Thursday, 1 June 2023


Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023

Matthew BACH, Jacinta ERMACORA, Ann-Marie HERMANS, David ETTERSHANK, Sheena WATT, Samantha RATNAM, John BERGER, Rikkie-Lee TYRRELL, Lizzie BLANDTHORN


Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023

Second reading

Debate resumed on motion of Lizzie Blandthorn:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Matthew BACH (North-Eastern Metropolitan) (12:43): I have rarely been more excited to take to my feet in this place than I am today to discuss the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023. I want to be very clear at the outset of this debate – as my friends and colleagues in the other place were some time ago when this matter was debated there – that on this side of the house we will be supporting the bill.

This bill, as with some other bills in the broader child protection and family services portfolio, has a lengthy and convoluted history. It has taken a circuitous route to get us to this point. None of that, may I say, is to direct any criticism whatsoever at the current Minister for Child Protection and Family Services, who, if I may be so bold, has in my mind run just the most wonderful and collaborative process, especially over the last few weeks as she has been dealing with really complex matters regarding a series of amendments that we knew were set to be introduced in this place. I appreciate that very much indeed.

The bill was initially introduced in a slightly different form by one of her predecessors before the election, and I was very disappointed, as I know many people in the broader sector were, that we were not able to move the bill forward at that time. We had many months before the election. I think it was last June – I may be corrected at some point in the debate – that this bill, in a slightly different format, was initially introduced. It is a really important bill, and we will talk about that. The Premier has gone on the record saying how important this bill is. I think it is a really good bill. It is a bill, as I say, that I support and that we can support, yet it has taken so long to get to this point. Because it has taken so long to get to this point – again, I want to be clear that on this side of the house we will seek to deal with this bill in an expeditious fashion today – there are a number of people on the opposition benches who are keen to make brief contributions, because they are really passionate about key elements of the bill and what we hope the bill will be able to do. Nonetheless, it would be a fabulous thing if we could get this done this afternoon.

The bill includes, as many members are aware, because we have spoken about this matter broadly before, an Aboriginal statement of recognition and recognition principles, importantly, relating to child protection. These principles will be inserted into the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. It makes a series of other changes. The key purpose of the bill is to make a variety of amendments to that principal act, including, obviously, the statement of recognition, as I have said; amendments relating to the authorisation of principal officers of an Aboriginal agency – that is important; to provide for the use and disclosure of information to and by principal officers – again, that is important; and to enable judicial registrars to exercise powers of magistrates to issue warrants.

Broadly speaking, why I have always been so supportive of this bill is that it will do something that key figures in the Indigenous community and key figures more broadly in the sector have been calling for for a long time – that is, shift power from the department to Aboriginal community controlled organisations. We know the data is stark when you look at young people who are case managed directly from the department: the outcomes they achieve are far, far worse than the outcomes that are achieved by young people who are case managed by fabulous organisations in Victoria’s community sector. We are so lucky in Victoria to have a community sector with so much skill. It is not the case in every other jurisdiction, but for some historical reason that I confess is largely lost on me, we have a quite fabulous community sector with so much skill and fabulous staff. We talk a lot about staff shortages in this place and workforce shortages, but that is not really the case in the community sector, or at least I am convinced from my discussions with leaders in the community sector, leaders in ACCOs and leaders in the broader community sector that there is so much capacity there waiting to be tapped and waiting to be utilised. My sincere hope is that this bill will be a step in that direction. I do think that there is more that we can do, but nonetheless this bill is a good and a significant step in the right direction.

I also like, as I have said before, the statement of recognition. I like the way that the statement of recognition is framed in the present. I find it difficult to find fault with the minister’s recent testimony at the Yoorrook Justice Commission. There are huge ongoing failings within our broader child protection system here in Victoria that have led to really, really bad outcomes for Indigenous people. That is not the fault of the current minister; she became minister after the last election. I do think that in seeking to work with those of us on this side of the house and with others in the chamber to finally get this bill up, which initially was brought to Parliament by one of the minister’s predecessors, I have much hope for further action.

We know in Victoria that far too many young Indigenous people are brought into the care system in the first place. Of course in every individual circumstance there is a reason for officers of the department to make those decisions, but my contention and the contention of so many Indigenous groups has long been that what we need to be doing is investing really heavily early in evidence-based early care and prevention models, not delivered by the government but delivered by culturally appropriate organisations. These organisations potentially 10 or 15 years ago did not have the sort of capacity that would allow governments to trust them with the level of autonomy that this bill will give them, but I am convinced – and I know the minister is convinced too – that they have been on a journey over the last few years to ensure that now we have so many fabulous ACCOs in a very strong position to take further control, further power and more autonomy to ultimately deliver far better outcomes for young Indigenous people.

The chief problem I have with the massive rate of over-representation of Indigenous children in care is that then in care they are failed once again. We have learned from the recent testimony of the children’s commissioner and the Indigenous children’s commissioner about what some of those failings look like. My hope and quite frankly my expectation is that this bill will be part of a broader agenda – and the minister spoke about this over the last couple of days in the house – that will finally seek to see fewer, not more, young Indigenous people drawn into the child protection system at the same time as providing more culturally appropriate supports to Indigenous families to strengthen Indigenous families and ensure young Indigenous Victorians can be safe with their families.

On the day actually that the minister was providing her testimony at the Yoorrook Justice Commission I was with Mrs Hermans in Dandenong, and I was very pleased by a recent response that the minister had provided to me on an adjournment matter to say that she would also like to come to Dandenong. She could not come on that date because she was providing testimony to the Yoorrook Justice Commission, which was very important, so I make no criticism of her whatsoever. Nonetheless it was great to be there as a parliamentary representative with Mrs Hermans to hear again from the Indigenous community in Dandenong, because if all we ever talk about are dry facts and figures – one in 10 Indigenous children are in child protection in Victoria, the worst in the country; well, okay – or even quite frankly if you talk about the number of young Indigenous people who die in the care of the state, those figures are nowhere near as powerful as what you hear directly from Indigenous communities who are impacted by ongoing failures in child protection. The minister recognised those ongoing failures in her testimony at Yoorrook, and she has recognised and the government has recognised the ongoing nature of those failings in this bill. And we have seen some really significant investments in child protection through the recent budget as well.

I have been very critical and I will continue to be very critical of this budget on a number of fronts, especially when it comes to schools. However, in the context of a budget in which difficult decisions were always going to have to be made, I was pleased to see very significant investments in residential care. We want to do everything to stop young people getting into residential care, and that is a large part of what this bill is about. We do not want to see young Indigenous kids in residential care, but we have also got to fix up residential care. The minister now has gained through this budget process – and I give credit to her for this – a significant amount of funding in order to start that work. This is just the start. Getting that funding does not fix the problems, but nonetheless that was a significant achievement and I pay credit to her for that.

In addition there was significant funding to seek to do better, as the minister has said, for young Indigenous people. With this bill and with some significant funding announcements as a result of the budget, I finally have hope, and I know that many in the Indigenous community and the broader child protection sector also have hope, that despite many, many years of ongoing failures – under Labor governments, for a brief period of time under the coalition government and with some good things being done from time to time by different child protection ministers but nonetheless outcomes getting worse and worse for many, many years – it is possible now that we have a pathway forward to doing things differently and to seeing some better results and some better outcomes.

I am thrilled to see that we are finally debating this bill. I recognise the fact that one of the reasons for the recent delay was that the minister was engaging in a really thorough process with me and with other members of the crossbench, and I thank her for that. I had said previously that the Liberals and Nationals would support the bill in its original format, although I also want to pay tribute to Dr Ratnam for the work that she did in working up what I thought were some really good amendments. The minister, to her credit, has gone away and taken that further feedback on board; I understand there will be some house amendments. We will be supporting those house amendments – but not other amendments – in order to expedite what we think is a really excellent bill.

Jacinta ERMACORA (Western Victoria) (12:54): I am humbled to speak in support of the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023 – quite a mouthful. In speaking on this particular bill I want to acknowledge the importance of the President’s acknowledgement of country each morning. We meet here in this place on the land of the Wurundjeri people. I also want to acknowledge my colleague in this chamber Ms Sheena Watt, a proud Yorta Yorta woman, and any other Aboriginal people here today and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I pay respects to Victoria’s First Peoples’ Assembly and the co-chairs Aunty Geraldine Atkinson and Uncle Marcus Stewart. I am proud to be part of the Andrews Labor government, which is committed to not just acknowledging Aboriginal people but supporting the Voice, truth, justice and treaty.

