Victoria’s Department of Households has admitted systemic racism persists in the child protection system, with a senior bureaucrat telling the state commission he is telling the truth about wanting Indigenous organizations to guide its work.
The nationally leading Yoorrook Justice Commission has begun hearing testimony from government witnesses and has heard that no single department is responsible for reducing the number of Indigenous children in the home care system.
Argiri Alisandratos, acting associate secretary at the Department of Families, Equity and Housing, told the commission that he had a lot to do to stamp out racism and prejudice within the system.
“We are not shirking this responsibility,” he said Thursday.
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Alisandratos said child protection workers were motivated to support families and children, but acknowledged that there was prejudice and racism in the department’s workforce.
Commission counsel Fiona McLeod SC said it was “intolerable” that racism and prejudice have affected the department’s work.
“It is intolerable that these biases find their way into assessments of First Nations children,” she said.
Alisandratos said more work was needed to research the impact that racism and prejudice had on the over-representation of indigenous children in the child protection system.
Commissioner Kevin Bell said “outrageously high rates” of Indigenous children removed from their families in Victoria suggest an “urgent problem of racism” persisted in the sector.
McLeod also asked Alisandratos which department was responsible for reducing the removal rates of First Nations children from their families.
When Alisandratos replied that it was a government-wide commitment, another commissioner, Maggie Walter, said the dispersion of responsibilities was “problematic”.
“I can’t see any way in which things are going to change,” she said.
Alisandratos argued that it was difficult to simplify a complex problem that required input from multiple departments.
He also emphasized that the department’s goal was for the child protection system to be led and informed by Indigenous organizations.
However, he said the department has not built enough trust with First Nations families to effectively use Aboriginal-controlled organizations for early intervention.
“This is a responsibility we have,” he said.
Alisandratos said there is also a need to improve early intervention support for families before children are removed and placed in out-of-home care facilities.
Last year Daniel Andrews promised to overhaul the state’s child protection system, with the premier saying too many First Nations children would be taken away from their families.
Victoria has the highest rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care of any state, according to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
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In February, the government introduced legislation that will allow Aboriginal-controlled organizations to investigate child protection cases and connect families with support before a court order is issued.
State Attorney General Jaclyn Symes, Child Protection Secretary Lizzie Blandthorn and Police Commissioner Shane Patton are expected to appear before the Yoorrook Commission next month.
Yoorrook is Australia’s first Indigenous truth-telling body and has the same powers as a royal commission.
Its mandate is to investigate historical and current systemic injustices against First Nations people, and it will produce a final report with its findings by mid-2025.
The deadline date for the final report has been pushed back by a year after the state government failed to produce key documents in time.