On National Children’s Week, Aboriginal leaders and advocates are calling for stronger protections to keep First Nations children with their families and out of the justice system.

National Children’s Week has it’s roots in Child Care Week, which focussed on the needs of children in out-of-home care or institutions.

In the 1980’s, the Commonwealth began encouraging each state and territory to hold a broader Children’s Week. The week would reflect the United Nation’s Universal Children’s Day, established in 1954.

This year, National Children’s Week falls on October 25 to 29, with the theme being Article 15 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child; Children have the right to choose their own friends and safely connect with others.

Children’s Week is celebrated around the country with independently organised events that can be registered with state and territory Children’s Week Councils.

John Leha, CEO of AbSec, the peak organisation for Aboriginal children and families in New South Wales, called Children’s Week a reminder to keep fighting to protect First Nations children.

“This Children’s Week, we are reminded that the business-as-usual approach to improving the lives of Aboriginal children and young people is not working,” Leha said.

“The week is meant to be a celebration of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but how are our communities to celebrate when our kids are removed from their culture and kin at such disproportionate rates.

“For our communities, this week is a timely reminder that we must continue fighting for the reforms our children need, both in child protection and otherwise, to create a brighter future for them and help them thrive.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait children are removed from their families at a rate far higher their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

The Family Matters Report 2020 found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent 37 per cent of all the children removed from their parents in Australia but are only 6 per cent of the total population of children in Australia.

Of the Indigenous children in out-of-home care, 81 per cent are living permanently away from their birth parents until the age of 18 years.

Greens Senator for WA and Yamatji Noongar woman Dorinda Cox said the system fails the children it is supposed to protect.

“Every single one of us have a responsibility to make sure children feel safe, loved, are educated, have access to healthy food and are connected to family and culture,” the Senator said.

“However we are seeing a system that is letting our children down every day and we all have to lift our game.

“Our families need greater community support, where they live, that is free, without judgement so children can thrive.”

Cox also drew attention to Raise the Age campaign, which calls for Australia’s age of criminal responsibility to be lifted to 14 in line with the international median age of responsibility, according to the 2016 Australian Human Rights Commission Children’s Rights Report.

“Our children should not be locked up so I have committed to campaign to raise the age [of criminal responsibility] from 10 years old and I will do everything in my power to give children the emotional tools to reach out and feel mentally well,” she said.

“It’s up to all of us and I am totally committed to our children this week and every day of the year.”

Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman Senator Lidia Thorpe, the Greens Spokesperson for Justice and First Nations echoed Cox’s statements, saying her priority during international Children’s Week was raising the age.

“In this country, police aggressively target First Nations children and kids as young as 10 can be jailed for minor offences,” she said.

“When kids make mistakes, they need support and guidance. Not the trauma of our courts, prisons and police systems. When children this young are forced through a criminal legal process at such a formative age, it causes immense harm to their health, wellbeing and future.

“The Attorney-General confirmed to me that the Morrison Government will not be prioritising raising the age of legal responsibility despite the Meetings of Attorneys General promising to do so over a year ago.”

Senator Thorpe said Indigenous children need support to get back on the right path, not jail time. She called for culturally safe and supportive diversionary programs, and supportive bail and community corrections programs to divert children away from prisons.

Catherine Liddle, chief executive of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), said First Nations children have the best outcomes when supported with their families and communities.

“Our children thrive when connected to culture through their friends, family and their mob,” she said.

“Culture is a protective factor. Let’s ask our children what helps them feel safe and connected? Our little ones have the right to have a voice and make their own decisions.”

By Sarah Smit