I pay respect to Aunty Hilary Saunders, a Gunditjmara woman who I was delighted to be heckled by during my brief remarks to a gathering of Gunditjmara people at the Ploughed Field in Portland on 26 January. When I said I was ‘here to listen’, she called out ‘And do!’ I was honoured to meet Hilary afterwards and again when I visited Dhauwurd–Wurrung Elderly and Community Health Service in Portland, where Hilary is one of the board directors. It is my deepest hope that this bill and its changes to how we keep Aboriginal children safe and connected to family, community and country constitutes ‘doing’ for Hilary.

I would like to acknowledge that as a nation, as a state and as a community in western and south-western Victoria we have a long way to go. This bill addresses the exclusion of Aboriginal people, specifically pertaining to the Victorian child protection system. In particular it addresses the resulting disproportionately high rates of Aboriginal children in the Victorian child protection system, as mentioned by Dr Bach. In fact south-west Victoria has some of the highest rates of Aboriginal children in the child protection system. All the evidence points to self-determination being the key pathway to solving this problem. The Victorian Self-Determination Reform Framework says:

While Aboriginal self-determination means different things to different people, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples … describes self-determination as the ability for Indigenous people to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

The same report states:

… government action to enable self-determination is the critical first step in achieving improved outcomes for Aboriginal Victorians.

While Aboriginal self-determination is driven by community, government has responsibility for many of the systems and structures that enable self-determination.

The Victorian Government Aboriginal Affairs Report 2021 identifies four self-determination enablers: prioritise culture; address trauma and support healing; address racism and promote cultural safety; and transfer power and resources to communities. It is the transfer of power and resources to communities that this bill achieves.

The Andrews government recognises the important role it must play in reforming the institutions and systems impacting Aboriginal people in this state. The bill provides recognition of Aboriginal people as the First Nations people of Australia. It acknowledges the child protection system played a key role in the dispossession, colonisation and assimilation of Aboriginal people. It acknowledges that the practices of the child protection system resulted in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, culture and country.

The statement of recognition in this bill recognises the impact of past policies on Aboriginal people and has been developed in collaboration with Aboriginal stakeholder groups, including the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and the Victorian Aboriginal Children and Young People’s Alliance. It acknowledges the child protection system played a key role in the enactment of policies leading to the dispossession, colonisation and assimilation of Aboriginal people. It also acknowledges that the laws, practices and policies of former child protection systems resulted in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, culture and country by compulsion in an effort to assimilate them and extinguish their culture and identity. It provides recognition by Parliament that these practices contributed to a legacy of disconnection, intergenerational trauma, entrenched social disadvantage and dysfunction, marginalisation and a distrust of the child protection system. It acknowledges that ongoing structural inequality and systemic racism impacts Aboriginal people and culture in relation to decision-making in the child protection system.

Sitting suspended 1:00 pm until 2:03 pm.

Jacinta ERMACORA: We have got Aboriginal people and culture in relation to decision-making in the child protection system and over-representation of Aboriginal children in the child protection system. The statement of recognition states:

It is the intention of Parliament that the child protection system must recognise, respect and support the distinct cultural rights of Aboriginal people and their right to self-determination.

The bill sets out 10 recognition principles which provide specific guidance to the secretary and, by delegation, child protection workers in relation to dealings with Aboriginal children, Aboriginal families and Aboriginal-led community services under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. For example, they refer to the right of Aboriginal children to sustain connections to family, culture and country and their right to self-determination. It requires respect and support for Aboriginal culture, cultural diversity, customary lore, knowledge, perspectives and expertise to be demonstrated in decision-making. This is a very specific requirement. It states that:

Strong connections with culture, family, Elders, communities and Country are to be recognised as the foundations needed for Aboriginal children to develop and thrive and to be protected from harm.

And it acknowledges that:

Historic and ongoing biases and structural and everyday racisms create barriers to the best interests of the Aboriginal child and are to be recognised and overcome.

These principles specifically relate to the way in which child protection workers must conduct their everyday practice with Aboriginal children and families. These principles shift culturally appropriate practice from the ‘Nice to do’ to the ‘Must do’ column and provide a clear and measurable framework for accountability against them.

This bill furthermore gives the secretary the power to authorise an Aboriginal agency to undertake the powers or functions of the secretary specified in section 18. The new section 18 provides for seamless authorisation of the functions and powers of the secretary, from protective interventions through to protection orders and other relevant orders, to provide for consistency of culturally appropriate service delivery to Aboriginal children and their families. This will also be an expansion of the secretary’s existing authorisation power, as it enables an Aboriginal agency to be authorised to manage a child who is subject to relevant orders in addition to protection orders.

Muriel Bamblett AO, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, said:

The proposed laws represent what can be achieved when Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations work with their communities to demand better outcomes for children and families – and the Government actively takes up the challenge and commits to self-determination.

Muriel went on to say:

The proposed Bill enables us to not just stop the cycle of higher rates of Aboriginal child removal, it will also help address the cycle of family violence. Strengthening the whole family is the only way forward.

Karen Heap, CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Children and Young People’s Alliance and the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative said:

The legislation contains principles that will guide decision makers to promote self-determination and healing for Aboriginal children and families. Aboriginal families can advocate for themselves and ask for accountability in a system that has historically contributed to creating trauma and disconnection.

The new laws are a first in Australia – they help keep Aboriginal children with their families by enshrining Aboriginal self-determination in child and family services.

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 – that is, the right to make decisions about the 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.

We know that the Victorian child protection system is working very poorly for Aboriginal children. As I mentioned earlier, Aboriginal children are over-represented in the system. So our kind offer to return a broken system to Aboriginal control must include support and resources to set communities and Victorian Aboriginal community controlled health organisations up for success. I recently met with Jason Walker and John Bell at Winda-Mara, a VACCHO in Heywood in my electorate, to discuss these challenges. As with mainstream community welfare organisations, there is diversity of readiness and capability to take up these section 18 powers. The government is aware of this diversity of readiness and the diversity of culture and approach across VACCHOs in this state. Consistent with the principles of self-determination, the government will listen to and work with VACCHOs to set them up for success.

Whilst we here in this place at this point in history are not the original perpetrators of this breach of human rights, it is incumbent upon us right here, right now, to redress the wrong. By doing nothing, we continue to protect and perpetrate a broken system that continues to this day. The bill provides for one small but important component of the journey to self-determination for Aboriginal people in this state.

Ann-Marie HERMANS (South-Eastern Metropolitan) (14:11): I also rise to speak on this bill, the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023, and I do commend Dr Bach for bringing up some of the really important matters that are in this bill. It is a great privilege to be able to stand and speak on it, because this bill does include the Aboriginal statement of recognition and the recognition of principles relating to child protection in the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, and it makes a range of other changes to children and health legislation, with the key purpose of the bill being to amend some of the things in the act that do not allow and have not allowed the Aboriginal people to have self-determination.

We do have an extraordinary number of people from Aboriginal families that are finding that their children are in care, and it is a great concern. I am glad to know that the government is very concerned and prepared to look at this and address this issue, because (1) it should not be happening in the first place and (2) I think one of the things that really bothers me and that I have found to be a real issue is that we find that there are a number of unallocated cases of young people and children in homes that do not have support. With a number of children not having support and a number of them being from Aboriginal families, it is simply not good enough. This government has always said that it is about giving people a fair go, and I fail to recognise how we are providing a fair go for our Aboriginal families if we have a number of cases that are unallocated and do not have support.

I do take Dr Bach’s recommendation as something that should be considered seriously, in terms of having support workers that are from non-government organisations being able to go in and be fully trained so that they can go in with child protection services when they go and meet with the families, so that there is an instant opportunity for children to have support. As a person who has worked as a support worker, I can say that it is incredibly important to maintain these non-government organisations, because the work that they do is extraordinary. Very often they are the hands and feet in case management for these young people. They are the ones that are doing the hard yards at the grassroots level. Children and Aboriginal communities need these support workers, and they need them desperately. We cannot be leaving this in a state where we have so many cases – I mean, I just cannot believe that we actually have unallocated cases and that we have got people that are not getting support. Can you imagine what that is doing to our society? To have children that are being neglected or sexually or physically abused and have no-one to advocate for them and nobody to support them, which means that they are continually in a situation in which they are at risk, is simply not good enough. That is damaging people – it is continually damaging their lives – and it is something that needs to be looked at and addressed.

