April Lawrie is passionate about having the strength of Aboriginal families and culture recognised. When she meet with Aboriginal Way in a bustling café in Adelaide’s Central Markets, she shares a stream of ideas about ways to use the strength of families and culture to improve the lives of young people in her new role as Aboriginal Children’s Commissioner.
Her well-rounded experience, knowledge, and skills, with a lived experience provide crucial perspective on how the South Australian system is working for Aboriginal children.
When she spoke to Aboriginal Way, Ms Lawrie had been only a few weeks at her office as South Australia’s first Aboriginal Children’s Commissioner, having commenced prior to the summer break on 3 December 2018.
Already she has a strong sense of what needs to be done over her three-year term, beginning with the importance of better support services for vulnerable families to prevent Aboriginal children being removed.
She also emphasises the importance of the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, meaning Aboriginal children who have been removed from their homes are placed with extended family or community or own kinship group.
“Adhering to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, we know it’s the right way and it’s the best way, supporting Aboriginal children be safe and be identity and culture strong.
“Because we know the legacy of the Stolen Generation and what that’s yielded for Aboriginal children and young people and for the entire Aboriginal population, the whole experience of intergenerational trauma.
“We know that we need to remedy the past practices that have been detrimental to Aboriginal children and our future generations” she said.
The way forward is in the hands of the Aboriginal community itself Ms Lawrie said.
“We have the solutions, we have maintained ourselves in our societies for thousands of years, and we know what’s required within our own families and our own communities to maintain children safely and with culture.
“Aboriginal community controlled for child wellbeing is critical if we are to actually fulfil Aboriginal self-determination, when it comes to building a robust future for Aboriginal communities.
“That means Aboriginal people taking the lead and Aboriginal people having greater say, involvement, participation, and implementation of the programs and services that affect the wellbeing of our Aboriginal children and young people” she told Aboriginal Way.
The Commissioner for Aboriginal Children was appointed by the SA Government to influence change in policy, practice, and service delivery across health, welfare, education, and child protection and justice for the benefit of Aboriginal children, Ms Lawrie explained.
“That means getting joined-up services, ensuring that we’ve got collaboration between agencies and cooperation between services, particularly supporting our most vulnerable children and their families when it comes to the care, safety, and wellbeing of our children and young people.
“It isn’t about duplicating anyone’s efforts, but truly bringing to the fore the advocacy that’s required based on the evidence that is there before us” she said.
Changing the approach that government systems take is crucial to the future of Aboriginal children and community members, Ms Lawrie said.
“They’re creating another society of Stolen Generation. The very things that we’ve highlighted in the national inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families has been replicated in the practices of continued removal
at alarming rates and unprecedented levels of kids in non-Aboriginal care. That’s madness.”
The employment of Aboriginal people within the service system is one key to change, Ms Lawrie believes. However,
it’s more than just a numbers game, those Aboriginal workers need to be in real positions of influence and in the right roles she said.
“We criticise the system that remove our children but we have to be in there to change it and to stop it.
“We know that there are Aboriginal employees across the various child focussed systems in the state, whether it’s education, child protection, youth justice or health.
“But when you talk about the interface with child protection, more than likely at the front end of a child protection investigation, it’s a non-Aboriginal worker. Our whole service system in child protection is dominated by a very foreign culture of service delivery, which is more than often white and middle-class.
“There is a compelling argument to grow our Aboriginal workforce in social work services, so that we’re able to
build culturally appropriate responses” Ms Lawrie said.
“but there is also getting the rest of the workforce, especially in the front line, to address their cultural bias and be culturally competent in effectively engaging Aboriginal children and their families.
The contribution of more Aboriginal families to providing care is key to overcoming the challenges facing Aboriginal children in the care system, this needs to be further teased out and supported Ms Lawrie told Aboriginal Way.
“We know that if the child’s cultural identity and relationships is well developed, maintained and supported alongside the child’s safety and wellbeing, we begin to reduce the impact of intergenerational trauma” she said.
Recognising the stressors and pressures that are put on a child’s family is an important step Ms Lawrie believes,
and is linked to understanding the need for early intervention.
“The reality is that we have families needing extra support beyond that of universal services” Ms Lawrie said.
“There are a multitude of things that have happened that have impacted on families. All the things that determine your life outcome, we know we’ve got intergenerational trauma, we’ve got issues of family violence, as well as substance misuse impacting our Aboriginal communities and impacting on our families and the ability of people to care, provide for, and keep their children safe and well.
“We know all those things that are out there. There is the data, but there is also the stories and experiences of vulnerable Aboriginal children and young people and their families that need to be heard.
“While there is a big emphasis on closing the gap, I firmly believe the focus should be on preventing the gap.
“A focus on early intervention and prevention is therefore critical” she said.
On considering how a single Commissioner can take on such large challenges, Ms Lawrie appears undaunted.
“The focus on the first thousand days of life is absolutely critical to identifying the things in the system that are letting down our Aboriginal children.
“So, there’s a lot of things happening, but at the same time we’re not getting the change in practice, nor the marked improvement that we desire, and we also know there are resources being injected into services, but are they going to the right places?
Ms Lawrie is keen to collaborate with key stakeholders on research and promoting early intervention and prevention.
“We need a call to action with what the data is saying and implement to make a difference, and I’m ensuring that I’ve got a very close working relationship with the Early Intervention Research Directorate, which is now placed within the Department of Human Services.
“I’ll also look to partner with key Aboriginal groups and advocates, such as the Aboriginal Community Leadership Reference Group who have done great advocacy, and the Aboriginal Family Health Research Group who have undertaken some fantastic research into the things that make a difference in better outcomes for families and Aboriginal children in the early years” she said.
Ms Lawrie will also focus on consultation with community members and bringing Aboriginal community perspectives in the reporting required by her role.
“I’m required to report annually, that will be through the statutory role of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, based on the requirements of the Advocacy and Oversight Bodies Act” Ms Lawrie said.
Ms Lawrie is committed to getting on with the role in collaboration with that Commissioner, Ms Helen Connolly, as well as Mr Roger Thomas, the Aboriginal Engagement Commissioner.
“I’ve got three years, and particularly the first 12 months is going to be crucial in not only defining priority areas to tackle, but also establishing the role, and really identifying where it’s best placed and developing the key working relationships.”
“What I’m most focussed on is that examination of policy, practice and service delivery to work to improve outcomes for vulnerable Aboriginal children and young people, especially in early intervention and prevention, and from the voices of Aboriginal children and their families”.
SANTS acknowledges that the land on which our office is based is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and we respect their spiritual and cultural relationship with their country.