Indigenous parents struggling with substance abuse are being permanently separated from their children due to delays in Victoria’s public health system.
Under state law, parents battling problems such as addiction are given up to two years to get the help they need before their children can be permanently placed in out-of-home care.
But it often takes longer than that to access public mental health, drug and alcohol services, putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents at risk of losing their children, the Yoorrook Justice Commission heard.
“The current alcohol and other drug service system is under very significant strain at the moment,” said the Department of Health’s deputy secretary for mental health and wellbeing Katherine Whetton told the commission on Monday.
“I believe there are waiting lists for those services … I would say that there would be people that have trouble getting the care and treatment they need.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are vastly over-represented in Victoria’s child protection system. They make up more than 20 per cent of children in the system, up from 14.6 per cent in 2016.
In a statement to Yoorrook, the Department of Health said ongoing systemic racism, discrimination and intergenerational trauma caused by colonisation significantly impacts health and wellbeing.
It follows the department’s apology to families of Indigenous people who have died in custody due to a lack of health-based services.
“The department acknowledges the First Peoples who have passed in custody or while in the care of the state and notes that the contribution that a lack of access to health services or services of inadequate quality may have impacted on community,” the department wrote to Yoorrook.
“The department apologises to the families of people who did not receive a health-based response to public intoxication which is, at its core, a health issue.”
Public drunkenness laws are set to be scrapped in Victoria on November 7 in favour of a health-led model.
The new response to public drunkenness is expected to provide coverage to 82 per cent of the state’s Aboriginal population, and the department said there would be residual health risks for the remaining 18 per cent.
Ms Whetton said the government was aware delays in lifting public drunkenness laws risked more Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Last week, Premier Daniel Andrews acknowledged racism and discrimination were behind Victoria’s flawed systems and said systemic change would bring much-needed healing.
“The ongoing over-representation of First Peoples in the criminal justice and child protection systems is a source of great shame for the Victorian government,” Mr Andrews said in a submission letter.
Yoorrook is the first formal truth-telling inquiry into past and ongoing injustices against First Nations people in Victoria.
Victorian government ministers, senior bureaucrats and the chief commissioner of Victoria Police are among the witnesses set to give evidence during public hearings examining the impact of injustice within the criminal and child protection systems.
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