I am very disappointed that this government has allowed that to be the case and that they have not had in place the structure, the support, the systems and the finances to adequately deal with this problem. To me it is quite extraordinary; to me it is appalling. To find out that we have that many people that are in this situation is completely unacceptable, and it is a testimony to the failure of this government. Such ineptness needs to be called out and condemned.

Affording more appropriately trained community sector staff the opportunity to be present when child protection workers meet with children who need support is definitely going to drive down our numbers of unallocated cases. I think it is also going to help people to develop the sort of support systems that they need, and it is going to help some of these NGO programs to be able to successfully develop systems and ideas and even support networks and programs that will actually provide for the Aboriginal community.

It is great that we are allowing self-determination, but self-determination cannot be structured by the government with the government’s world view. It has to have a sit-down conversation with these Aboriginal communities to understand what their world view is and how it is going to best support them, because ultimately children with parents that love them are in a better and safer place but sometimes parents need support to be able to look after their children.

I did mention yesterday in this chamber about having the opportunity to meet in Dandenong with some of the Aboriginal community, and one of the things that they were saying was that they have found new ways to provide support for Aboriginal children that are at risk – for instance, with an Aboriginal mother that desperately wanted to keep her child. She did not want to lose her child, and so they have actually had someone from their community who is a stable influence and a great mentor and support come into the home and live within the home and teach the mother how she can be an adequate mother, providing nutritious meals, having coping mechanisms in situations of stress – and that is functioning and working within this community. Not all communities are going to have that type of support or those types of support people, but the thing is that it is about consultation; it is about listening to people.

Most parents genuinely love their children and genuinely want connection and the best for their children. There would be very few people that would actually want to harm their children deliberately or wilfully and would actually enjoy that process, so I think working with parents is an incredibly important thing for us to be thinking about – and actually listening to these parents too, who have a great love for their children but in many cases do not actually know what they need to do in order to be parents that can support their children. They may not have the resources. They may not have had the role models in their own life. They may have some other area in their life which desperately needs support in itself. Simply taking the child out of the home is not the best solution, but we can be going into the home and providing home care workers that could actually support them and show them, ‘This is how we provide hygiene in this situation. This is how we provide nutritious meals.’

I can say this as a person who has worked as a support worker. My background was not particularly focused in Aboriginal culture at the time. It was working with youth and young adults, and I can tell you that there are plenty of people out there that do not know how to cook or how to make a nutritious meal. They would not even know the first place to start. They do not know what it takes to actually look after their children. They would not know how to look after themselves, let alone have had parents that looked after them as children. So they do not have a background of understanding what is okay. Being able to go in as a support worker from a not-for-profit organisation or a non-government organisation and working with them one-on-one to teach them some of the basics that some people just take for granted is an incredibly important thing to do – having self-determination for the Aboriginal families, allowing them to work with their own children, teaching them that there are opportunities and different standards.

What we forget is that the world and our nation have changed to a large degree, and the way Aboriginal communities were once able to live and work and survive in this beautiful country has changed. We do not need to go into the history of what has happened here, but we do need to understand that education – and my background is in education as well – is incredibly important in this. So when we have this self-determination and we bring this legislation in, I think it is incredibly important for the government to also be considering how their workers can be educating, and education is a two-way street. It is a two-way conversation, and that is incredibly important to Aboriginal people – the two-way conversation of listening and learning and also being able to talk.

I think it is an incredibly important dialogue that needs to take place. Again, I was extremely concerned when I was reading about the unallocated cases. I would hate to think what it must be like for a child who would be out there in Victoria today as one of those unallocated cases, one of our own from an Aboriginal community, who does not have anybody supporting them. I would hate to think what it would be like for those parents who desperately want to keep their children within family, connected to culture and their community, then having the government just walk in and take their kids away from them. That is stolen generations all over again and something that people will have to give an account for if we do not fix it. I am very happy to support this bill, and I do hope that it is not going to be the end, where the government just takes it and goes, ‘We’ve got the legislation now.’ There is a lot of work to be done in this space if we are to protect the children of this state and if we are to do the right thing by our Aboriginal communities.

The other thing that I think the government needs to consider – and it is not so much in this bill – is that we need to make sure that children that are going into care are not being abused. It is one thing to take them away from their parents if the government have this tick-box situation and they are saying, ‘We’re feeling this child has been neglected and deprived of certain things,’ but it is another thing then to put them into a care situation devoid of contact with their community, devoid of contact with their culture and where the people that care about them and care about their community can actually make decisions and have that ability to have self-determination. But it is an even worse situation to then take these children and put them into care situations where they are being abused. To think that not only are some being abused but we have children in situations where we find that there are deaths, where there are suicides and where there are all manner of issues – it is not okay. I do understand that we have so much brokenness in this society that it is difficult to find the right thing to do, and it is very difficult when the government is involved. But again, it comes down to education. If we are going to educate, then we need to help people to realise that there is an opportunity for foster care, and then vetting those foster carers has to be done properly because we cannot, like I said, have children going into foster care where they are not safe. I can tell you time and time again, as a person who has worked as a support worker, to hear stories of young people that have not been safe in the environments that the government has put them into is just quite heartbreaking.

I am very, very pleased to be able to stand and support this. I do think it is incredibly important to have Aboriginal self-determination, but I do agree that we need to make sure that we have the support systems in place. I do agree that decisions about self, safety and the protection of family with cultural understanding for Aboriginal people are incredibly important. I can say that the coalition continues to be genuinely concerned about the disproportionate number of at-risk Indigenous youth who are in this situation, who are at risk and, again, as I say, who are unallocated cases. We do continue and will continue to encourage the government to work more effectively with the Indigenous leaders of their community – and when I say that, I do not mean at a higher state level but at a very local level, with the Indigenous leaders of the local community and not just with some government-created groups and departments. Let us face it, some of the groups that have been developed are a little bit artificial; they are not genuinely having that conversation with the Aboriginal community and listening to them. If people are concerned about the standards within the Aboriginal community, then that is where the education comes in and that is where the additional support needs to go, in my opinion. Where there are Aboriginal elders and families that are adequately able to keep at-risk Aboriginal children genuinely connected to their Aboriginal communities, I would encourage the government to provide support in those areas, support to parents and support to families so they can be heard, so they can be empowered and so they can be involved in providing the solutions for their own family members and children. At this point I do just want to say I commend the bill to the house and will be supporting it along with my colleagues.

David ETTERSHANK (Western Metropolitan) (14:25): I rise to speak to the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023. Legalise Cannabis Victoria will support the bill. This bill expands the role of Aboriginal agencies delivering children and family services to help keep more Aboriginal families together. It does this by embedding Aboriginal self-determination in legislation and supporting better and more equal partnerships with Aboriginal stakeholder groups. Importantly, this bill includes a statement of recognition. This helps address the need to acknowledge the long history of governmental policies that have so negatively impacted generations of First Nations people. It is an important step in reframing and recognition that I hope will be repeated in Victorian legislation across the board.

We know that the child safety system in our country has been undermined by a constant cycle of paternalism and trauma. What we also know is that Aboriginal people are by far the best placed to make decisions that protect the best interests of Aboriginal children. Pleasingly, this bill extends laws to support out-of-home care leavers up to the age of 21. This reform is long overdue and will help ensure that over 10,000 Victorians living in out-of-home care will no longer be forced to leave care on the day they turn 18 and fend for themselves.

We know that kids in foster care are an already vulnerable group. Forcing them to go it alone at 18 has been a huge driver to poorer outcomes within the first 12 months of leaving care, leading to 50 per cent of kids being homeless, in jail or unemployed. It has taken some time, but I would like to acknowledge the work of Fiona Patten in first bringing this issue to the chamber in the last term of government. Estimates by Deloitte Access Economics suggest that reforms to increase the out-of-home care leaver support age will halve homelessness, reduce hospitalisation by one-third, reduce mental illness by 40 per cent, increase engagement in education, significantly decrease arrests and massively decrease alcohol and drug dependence. We commend the government on this bill and their work to ensure greater self-determination and culturally safe care.

In relation to amendments to this bill brought by the Greens and the minister, we are supportive and note the importance of emphasising the harm for children and cultural connection caused by removing an Aboriginal child from the care of a parent.

