Growing concerns for Aboriginal children and young people in care and youth justice

A new report summarising the trends relating to Aboriginal children and young people in the child protection and youth justice systems has raised concerns about the trajectory of some these vulnerable young people.

Based on data provided by the latest Productivity Commission Report on Government Services, the Office of the Guardian’s Snapshot of South Australian Aboriginal Children and Young People in Care and/or Detention from the Report on Government Services 2021 has reported the number of Aboriginal children in care is so high that this group now makes up 36.7% of all children in care although they make up only 5% of the population under 18 in the state. This means that just over one in every 11 Aboriginal children in SA is now living in state care.

If the continued worsening rate of Aboriginal children and young people being drawn into the child protection system continues, SA will not meet its Closing the Gap target of a 45% reduction in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children and young people in care by 2031.

There is some good news, though. Despite the proportion of Aboriginal children and young people in detention in South Australia being 22.7 times higher than for non-Aboriginal children, this rate is declining, and SA is looking to surpass the Closing the Gap target of a 30% reduction in the over-representation of Aboriginal children in detention by 2031. This has triggered a call from Guardian and Training Centre Visitor, Penny Wright, to implement a more ambitious target.

“Aiming higher than the current target would benefit the whole community because of the significant cost of detention, at 32.3 times more per day than community supervision. This cost is even more concerning when almost all children and young people held in detention in SA are there on remand,” Penny said.

Youth diversions by police

Alarmingly, the Guardian’s report has highlighted a gap between youth diversions for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alleged offenders is at its widest point since reporting began.

When police apprehend children or young people who may have committed an offence, they have a variety of options available. They can charge the child (and proceed to court) or they can use their discretion to divert them away from this potentially costly, time consuming and stressful situation (for both the child or young person and victim).

Diversions include actions to move children and young people away from the courts through formal cautioning by police, community, diversionary or family conferences and other programs (such as drug assessment/treatment).

According to our new report, the rate of youth diversions by SA police in relation to Aboriginal children and young people who are alleged to have offended is at its lowest point since records began, with 23.3 per cent of alleged Aboriginal offenders being diverted away from court. This contrasts with the rate of 55.6 per cent for non-Aboriginal youth, the highest rate since records began.

“We don’t know why Aboriginal children and young people are being treated more harshly, but this systems bias could be contributing to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in the youth justice system, and would certainly lead to their overrepresentation in detention,” Penny said.

“We need to be brave and take assertive steps to keep Aboriginal children and young people out of the youth justice system, and away from a path towards adult prisons.”

“Despite the Council of Attorney-Generals passing back the decision to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to individual states last month, SA needs to commit to significant reforms, such as raising the age to 14, and investing in culturally safe family support and early intervention, if we really want things to change for these young people and their families,” Penny said.

To view the report in full, download it here.

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