Truth-telling report outlines how Treaty can fix broken child protection and legal systems through transformational reform

Sep 4, 2023

Assembly Co-Chairs and Governor of Victoria receive Yoorrook for Justice report from Commissioners, photo: Leandro Palacio / DPC

The democratically-elected ‘Voice’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Victoria, the First Peoples’ Assembly, has welcomed calls from the nation’s first formal Truth-telling commission for bold structural reform of the state’s broken child protection and legal systems, and agrees Treaty is the vehicle to transfer decision-making power to First Peoples.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission’s first critical issues report, Yoorrook for Justice: Report into Victoria’s Child Protection and Criminal Justice Systems, has been formally tabled in the Victorian Parliament this morning after a year of the Commission hearing the experiences of First Peoples dealing with these two systems across the state.

The report sets out the tragic reality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Victorian children protection and legal systems and highlights how the systemic injustice experienced by First Peoples in these systems has deep roots in colonialism:

“For First Peoples, the child protection and criminal justice systems have long been sites of systemic injustice. The removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the criminalisation of resistance to dispossession were state-sanctioned colonial practices in the lands now known as Victoria. They involved gross human and cultural rights violations.

There is an unbroken line between these actions, laws and policies and current systems. The highly contemporary disparate outcomes for First Peoples are evidence of this.

First Peoples children are removed from their families at the highest rate in Australia with around one in 10 now in out of home care. In the justice system First Peoples are around 15 times more likely to be in adult prison…. In 2021–22, 87 per cent of Aboriginal women who arrived in prison were unsentenced.”

Yoorrook for Justice: Report into Victoria’s Child Protection and Criminal Justice Systems (p. 14)

Treaty our opportunity for transformational change

The report contains 46 recommendations for the Victorian Government to reform the child protection and legal systems. Its first two recommendations identify the Treaty process as the vehicle for transformative structural change.

The report says “the Victorian Government must transfer decision-making power, authority, control and resources” in the child protection and legal systems to First Peoples, giving full effect to Self-Determination.
Wamba Wamba, Yorta Yorta, Dhudhuroa and Dja Dja Wurrung woman and Assembly Co-chair, Ngarra Murray said while some of the recommendations can and should be implemented immediately as quick fixes, the long-term structural reforms to deliver Self-Determination and end systemic injustice can be delivered by Treaty.

“This report makes clear that big transformational change is needed. Treaty will put Aboriginal people in the driver’s seat by making sure we have the power to design the systems and make the decisions that affect us.

It’s our opportunity to end the pain and trauma these state systems continue to inflict on Aboriginal communities,” said Ms Murray.

Ms Murray said the recommendations will help guide the Assembly’s agenda when it is negotiating a statewide Treaty with the Victorian Government next year.

Urgent recommendations

The report also makes recommendations of urgent and specific actions across the child protection and criminal justice systems (Recommendations 3 to 44), including:

  • establishing an independent oversight and accountability commission;
  • establishing a new independent police oversight authority;
  • enshrining the role of the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People in legislation; and
  • raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years.

The report calls on the government to commence action on these 44 urgent recommendations immediately, saying they can be achieved over the next twelve months.

Assembly Co-Chairs Rueben Berg and Ngarra Murray with Yoorrook Commissioner Sue-Anne Hunter, photo: Leandro Palacio / DPC

Gunditjmara man and Assembly Co-chair Rueben Berg said that by agreeing to the Assembly’s call for Truth-telling, the Victorian Government had made a commitment to First Peoples to not only hear the wrongs of the past, but to act to right them.

“The Victorian Government must honour its commitment to listen with action. Action that includes starting work on these urgent recommendations right now. Otherwise the apologies made by Ministers and police at Yoorrook will ring hollow. Any delay will only see more of our families torn apart and more of our people locked up behind bars because of unfair, outdated and busted systems,” said Mr Berg.

“The Assembly, as the elected Voice for First Peoples, looks forward to working alongside our communities and organisations, who are the experts, to deliver this transformational reform.”

Given the damning evidence compiled, Mr Berg said the Yoorrook Justice Commission has made it clear that the government must not use the beginning of statewide Treaty negotiations as an excuse to delay action on the tasks and recommendations that can be done now.

The report notes the Treaty Negotiation Framework – essentially the rulebook and agreed standards and processes underpinning the negotiations – allows for interim agreements, or Treaty outcomes, which could enact many of the report’s recommendations.

Mr Berg thanked the 84 witnesses who entrusted the Commission with their experiences and expertise.

“The pathway for reform laid out in this historic report is thanks to Aboriginal people coming forward and sharing the personal pain and damage wrought to their families and Communities at the hands of the child protection and legal systems. I acknowledge the strength of those who have placed their trust with Yoorrook. Thank you for sharing your stories and truth,” said Mr Berg.

Read the report here:

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