This bill is just one step in the work that needs to be done to meet the Closing the Gap national agreement and address decades of trauma and disconnection. We commit to supporting this important work wherever and whenever possible.

Sheena WATT (Northern Metropolitan) (14:28): I rise to speak on the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023, which is a bill that provides significant reform opportunities to achieve self-determination and self-management for Aboriginal people and to strengthen provisions that uphold the importance of culture for the safety of Aboriginal children. When I read a little bit more about this bill before us I could not help but stop and reflect on my time as a member of the executive committee of the Family Matters campaign – a campaign that has long championed the reforms that are captured in this bill today. So before I go on I want to take a moment to acknowledge SNAICC and their extraordinary national leadership as well as the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency here in our state. And to those that continue this work, now that I have left that important advocacy behind can I just say thank you for what you do but also for taking the time out to talk to me and make sure that I understand just how significant it is that we address this really critical, critical issue in our communities.

The evidence really is clear that the single biggest factor in improving health and social outcomes for Aboriginal people is achieved through Aboriginal self-determination. We get told this many, many times as members of the Aboriginal community but more so as people that work in Aboriginal community controlled organisations (ACCOs). It is Aboriginal health in Aboriginal hands or it is Aboriginal children in Aboriginal families. This has been a quite a foundational principle in my time working with Aboriginal families and communities.

In this bill before us today is the recognition that Aboriginal people are best placed to lead and inform responses for Aboriginal children and families and also a recognition that Aboriginal people have the strength and the rights to lead change for our children. The bill, extraordinary as it is, reinforces the Victorian government’s commitment to Aboriginal self-determination in health and child protection systems and acknowledges the importance of culturally safe and appropriate resource services to meet the health and wellbeing needs of Aboriginal people in Victoria.

The bill progresses key commitments and strategic directions under Wungurilwil Gapgapduir: Aboriginal Children and Families Agreement 2018. I recall with great affection attending that launch, albeit with a different hat on, but it is something that has sat with me and still sits with me today. I think I have spoken on Wungurilwil Gapgapduir about four times since entering the Parliament, and it is great again to hear that commitment to this important strategy presented in the bill today. It really is a commitment to reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal children in child protection and out-of-home care. We are going to achieve that. We will achieve that by enabling the advancement of Aboriginal models of care and transferring decision-making for Aboriginal children to Aboriginal community controlled organisations. The bill is really an important part of achieving that vision. The bill is an important step in meeting our Closing the Gap national agreement targets here in Victoria to reduce the rate of over-representation of Aboriginal children in care by 45 per cent by 2031.

In the health sector the bill progresses the major priority of the Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Partnership Forum by enshrining commitments to Aboriginal self-determination in our health legislation. This also progresses the government’s commitment to Aboriginal self-determination as set out in the Victorian government’s self-determination reform framework. Through this bill we will specifically acknowledge the treaty process, something that I am enormously proud of, and our shared aspiration to achieve increased autonomy and Aboriginal decision-making. This includes greater control of planning, funding and administration of services, including through self-determined Aboriginal representative bodies established through treaty. Through this the government will make clear our commitment to treaty and the reform work currently underway.

Just last week we had the budget, and I was very pleased to see a $140 million investment in the 2023–‍24 budget to resource initiatives to improve outcomes for First Nations children in the child protection and family services system. Particularly of note is the expansion of the Aboriginal children in Aboriginal care program, the expansion of the Community Protecting Boorais trial and Aboriginal-led investigations team for child protection reports, funding to support Aboriginal-led family services and early intervention, continued support for the Aboriginal Workforce Fund, business-controlled resources for Aboriginal community controlled organisations and targeted training packages for the approximately 100 support workers for the Aboriginal community infrastructure program.

In that, can I just take a moment to acknowledge all the Aboriginal workers that are working in our ACCOs right across the state. You hold up our communities, you keep us strong and I am hoping that you can see through this budget commitment that we too are standing right beside you and right behind you as you are really at the forefront of leading the future and the future generations of our families. Thank you very, very much for all that you do. I have got some names, but if I start, I am going to forget someone, and I do not want to do that. But you know who you are, and I am so deeply, deeply grateful.

Of course I have reflected a little bit on the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework – something that I have been around for a long, long time – and the fact that this bill will support that. It is a partnership with Aboriginal people and the Victorian government to meet the goal that Aboriginal children are raised by Aboriginal families. In recognition of the historical importance of the statement of recognition and its importance for Aboriginal people, it is intended to give prominence to decision-makers under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 by placing the statement up-front in a new part of the act.

The bill recognises the critical role connection to culture and family plays in development of Aboriginal children and in protecting them from harm and ensures that that is recognised, understood and considered from the outset of engagement with the child protection system. The bill is an acknowledgement that Aboriginal children achieve better outcomes and that the over-representation of Aboriginal children care is reduced when Aboriginal people and organisations are involved in Aboriginal decisions for Aboriginal children. I cannot say that enough. It is just so foundational to achieving the aspirations that we all have for our community. By guiding decision-makers through the binding recognition principle, the bill aims to retain Aboriginal children with their culture and community and break the intergenerational trauma contributed to by past policies. It promotes a stronger emphasis on keeping families strong and a clear path for returning our kids home.

The bill further confirms the rights of Aboriginal Victorians to make decisions on matters that affect their lives and communities. We are probably going to hear that a lot over the next six months. And whilst it takes the folks in Canberra to bring this referendum before us, this bill is just one way in which the Victorian government is demonstrating that absolutely we know that Aboriginal lives are improved each and every day when it is Aboriginal people that are behind the decisions about their own lives and our own communities.

This is really hard, actually. This is actually really, really hard.

I just not too long ago went out to a beautiful organisation and met some young people who for the first time know where their place is in the world, where their place is in communities, because of programs run by Aboriginal organisations to connect Aboriginal kids to community, to their kin and to their culture. Those kids stand a little bit taller and they work a little bit harder in the classroom because they know about who they are and what their responsibilities are as Aboriginal people. And they told me: ‘Now we do really well at school. Now when we are bullied, belittled and harassed as Aboriginal people, we can stand up and say, “No, no, no, no. I’m part of the longest continuing culture in the whole world, and this is exactly where I am from and this is exactly my part in the world.”’

That does not happen magically. You cannot go to the library and take out a book that tells you exactly who you are and your place in the world. I know that because I tried. I thought that you could just walk into the library as someone disconnected from culture and just pick it up off a shelf somewhere, and that in the books it would tell you that you are valued and that you are heard and that you have a place. It does not exist. No-one has quite written the book. Maybe that was in the 1990s; I do not know. I have been to some bookstores now, and they have got some pretty powerful stories being told. But really, it is through really considered programs that connect Aboriginal people to Aboriginal culture, to families and to understanding our place and connection to land and country that we as Aboriginal people feel more valued and more respected and more rightfully placed here in our home.

So I am really, really proud of it. I could talk about technical matters of the bill but, you know what, I am just not going to, because I know the incredible work being led by organisations who have stepped up to be part of section 18 – organisations like Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-operative, Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-operative and others. I know because I was in the rooms when they were making decisions about whether this was something they wanted to do, whether this was something they felt they were ready for, whether this was something they felt they could do and how they can do it right, how they can do it justice.

To those ACCO leaders whose shoulders I stand on each and every day I just want to say that it is an extraordinary thing you have taken on to be responsible for the lives and futures of Aboriginal children in this state – many children that you will never meet or that you might meet once or twice. So to you, thank you. I hope that with this bill you know that the Victorian government and in fact the Parliament and all of us here that are voting in not too long a time are standing with you, because there is so much more that we can do, but we cannot do it alone here in these fancy red seats. We need folks out there in the grassroots, out there in the community, stepping up and telling us exactly what it is that they need and for us to stand with you, believe you, walk with you and – critically – fund you. That is what the budget did; that is what we will continue to do. To the leaders, thank you very, very much. To the workers, you are angels in our community. Anyone that works in child protection is simply extraordinary – the trauma that you are exposed to each and every day. Yet you turn up each and every day for people of all different ages and all different stories and circumstances. So to you, thank you very much.

I am going to take some time to pull myself together after this. I am getting some text messages from folks saying, ‘I know. We’re watching you.’ They are watching us out there right now. Aboriginal people are watching us as we talk about the future of our kids, and to you I say thanks for tuning in. This is the least that we could do to back you and support you in the very, very important work that you do. And thank you to each and every person that has already spoken and that will speak on this and stand up in support of Aboriginal families and children in recognition that in the past we just got it wrong. We just got it wrong, and we have got so much more that we can do to get it right. I am hoping that today is just one small step on that path.

