CENTRAL Victorian carers are challenging a decision by authorities to place more than 1000 kilometres between a two-year-old child and the siblings they had lived with since birth.
The toddler was relocated interstate, against their siblings’ wishes, to be cared for by extended family members they barely knew, as authorities sought to return the child to family and to culture. Authorities cited Aboriginal child placement principles in the Child, Youth and Families Act 2005 as factors in the decision-making process.
The principles aim to enhance and preserve Aboriginal children’s connection to family and community, and sense of cultural identity. Aboriginal extended family members or relatives are the preferred carers for Aboriginal children under the Act, followed by Aboriginal families, especially those from the community local to a child’s ‘natural family’.
Placement with a non-Aboriginal family living in close proximity to the child's natural family is acceptable as a last resort. “Any non-Aboriginal placement must ensure the maintenance of the child's culture and identity through contact with the child's community,” the legislation states. The toddler’s former foster carers are non-Indigenous, but have been caring for each of the siblings since they were babies. They are permanent carers for two of the toddler’s siblings.
Documents sighted by the Bendigo Advertiser state that authorities considered the two-year-old child’s placement with their siblings’ carers satisfactory. Further family input was sought as long-term care options were considered. Extended family members residing interstate expressed interest in caring for the toddler.
The Bendigo Advertiser understands the prospective carers were not well known to the child or their siblings at that stage.
A children’s advocate represented the toddler’s youngest siblings at a meeting called earlier this year, at short notice, to discuss long-term care arrangements for the two-year-old child. Neither the siblings, nor their permanent carers, were invited to attend.
All of the family members party to the decision, except for the children’s advocate, are believed to have said they wanted the toddler to move interstate ‘to return to family’. The children’s advocate raised the strong attachment between the siblings and the potential trauma associated with the separation.
Wungurilwil Gapgapduir: Aboriginal Children and Families Agreement and Strategic Action Plan stresses the significance of the bonds between siblings.
“For those children and their siblings living in out-of-home care, it is important that they remain together,” it states. The siblings were separated at a public venue during a ‘celebration’ arranged by authorities. The Bendigo Advertiser understands plans for the children and their carers to say goodbye at the home they had shared were scrapped.
Promises of a visit also did not eventuate, causing the toddler’s siblings further distress.
Authorities did not speak directly with the children about the decision to relocate the toddler, according to their permanent carers.
A Department of Health and Human Services staffer wrote in a document sighted by the Bendigo Advertiser that it was clear, based on what they had been told, the children wanted the toddler to remain with them.
“I have chosen not to speak to the children at this time as I am of the view that it may create further disruption and upset for them,” they stated.
“I am not inclined to add to their distress and encourage you as their guardians and responsible adults to consider appropriate ways of assisting them to adjust to the changes for them and [the toddler].”
The toddler’s former carers said the child was relocated before contact plans for the siblings were put in place. They said neither they, nor the toddler’s new carers, had heard from authorities about the child’s care since the move. Contact between the siblings since been limited to video calls.
Victorian child protection has a role in liaising with the receiving state when a Victorian child subject to a protection order is placed interstate, to transfer their protection order and support the child as they transition to and settle into their new care placement. Interstate placement protocols support this work.
The former foster carers have lodged a complaint with the Victorian Ombudsman about the Department of Health and Human Services, calling for an independent review of the case practice and decision-making processes. In their complaint, the former foster carers questioned whether the department had ‘demonstrated any regard’ for specific best interest principles and decision-making principles in the Child, Youth and Families Act 2005.
A former central Victorian case manager, Chantelle Morrison, said keeping siblings together was a priority when she was working in the field several years ago. “Normally when you saw siblings split there was a very good reason for it,” she said. “It was important to give the children some sense of control,” she said. She questioned the decision to move a healthy, happy, settled child that had been living with siblings from birth to a new family environment interstate: “Why would you do that? Why would you ruin these siblings?”
Child advocate and Dja Dja Wurrung woman Pauline Ugle called for greater scrutiny of the power of the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “The Secretary’s concentration of power is so great that the Secretary not only exercises the legal right to make such a significant decision, but then holds the power to review said significant decision with no external oversight,” Ms Ugle said.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it could not comment on individual cases. But a spokesperson said the department’s priority was always to the best interest of the child. “Case planning decisions are often complex, any decision we make about the care of a child is done with careful consideration and consultation,” they said.