In May-June 2018, Darwin-based Danila Dilba Aboriginal Health Service (DDHS), coordinated a series of twelve community and service provider workshops on behalf of the Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), the peak body for community controlled Aboriginal health services in the Northern Territory (NT). These were held in the NT’s major population centres (Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, Darwin), and in three remote communities in East Arnhem (Nhulunbuy, Milingimbi and Galiwin’ku). The workshops provided information to community members and service providers about the outcomes of the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory (the Royal Commission) with a broad outline of proposals for legislative reform, and gathered information about community members’ experience of the child protection system. Serious concerns about the current system and its failure to deliver good outcomes for families and children were raised.
- The Northern Territory child protection system is poorly understood by Aboriginal people. Families do not receive clear information and are not informed of their rights. Families who are not proficient in English are not given adequate information in language and are not provided with interpreters. System changes needed include clear plain English and community education materials, community legal education, trained specialist interpreters and provision of qualified interpreter services at family meetings and in legal processes where English is not the family’s first language.
- There are widespread concerns about the transparency of the reporting process, delays in responses by Territory Families and a lack of feedback or follow up. There is considerable confusion about the universal mandatory reporting requirements, in particular what needs to be reported and who needs to report. Mandatory reporting is having unintended consequences, including increasing distrust of service providers, preventing young people and families from reporting their concerns and in turn preventing them from accessing the supports and therapeutic services that they need. There are also concerns about the investigation process – in particular the inappropriateness of risk assessment tools and workers.
- The existing risk assessments conducted by Territory Families are narrow, risk focussed, and are not supported by more holistic assessments that take into consideration the overall health, wellbeing, strengths, needs and aspirations of the young person and their family. There is an urgent need for appropriate assessments for children, young people and their families. There are also some concerns about privacy and information sharing within Territory Families, to the detriment of young people.
- Children and families do not have access to appropriate early intervention and family support services. Major investment in early intervention and outreach, and equitable investment in regional and remote areas is needed. Aboriginal led services, such as family support, Social Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB) and Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) need to be expanded and properly resourced. Specialist children’s services, including primary health, mental health and paediatric care, and assessment for FASD, behavioural and development delays need to be more widely available and accessible, especially in regional and remote locations. Place-based extended family services that integrate family support and children’s services are needed.
- The complexity of Aboriginal family and kinship structures and the role and responsibility of the extended family in caring for children is not respected or understood. The extended family is not adequately engaged in decisions about children under the current system. Territory Families workers need substantial training in culturally effective engagement and more local Aboriginal support workers and cultural brokers/interpreters are needed.