Samantha RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan) (14:45): Thank you, Ms Watt, for your very eloquent and moving contribution to this debate.

I am pleased, too, to speak in support of the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023. I want to start my contribution today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that this Parliament is on, the Wurundjeri people. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land. Our history is founded on the violent colonisation of First Nations people, who were dispossessed of their lands, who had their families separated and their children taken from them, and who had their lands, waters and skies stolen and destroyed. The impacts of colonisation are still seen in all parts of our society today. First Nations people continue to experience disproportionate rates of socio-economic disadvantage, poorer health, education and employment outcomes and higher rates of homelessness, imprisonment and contact with the justice system than non-First Nations people. We still have a long journey to walk towards justice and healing for our First Peoples. We have begun this work in Victoria through the treaty process and the truth-telling at the Yoorrook Justice Commission, but true justice for First Peoples will require major systemic and structural reform.

The reforms in this bill today are a step in the right direction. I am pleased that there is agreement on all sides of this chamber that we need to reform our child protection system to reduce the over-representation of First Nations kids in the system, and I want to thank the minister and Mr Bach for their time and engagement on the reforms in this bill. Reducing the over-representation of First Nations children and young people in out-of-home care should be a priority for all of us in this place, but too often this portfolio is put in the too-hard basket and much-needed reform is delayed or implemented at a snail’s pace.

There has been little leadership or vision from successive governments on how to reform the child protection system. In the last 18 months alone in Victoria we have had five different child protection ministers, and this bill has been handed down through multiple ministers. The child protection system in our state is, quite frankly, broken. It has been failing First Nations families for years. Despite the lasting lessons of the stolen generations and despite what we know about the ongoing harm caused when children are removed from their parents, we are still seeing First Nations children taken from their families at ever-increasing rates. Aboriginal children are 22 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be in out-of-home care. In Victoria we have the highest rate of First Nations children in out-of-home care, 103 per 1000 children, double the national rate of 57.6 per thousand. They make up more than 20 per cent of children in Victoria’s child protection system, an increase of 14.6 per cent since 2016.

For every child removed from their parents there is a story of grief, of loss, of trauma and of a cycle of disadvantage and hardship. Children who are forcibly removed from their parents experience significant social and health disadvantage throughout their lives, a disconnection from their culture and community and intergenerational trauma. We heard many of these stories from members of the stolen generations in the Bringing Them Home report, and now we are hearing them again through the truth-telling at the Yoorrook Justice Commission. Yoorrook’s deputy chair described the rising rates of removal as a new stolen generation and called out the culturally unsafe practices within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. Yoorrook heard that about 60 per cent of child protection notifications for Victorian First Nations families were unsubstantiated. The department conceded that systemic racism is still embedded in our child protection system and that racism and bias within the child protection workforce is contributing to these reports.

We have needed major reform of the child protection system for years, so the Greens are pleased to be able to support the beginnings of this reform work in this bill today. However, there are some aspects of the bill that we have some concerns with, and there are some opportunities to improve the bill that we think the government has missed, and I will speak to these in turn.

The bill will expand the role of the Aboriginal agencies delivering child and family services in Victoria. This means sector organisations like the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency will be empowered to investigate child protection cases and connect families with support at an early stage. These new early intervention powers are designed to allow Aboriginal organisations to provide culturally appropriate, targeted support for families early in their contact with child and family services and in turn reduce the number of children who are removed from their families and placed in the care of the system. It will also help ensure more First Nations children are in First Nations care. I know that sector organisations like VACCA do incredible work supporting families and children and providing much-needed culturally appropriate services and that many have been waiting for these reforms for years. The sector is ready and willing to hit the ground running to exercise these new powers, and I am pleased to see the government has upheld its promise to bring these reforms back before this house early in this new term of government.

The bill will also introduce a new statement of recognition acknowledging that the child protection system has contributed to the dispossession, colonisation and assimilation of First Nations people and recognising the lasting trauma and harm caused by the systemic, forcible removal of Aboriginal children. It is good to see an express acknowledgement from the government of the harm directly caused by the child protection system and of the ongoing structural inequality and systemic racism that exist within it. However, I would remind those in government and in this chamber that this is not a recognition of past harm. These harms are ongoing and continue to be perpetuated today. The statement of recognition is not a clause to be put in legislation and forgotten about but something to be considered and incorporated in all decision-making in the child protection system.

The bill will put into legislation all five elements of the Aboriginal child placement principle (ACPP): prevention, participation, partnership, connection and placement. The government’s intention is to improve decision-making regarding Aboriginal children in care and ensure that the full intent of the placement principle is realised through decision-making. However, we have heard concerns from the sector, who fear that this reform may be symbolic and will not result in an improvement in how the Aboriginal child placement principle is applied in practice. Despite the aim of the principle to keep children connected to their families and culture and to ensure that removal of a child is only used as a last resort, it is very clear that in Victoria too many First Nations children are still being removed from their parents and, once in the system, too many are put on the pathway to permanent placement rather than reunification within their families.

The Greens welcome the engagement from the sector on ways to improve the application of the ACPP, particularly the hard work of the teams at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and at VACCA. In collaboration with the sector we have prepared amendments to better give effect to the substance and the intent of the ACPP and ensure that it is fully applied by decision-makers in the child protection system. They are aimed at reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal children living out of parental care and, for those who are placed out of parental care, reducing the number who are disconnected from their family, community and culture. I will speak more to the substance of our amendments during the committee stage, but I am happy for them to be circulated now, please.

Amendments circulated pursuant to standing orders.

Samantha RATNAM: The reforms in this bill are a start, but they are just a start, and the Greens want to see a commitment to meaningful ongoing child protection reform from this government and an assurance that this reform will be led by First Nations communities and organisations. I know in December last year the Premier indicated his intention to overhaul the child protection system, and I am pleased to see funding allocated in last week’s state budget to reform the children and families system in order to reduce the over-representation of First Nations families in child protection and family services. I have also had a number of productive conversations with Minister Blandthorn and her office and look forward to working with her on further reform of the child protection system.

Ultimately this work needs to be led by our First Nations communities and First Nations organisations in the community sector. Despite our best intentions, we have made no progress on reducing the over-representation of First Nations children in contact with the child protection system – instead we are going backwards. And while the reforms in the bill are empowering Aboriginal agencies to exercise more power within the child protection system, they are still constrained within the confines of the broken system itself. I know that in the past engagement and consultation with First Nations organisations has been poorly handled by the department and that a number of organisations, like our legal stakeholders, have been left out or ignored completely. VALS and Djirra both expressed frustration with the engagement from the department, particularly on the reforms in this bill where they were given no opportunity to provide meaningful feedback. True self-determination does not mean being handed a broken child protection system riddled with racism, prejudice and bias – it means letting First Nations organisations and communities redevelop the system from the ground up in a way that works for their families and their children, and that means including and ensuring all parts of the sector have a seat at the table to engage in direct and meaningful feedback.

I know sector organisations have put forward a number of proposals for meaningful reform through Yoorrook, including recommendations like new standalone child protection legislation for First Nations children. I would urge the government to take a very close look at the evidence presented and the truths being told through the Yoorrook Justice Commission and the recommendations that the commission will make. This is the pathway towards true structural reform: acknowledging the truths of continued structural racism and injustice in our state, heeding calls for reform from First Nations people and then empowering our First Nations people to design and manage the systems and services that are supposed to support them. The Greens look forward to working with the government and the sector on future reform and discussing this further in the committee stage.

John BERGER (Southern Metropolitan) (14:55): Today I rise in support of the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023. Before I speak on this bill, I would like to acknowledge that today we stand and meet on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the traditional custodians of this land. I would like to acknowledge the Boon Wurrung people of my electorate of Southern Metropolitan and the Woiwurrung people, on whose land we meet today. I pay my respects to the Wurundjeri, Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung elders past and present and extend my respects to the elders of the future. I extend my respects to any First Nations people present in the chamber or joining us remotely today.

