Australia’s Peak Indigenous Childcare body says a National Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People will help tackle the over-representation of young people in out-of-home care.

Indigenous children are almost eleven times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children. The National Commissioner will focus on working with First Nations people on evidence-based programs and policies to turn those figures around.

The new role was announced as part the Federal Government’s 2023 Closing the Gap Annual Report and the 2024 Implementation Plan on Tuesday, with an interim Commissioner to be appointed mid-year.

SNAICC – National Voice for our Children – has been calling for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioner, alongside other Indigenous childcare advocates, and community members for many years.

The CEO of SNAICC, Catherine Liddle, says it’s especially fitting that the much-needed mechanism was announced on the 16th anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

“This is the day that we are reminded of the horrific impact of government policies, and the horrific impact those policies have had on our children, and our families, and our communities, even today,” the Arrernte/Luritja woman has told NIRS News.

“When we look at those closing the gap targets themselves, we negotiated very hard for government to be keeping a better eye on how many of our children were removed from their families, but not only why they were being removed, but why they were being removed and working to change that trajectory, saying this is not okay. We’ve got to stop that tide.”

“Part of that was using that shared decision making to talk to communities across the country and say what is the accountability mechanism that can genuinely look at what’s happening? And without fail communities said, we need a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Commissioner, the only body of its kind that centres our children first and foremost, and invest in their care and protection, and their ability to stay with families and their communities.

“This is a game changer.”

Catherine Liddle the CEO of SNAICC and Acting Lead Convener of the Coalition of Peaks. Image: SNAICC.

Ms Liddle says the National Agreement on Closing the Gap has given us the leverage and mechanism to finally make this a reality.

“Working through mechanisms such as Safe and Supported: the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, a ground-breaking commitment to shared decision-making, has enabled the ambition of many years to finally be realised.

“It shows these reforms at a national level can drive meaningful change.”

The latest Closing the Gap report shows only four of the 19 critical targets are on track.

While outcomes like children’s early development, rates of children in out-of-home care, rates of adult imprisonment, and suicide have gone backwards. 

Ms Liddle says the indicators that are most off track are all rooted in children.

“What we know is that in order to close the gap, it has to start with children.”

The interim Commissioner will work with Indigenous expert advisors to determine the powers, roles and functions of the National Commissioner, which will be established under legislation.

Ms Liddle, is also the Acting Lead Convener of the Coalition of the Peak of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organisations, and says the National Commissioner will work with state and territories, and their Commissioners, to respond at a whole system level.

“So, they’re able to make genuine changes that have a genuine impact on our communities.

“An example might be where we have remote communities where we know that children are sometimes removed from their families, not because they don’t care for them, not because they don’t love them, not because they’re not doing everything, they can for them, but because services that those children need, a specialist, they don’t exist in that community.

“A commissioner is the sort of person that comes in and looks at a story like that and makes the recommendations to get the changes that says this is not good enough.”

Speaking for the Coalition of Peaks, Ms Liddle says we will continue to push on governments to genuinely commit the four priority reforms the National Agreement on Closing the Gap has been built around, and that is ensuring that Aboriginal people have a say, in the services that they need.

The four priority areas are: Formal Partnerships and Shared Decision Making, Building the Community-Controlled Sector, and Transforming Government Organisations, and Shared Access to Data and Information at a Regional Level.

Image above:  Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney announces the creation of a National Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Young People, alongside Scott Wilson from the Coalition of Peaks, SNAICC CEO Catherine Liddle, and Minister for Families and Social Services Amanda Rishworth. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP