An Australian-first bill aimed at reducing the disproportionate number of Indigenous children entering care in Victoria has passed parliament.
The bill, which will allow organisations such as the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency to investigate child protection cases and connect families with support before a court order is made, was passed in the state’s upper house on Thursday with the support of the Coalition and most of the crossbench.
It includes an Australian-first statement of recognition that acknowledges the past wrongs and mistreatment of Aboriginal people by government institutions. Judges, child protection workers and the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing will be required to consider this when dealing with cases.
An amendment to the bill, moved by the government and supported by the Greens, also explicitly states that removing an Aboriginal child from the care of a parent can disrupt the child’s connection to their culture and cause serious harm to the child.
Victoria’s child protection minister, Lizzie Blandthorn, said the measures “will improve outcomes for children and reunite families”.
“This bill will make a real difference to the lives of families and children throughout Victoria, particularly Aboriginal children,” she said.
The Labor MP Jacinta Ermacora told the upper house the bill goes a small way to redress a wrong.
“There is no doubt that this bill returns something that did not belong to us in the first place, something that was progressively, systematically and judicially taken away from Aboriginal people over the last 200-plus years,” she said.
“That is, the right to make decisions about health, safety and protection of their children within family and community and according to the knowledge, culture and social and legal systems that were previously in place on the land of their people.”
Other amendments moved by the Greens were knocked back in the chamber, including requiring the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle to be applied throughout a child’s involvement in child protection, and prioritising keeping siblings and family groups together when children are removed from their home.
There was only one MP who spoke in opposition to the bill: One Nation’s Rikkie-Lee Tyrell.
The opposition’s spokesperson for child protection, Matt Bach, expressed relief that the bill finally passed the chamber.
He said the government had first introduced the bill in parliament year ago, before it stalled and had to be reintroduced again after the November election.
“The parliament finally passed really good legislation today – designed to reduce the dreadful overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care,” Bach, who began his life in foster care before being adopted, said.
“This new law is much needed, as more Indigenous kids are removed in Victoria than in any other state or territory. As a result of failures by the state, so many are further traumatised and go on to lives of disfunction, chaos and criminality.
“The government now has the legislative framework that it needs to finally start closing the gap, and to keep Indigenous children safely with their families. Whether or not this happens is now entirely in the government’s hands.”
According to the latest figures, one in nine Aboriginal babies aged under one are taken from their parents by the state in Victoria, more than double the national average. In all, one in 10 Aboriginal youth are in care, and one in three are known to child protection services.
The premier, Daniel Andrews, vowed to overhaul child protection after he won November’s Victorian election. The state’s truth-telling commission is also currently examining the system.
The latest budget included $140m for Aboriginal-led children and family services, including $64m to expand the Aboriginal Children in Care program which will ensure more than 750 additional First Nations children can be included.
The state Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, said Victoria’s child protection system is “broken” and “failing First Nations children”.
“Today’s bill is an important first step towards fixing it, but it can’t be the last,” she said.