It is the First Nations people of Australia, the longest continuous civilisation on earth, who have cared for this land and who continue to maintain their culture through song and story. The Andrews Labor government is a government of truth and compassion, and that is why we are committed to truth, treaty and voice. It is because of this that we are listening to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is because of this that we are committed to the Closing the Gap national agreement to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in custody by 45 per cent by 2031 and also to close the gap in wellbeing, health, education, justice and countless more areas.

The historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a tragedy felt to this day in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and therefore it is essential to work towards reconciliation. The overall objective of this legislation is clear. Our government, the Andrews Labor government, is committed to Aboriginal self-determination, and for this to be substantial it must be embedded in our legislative framework. That means updating our ways of operating, whether that be social services regulation, the reportable conduct scheme, the Children’s Court, the Commission for Children and Young People or more. It is the right thing to do.

We have a duty to ensure that every single Victorian has the best quality of life and the best opportunities – access to the best of everything. We have a duty to ensure that they are not discriminated against or disadvantaged due to the colour of their skin or any other factors. The injustices are systemic, they are complex and they are serious. Today we hope to address one aspect of this: the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in social services.

Evidence given to the Yoorrook Justice Commission has highlighted important issues. The reality is that there is an over-representation of Indigenous children and young people in the system. That is why the bill will progress key elements to address these issues. It will update several pieces of legislation to be embedded with binding principles of recognition and measures to include legislative support for Aboriginal self-determination.

It is the responsibility of everyone in this and the other place to ensure that every single Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in Victoria has the best opportunity in life. Self-determination is a major factor in the improvement of Aboriginal wellbeing and health. This has been known since the 1987–91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody along with the 1997 Bringing Them Home report. In 2005 we saw the legislative establishment of these principles being enshrined and protected in law through section 12 of the Child, Youth and Families Act 2005. It is now time to update this and other pieces of legislation to further embed our government’s commitment to ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.

This bill will ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination is written into legislation. Self-determination is a basic human right – free will, the ability to decide what to do with your life. Unfortunately many systemic forces interfere with First Nations peoples’ self-determination and have done so for a long time. This bill seeks to firstly recognise this – the hardship Aboriginal children and adults face every day.

It is a key election promise of the Andrews Labor government that we lower the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal children in the system. I am proud to be part of a government that makes promises and then keeps them. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3 per cent of the Victorian population; however, 21 per cent of the children and young people in child protection are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The bill follows and listens to strategies and commitments of the Aboriginal children and families agreement from 2018, a tripartite agreement between the Aboriginal community, the Victorian government and the child and family services sector. It sets out five clear objectives to ensure Aboriginal self-determination in the child and family sector: encourage Aboriginal children and families to be strong in culture and proud of their unique identity; resource and support Aboriginal organisations to care for Aboriginal children, families and communities; commit to culturally competent and culturally safe services for staff, children and families; capture, share and build Aboriginal knowledge, learning and evidence to inform practices; and prioritise Aboriginal workforce capability.

This bill aims to strengthen families. That is what this bill, in accordance with the agreement, hopes to ensure: strong families from Aboriginal Victorians with strong connections to culture and country. The Andrews Labor government believes deeply in this agreement and since 2018 has committed $160 million of investment to its implementation and initiatives. One of the key aspects of the bill is that it puts decision-making about Aboriginal children back in the hands of Aboriginal communities. A Department of Families, Fairness and Housing report has shown that 56 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were placed in non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander care. The same report found that more than half of these children were separated from their siblings.

With the implementation of Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care, Aboriginal community controlled organisations now hold responsibility for Aboriginal children’s case management and plans. Additionally, a more focused approach to kinship care will ensure that higher rates of children in care are placed with family members like grandparents, aunts or uncles. This will ensure that children and young people will remain connected to their family and community.

The Andrews Labor government has listened to experts in forming this bill. We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people achieve better outcomes when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are involved in the decision-making for their children and young people. To this effect, the bill will open the doors and make it easier for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and community groups to engage in information-sharing for the cases of certain children and young people. This puts decision-making back in the hands of Aboriginal communities and expands the functions of such organisations to be more effective in supporting their community.

Under the nation-first Community Protecting Boorais pilot, Aboriginal-led agencies are authorised to undertake investigations into child protection. This means that reports and responses to protect the needs of Aboriginal children are led by Aboriginal organisations and are therefore sensitive to and informed on the details of the situation. Aboriginal Children in Aboriginal Care also authorises Aboriginal controlled community organisations with full responsibility, case planning and management of Aboriginal children under protection orders. Under section 18 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 Aboriginal community controlled organisations may become an approved principal officer and undertake child protection functions for Aboriginal children and the young.

An important detail within the bill is the enshrinement of all the five elements of the Aboriginal child placement principle. These five principles are vital in ensuring that the devastating consequences resulting from the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities are legislated against. These principles draw on and strengthen the recognition of the importance of self-determination through the implementation of practical principles. They are as follows: prevention – protecting Aboriginal children’s right to grow up in family, community and culture by pre-emptively addressing the causes of intervention; partnership – ensuring the participation of community voices in the design of placement programs and case decisions; placement – placing Aboriginal children in out-of-home care in accordance with the appropriate placement hierarchy; participation – ensuring the participation of children, parents and families in decisions that affect the care and protection of children; and connection – maintaining and supporting the connection between the child and their family as they navigate out-of-home care.

These principles work to protect Aboriginal children in that they ensure that the removal of any Aboriginal child or young person is absolutely the last resort. Furthermore, if a last-resort scenario is unavoidable, the Aboriginal child placement principle exists to safeguard future procedures in that First Nations welfare organisations are consulted with, and if removal is necessary, children will be placed with extended family or, if that is not possible, within the Aboriginal community in the closest proximity to the child’s natural family.

Currently there is some legislation that has the potential to cause confusion. The Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, section 13, outlines the placement principle of the five elements within the Aboriginal child placement principle – there is no legislative detail or mention of the other four. This leaves the impression that it is often the only approach, or the most important, when considering Aboriginal placement. This bill seeks to expressly include the other four principles in the Children, Youth and Families Act: prevention, participation, partnership and connection. It will ensure that placement is, in a legal sense, only ever seen as a last resort. To avoid the scenario where a child will be removed from their family, we will establish the family preservation and reunification response model, which seeks to, where possible, keep vulnerable children and families together and support children in care returning to their homes safely.

With other initiatives, like the Care Hub trial and the Home Stretch program, more power and personalisation will be given to those navigating the system, even altering the ways in which children and young people are able to approach family reunification. The Care Hub trial, with assessment and planning, will ensure that children and young people in care for the first time will have placement, stability and a potential safe passageway home. The Home Stretch program, which will prioritise the voices and input of those who have real-life experiences of children and family systems when designing services and delivery, will ensure that the care system is designed for the people going through it. I note my electorate officer was on the board that helped deliver this program, so our office is well informed of the importance of what this legislation means.

The Children, Youth and Families Act will also be amended to hold an updated definition of ‘Aboriginal person’, removing the use of an outdated and racist term. Our legislation has no place for offensive language.

The bill also seeks to enshrine Aboriginal self-determination in our health legislation as per the Victorian government’s self-determination reform framework. The Health Services Act 1988 and the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 will be amended to include a statement of recognition. This will be accompanied by the principles of self-determination. Additionally, it will serve to acknowledge the historical and continuous impact that laws with racist motives have had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria, the impacts that it has had on these practices and policies and therefore the impact that this has had on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people.

The bill recognises the importance of Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and will also seek to share core principles of Aboriginal determination with health organisations so that all necessary bodies within the state may be adequately informed on issues relating to their patients and clients.

Additionally, the bill will ensure the power of the Commission for Children and Young People to advocate for children and young people in child protection and care systems. Children and young people in protection and care systems will now have the means by which to report abuse and neglect. They will have support in understanding and exercising their rights to raise concerns over issues. The advocacy function will help to ensure an easier and happier experience for children and young people in extremely vulnerable situations. Amendments will be made to the reportable conduct scheme, which has fallen under the oversight of the Commission for Children and Young People since its commencement in July 2017. It exists to protect children from abuse and misconduct while in the care of protection and care entities. It will alter the definition of ‘employee’ so that the scheme may extend to those who are indirectly in contact with children in the care of the system, such as labour hire arrangements or secondments. The commission will have the powers to monitor and enforce compliance with requirements in conjunction with Victoria Police. The Commission for Children and Young People will be able to commence proceedings under the act. The time frame for commencement of proceedings will be extended to three years, with a requirement to notify the commission about allegations of reportable behaviour.

