situation has improved. These orders differ from traditional child protection orders where parents have recourse to apply to the courts to have their children returned.

The stated policy intent of permanency orders is to promote stability and security for children in out-of-home care.  In most jurisdictions, when children are adopted or placed on permanent care orders, the involvement of the child protection agency ceases. Thus, the new arrangements reduce the financial cost of out-of-home care because foster care allowances and other supports are no longer provided by government, and child protection workers cease monitoring the quality of care.

The impacts of the changes on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

As outlined the 2019 Family Matters report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are seven times more likely to be on a permanent care order than non-Indigenous children in care, and most adoptions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were to non-Indigenous carers. Such placements will not achieve the desired goal of stability, especially as children enter adolescence and adulthood.

The permanency orders risk severing the ties of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to their cultures and communities, especially when the placement is with non-Indigenous carers and the child protection agency has no obligation to support cultural connections. These are vitally important for all children’s development, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children also have rights in international law to connection with their culture.

Regardless of the intentions of permanent care orders, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they present distressing reminders of the Stolen Generations. The 1997 Bringing them Home report detailed the devastating, lifelong impacts experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a result of widespread child removals. Research about intergenerational impacts has found Stolen Generations descendants experience very high levels of vulnerability across a range of health and wellbeing indicators.

Evidence indicates that true permanency requires stability, security, a sense of personal and cultural identity, and positive, caring, ongoing relationships. The rationale underlying permanent care orders is the sooner a legal a carer is established, that great stability occurs which is a better outcome for a child’s wellbeing. This understanding is flawed in its failure to recognise that children in out-of-home care already have a sense of identity that is grounded in their experiences of cultural, family and community connections.

Permanent care orders also decrease child protection statistics that generate controversy and embarrassment for governments. Multiple inquiries into child protection systems have called on governments to act to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care.  But NSW, Victoria and WA now exclude children on permanent care orders from their out-of-home care population counts.

The impacts of these changes to counting rules are not abstract. They matter for our most vulnerable children and young people, including the 2634 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people who were not counted in the official out-of-home care data last year.

What should be changed

Family Matters is Australia’s national campaign to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people grow up safe and cared for in family, community, and culture. Since 2016, the campaign has released an annual report that examines how Australia is faring in improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The safety and wellbeing of children is the priority, and in some cases, children must be placed out of home. This should not come at the cost of their right to know and experience connections to family and culture.

The Family Matters campaign recommends an end to legal orders for the permanent care and adoption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

It calls on all governments to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to design alternative policies that support stability and belonging for our children and young people. A crucial element of this redesign is meaningful efforts to focus policy and investment on early intervention, family support, and reunification.

* Leneen Forde Chair of Child and Family Research, School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University and member of the Griffith Criminology Institute

** CEO of the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak, Co-chair of the Family Matters campaign, and Adjunct Research Fellow at Griffith University,.