Additionally, within the judicial system the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 and the Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 will be amended to allow the Children’s Court, where appropriate, to delegate certain powers of registrars and magistrates to the judicial registrars. They will also be enabled to perform any functions under the registrar. This is all for the purpose of ensuring a smooth, more efficient Children’s Court so that action in emergency situations can be quick and not traumatic for the children.

This legislation is important to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are protected and their connection to culture and country is protected. To enshrine these principles into legislation is to enshrine recognition into Victoria so that we can protect their safety whilst ensuring the self-determination of every single Aboriginal child in the state and that they always have a connection to their culture and country. I commend these amendments to the house.

Rikkie-Lee TYRRELL (Northern Victoria) (15:10): After close consultation with Indigenous elders within my constituency, it appears that the in-depth consultation that the government is claiming was conducted was not as in-depth as it should have been. Firstly, this bill does not encourage cross-border coordination with New South Wales. Seeing that we have Labor governments in both states and that most of the northern Indigenous communities I represent liaise with services on both sides of the border, I would have hoped that the government would have capitalised on this opportunity to facilitate a standardised practice between states. Secondly, I cannot in good conscience support any proposal to consolidate the decision-making powers of those concerned into the hands of a select few and out of the hands of the relevant local elders and community leaders. For these reasons, I will not be supporting this bill in its current form.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, Minister for Child Protection and Family Services) (15:11): Firstly, I acknowledge that we discuss these matters today on the lands of the Wurundjeri people, and I pay my respect to elders past and present. It is indeed a privilege to be in this place speaking about these issues and following the contributions that have been made in the chamber so far today.

The conversation has shown that from whatever perspective, whatever corner, people are coming from within this chamber, everyone is approaching this conversation in a spirit of respect and – importantly in National Reconciliation Week – reconciliation and also with an acknowledgement that everybody has the best interests of children first and foremost in their mind and the best interests of First Peoples children first and foremost in their mind.

I thank the crossbench and Dr Bach and his team for their engagement on this bill. As Dr Bach said, there is always more that we can do, and we look forward to working together with Dr Bach and his team as well as every member of this place in relation to what things require further action, particularly when we are talking about reducing the over-representation of First Peoples children in the child protection system. I think it is clear that the wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people is above politics, and that is what we have seen today.

At the last election the government gave stakeholders a commitment. We gave the Aboriginal community controlled organisations a commitment and we gave various other stakeholders a commitment that we would reintroduce a statement of recognition bill as soon as possible. We have met that commitment, and today we have the opportunity to further embed Aboriginal self-determination in legislation. Self-determination is indeed a human right, and this bill will increase self-determination for Aboriginal people by introducing a statement of recognition. It is an ongoing statement, it is a binding statement. With all respect to Dr Ratnam and her contribution, which I do value, I note that the statement itself does acknowledge that some of the systemic issues to which she referred remain ongoing; the statement of recognition does actually acknowledge that.

The bill enshrines all five elements of the Aboriginal child placement principle into the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 to strengthen recognition of the importance of self-determination and culture for Aboriginal children. Can I firstly acknowledge the contribution of Ms Watt to this debate and also acknowledge, as she did, the contribution of SNAICC in particular in relation to furthering the advancement of the placement principles.

The bill also expands the functions under the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 which can be delegated to Aboriginal community controlled organisations under the Aboriginal children in Aboriginal care program, including receiving therapeutic treatment reports and ensuring sufficient information sharing to undertake those functions. As Ms Watt did, can I also acknowledge those ACCOs that have been involved in this important work to date, in particular the contributions of both the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative in their role in furthering the Aboriginal children in Aboriginal care program.

The bill also removes outdated language from the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 and amends the Health Services Act 1988 and Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to introduce a statement of recognition and non-binding principles.

The bill will also strengthen the protections for all children in the child protection and out-of-home care systems, including amending the Commission for Children and Young People Act 2012 to ensure the commission can advocate on behalf of children and young people who are in or who have recently exited the child protection and out-of-home care systems, amending the reportable conduct scheme to address critical regulatory gaps impacting on the effectiveness of the scheme, amending the Social Services Regulation Act 2021 to provide the necessary transitional provisions and consequential amendments required to support commencement of the new Social Services Regulator and the worker and carer exclusions scheme, and amending the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 and Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 to enable the Children’s Court of Victoria to make rules that delegate certain powers of a registrar or a magistrate to a judicial registrar and allow judicial registrars to perform any functions of registrars in the Children’s Court and Magistrates Court of Victoria.

All of these changes are important, but I want to highlight in particular the amendments to section 18 of the Children, Youth and Families Act. At present section 18 allows the authorisation of an Aboriginal agency only where the child is subject to a protection order. The changes proposed in this bill broaden the power of the secretary to authorise any specified functions and specified powers. This will allow the Community Protecting Boorais pilot to progress. There is strong potential that the pilot will reduce the need for further intervention after the investigation phase and reduce the number of Aboriginal children entering care. Aboriginal-led agencies are best placed to engage Aboriginal families and connect them to the services that they need to support them and keep their children safe. I have three house amendments, and I would ask that they be circulated now, please.

Amendments circulated pursuant to standing orders.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: The government is introducing a house amendment to strengthen Aboriginal determination by introducing a statement of harm to the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 recognising that removing Aboriginal children from their parents may cause harm to those children, including through disconnection to their culture; secondly, expressly require the court or a bail justice to have regard to the Aboriginal child placement principle when making decisions relating to Aboriginal children in need of protection; and, thirdly, remove a provision which stated for the avoidance of doubt that the secretary retains sole parental responsibility for children authorised to Aboriginal-led agencies.

The government has been in conversation with key Aboriginal community controlled organisations and is making these changes based on concerns those organisations have raised. Making these amendments underscores the government’s commitment to listening to the Aboriginal community and progressing self-determination, while limiting the risks of adverse consequences. This bill furthers our government’s commitment to greater self-determination in the child protection and family services system.

For the record, the government has given due consideration to all of the amendments that Dr Ratnam has proposed. We received advice from the department, the statement-of-recognition working group and external advice from the Children’s Court. The amendments we are in a position to support and put forward today are a result of the totality of this advice. The amendments tabled in my name represent a position that weighs the feedback I have received, and I want to particularly thank Dr Bach and his team for the constructive way in which they have engaged with me and my office in relation to these matters. I want to also thank the members of the crossbench, including Dr Ratnam, who have engaged on these matters as well. Child protection and family services should be above politics. I think this chamber today is showing that we can put these matters above politics. I do thank the crossbench, and I thank the coalition for their engagement on these issues.

To be very clear, I am not ruling out that there may be further changes following the intent of some of the amendments that have been put forward by Dr Ratnam and indeed some of the conversations that I have had with Dr Bach and others. There is always more work, as Dr Bach said in his contribution earlier today and as I acknowledged up-front, that needs to happen in relation to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all of our children and, in this case, First Peoples children. I commit to this chamber that this work will continue to be done, with Dr Bach, with Dr Ratnam, with members of this chamber and indeed with stakeholders, the statement-of-recognition working group and the new legal stakeholder working group which we have also established for further consideration of these matters. I look forward to this bill progressing. I also look forward to continuing to work with members of this place in the best interests of all children.

Motion agreed to.

Read second time.



Clause 1 (15:21)

Samantha RATNAM: Minister, I understand that a new legal reference group will be established to inform ongoing reform in the child protection system. Can I seek further information about the terms of reference and purpose of this group and an assurance that organisations like Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and Djirra will be included in the group?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: I have written to a number of stakeholders inviting them to be members of this reference group, including VALS and Djirra. I believe – I can check with my adviser in the box ‍– at least one of those has already replied and indicated who their representative will be on that group. There is VALS, there is Djirra, there is Victoria Legal Aid, the Children’s Court and others as well; they have all been written to. They have all been invited to nominate representatives.

The terms of reference I expect will probably evolve. We have acknowledged that consultation with those legal stakeholders could have been better in the past, and it is my expectation as minister that it be better going forward. We look forward to that.

Samantha RATNAM: Thank you very much, Minister. I really appreciate that update. Another question: one thing that is missing in this bill is the intersection between increasing rates of removal of First Nations children and high rates of family violence experienced by First Nations women. Approximately 88 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care have experienced family violence, yet the links between family violence and the removal of children are often ignored or forgotten. Minister, can I seek a commitment that additional family violence support for First Nations women and families will be part of future reform in this area?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Obviously I am not the Minister for Prevention of Family Violence. The issues you raise do not specifically go to the scope of this bill, but family violence is clearly one of the factors that often influence children being within the child protection system, and there is clearly an over-representation of Indigenous children within our system. I have heard from stakeholders – I have certainly heard from the Aboriginal community controlled organisations – that family violence in particular is an important issue that must be considered when we are looking in a holistic way at the factors that lead to the over-representation of children within the system. Obviously we also have the Orange Door program, Better Connected Care and a range of other factors that are seeking to deliver a more holistic approach to family services, including family violence services, for all families and obviously for families of Indigenous background. It is definitely an issue that we will continue to work on and continue to work with you on.

Clause agreed to; clauses 2 and 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 (15:25)

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: I move:

1. Clause 4, after line 24 insert –

“7AA Statement of acknowledgement

(1) The Parliament acknowledges that removing an Aboriginal child from the care of a parent may ‍–

(a) disrupt the child’s connection to their culture; and

(b) cause harm to the child, including serious harm.

(2) The Parliament does not intend by this section to affect in any way the interpretation of this Act or of any other laws in force in Victoria.”.

Samantha RATNAM: I have no questions on the amendment, but I am happy to speak to the amendment. Thanks very much, Minister, for moving this amendment. We support the work done by the government in their amendments to implement this in part, also acknowledging that those amendments have been drafted in response to a number of amendments we put on the table a number of weeks ago. We really appreciate the dialogue that we have been able to have since. We do believe, however, that placing this recognition of harm within the placement principle will better ensure that it is actively applied in all decision-making in the child protection system. We are not convinced that placing this recognition in a preamble of sorts to this section is the strongest way to give effect to the intention of our amendments. However, we are happy to support this reform as a step in the right direction and look forward to continuing to work with the government on future reform in this space.

Matthew BACH: Can I just briefly say that, like Dr Ratnam, the coalition also supports this amendment and appreciated the very thorough and early briefing that we had on these matters. I note the points that Dr Ratnam has made about placement. We think it is good that this language will be in the bill.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Just in response to Dr Ratnam, the government considered that including the same amendment before the statement of recognition was a more appropriate approach. In our view it presents a low risk of conflicting with other similar provisions, such as those of the best interest of the child principle. Also, inclusion in the Aboriginal child placement principle would be more likely to create challenges in balancing the assessment of what is in the best interest of the child and may lead to unintended consequences, and hence that is why we are proposing that this amendment happen in this place.

Amendment agreed to; amended clause agreed to.

New clause (15:28)

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: I move:

2. Insert the following New Clause to follow clause 4 –

‘4A Aboriginal Child Placement Principle

(1) After section 13(3) of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 insert –

“(4) For the avoidance of doubt, the Court or a bail justice (as the case may be) must have regard to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle in making any decision or taking any action in respect of a child in need of protection under Chapter 4.”.’.

This is indeed an amendment that was borne out of giving due consideration to Dr Ratnam’s amendments and with thorough consultation with Dr Bach. We feel that this amendment is an important amendment to make to the bill.

Samantha RATNAM: Could I just pose this question: given that I have got subsequent amendments to insert an alternative clause, clause 4A, will I have a chance to speak to why I am wanting to move my original clause or should I speak to that now? If this passes, will I have a chance to do that?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: You should speak to it now, because if this passes yours will not be put.

Samantha RATNAM: Okay. It will not be tested; excellent. Thank you very much. As has been referenced before, we do believe the government’s amendments go part way to responding to the concerns that we have raised, but I had foreshadowed a more fulsome amendment. I will speak to why I will continue to proceed with those amendments. Our amendment 1 recognises the inherent harm caused by the removal of an Aboriginal child from parental care by explicitly including this within the Aboriginal child placement principle. We know that removing a child from parental care causes significant and ongoing harm to the child and should always be a last resort, where the risk of harm to a child is unacceptable. The ACPP emphasises that removal must be a last resort, but the numbers of children still removed from their families in Victoria suggest this element of the ACPP is not being properly applied. We have heard concerns that in practice the placement principle of the ACPP can override the application of the unacceptable risk test, which means that priority is given to securing a stable and eventually permanent placement for Aboriginal children over progressing pathways to family reunification. Whilst placement within the Aboriginal family may reduce some of the harm caused by removal from parental care, it does not eliminate harm altogether and does not reduce the gross over-representation of Aboriginal children living out of parental care.

We want to see more First Nations children kept in or returned to parental care and have heard quite strongly from sector organisations that this reform to the application of the ACPP is the best way to ensure this. The amendments will also require the ACPP to be applied throughout the child’s involvement with the child protection system, including in decision-making by the department and the courts. Continuous application will help ensure the full intent of the ACPP is realised, including increasing family reunification where possible.

Further to section 13(2)(a) as part of new clause 4A, these amendments emphasise that wherever possible priority should be on ensuring children removed from parental care are placed together with any siblings. We have heard that in practice siblings in the child protection system are too frequently separated, especially for large family groups. Protecting sibling connections is a key part of protecting a child’s connection to their culture and community, and we hope that specifically mentioning this in the act will help keep more family groups together.

New clause agreed to.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: That new clause tested Dr Ratnam’s amendments 1, 2 and 3, so we will not be moving those amendments.

Clause 5 (15:31)

Samantha RATNAM: Just to clarify, I understood that my amendments 2 and 3 would be tested separately because they are to clause 5. I can speak to them if they have already been tested, if that is your interpretation.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Your amendment 1, which cannot be moved because of the government’s amendment, actually tested your amendments 2 and 3, so they could not be moved unless your amendment 1 had been passed. But you can speak to them if you wish.

Samantha RATNAM: Given that my original amendments 2 and 3 pertain to clause 5, I will just speak to the rationale for these amendments. The amendments ensure that new participation rights are subject to the child’s or his or her parents’ agreement to the participation of the relevant person. We have heard concerns that at the moment in practice other community members’ voices can be elevated over those of the parents and that sometimes the need to include First Nations voices results in other elders or community members being involved who do not have strong cultural or kinship connections with the child. For other cultural communities the act explicitly notes that any other members involved in decision-making should be chosen by the child or his or her parent, for example, as part of that act. The sector believes that this should apply to Aboriginal community members as well.

Clause agreed to; clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 (15:34)

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: I move:

3. Clause 7, page 14, lines 33 to 36, omit all words and expressions on these lines.

4. Clause 7, page 15, lines 1 to 3, omit all words and expressions on these lines.

5. Clause 7, page 15, line 4, omit “(9)” and insert “(8)”.

Amendments agreed to; amended clause agreed to; clauses 8 to 12 agreed to.

New clauses (15:35)

Samantha RATNAM: I move:

4. Insert the following New Clauses to follow clause 12 –

‘12A When Court may make order under this Part

At the end of section 274 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 insert –

“(2) A Court must not make an order under this Part in respect of an Aboriginal child unless the Court is satisfied, by a disposition report prepared in accordance with section 558(cb), that all reasonable steps have been taken by the Secretary to comply with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.”.

12B Content of disposition report

After section 558(ca) of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 insert –

“(cb) if the report relates to an Aboriginal child, a detailed statement setting out the steps taken by the Secretary to comply with the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle.”.’.

The amendments in this clause seek to ensure that the requirement for the secretary and the court to apply the ACPP in decision-making is enforceable by requiring them to set up steps taken to comply with the ACPP in a disposition report. This is a simple amendment that legislates additional accountability in the application of the ACPP by decision-makers.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: The government does not support this proposal. It is our view that all of the information that is available to the courts as well as the disposition report should be able to be considered, and our view is that this is one of those issues that is perhaps well intentioned but requires some further work. We are happy to continue to do that work with Dr Ratnam and others who would like to pursue these issues, but at this stage the government is not in a position to support this amendment.

New clauses negatived.

Clauses 13 to 71 agreed to.

Reported to house with amendments.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, Minister for Child Protection and Family Services) (15:37): I move:

That the report be adopted.

Motion agreed to.

Report adopted.

Third reading

Lizzie BLANDTHORN (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, Minister for Child Protection and Family Services) (15:37): I move:

That the bill be now read a third time.

Motion agreed to.

Read third time.

The PRESIDENT: Pursuant to standing order 14.28, a message will be sent to the Assembly informing them that the bill has been agreed to with amendments.