Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds says we’re failing our most vulnerable kids after 10-year-old’s death

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Katina Curtis
The Nightly
4 Min Read
A 10-year-old Indigenous boy took his own life while in the care of a State government.
A 10-year-old Indigenous boy took his own life while in the care of a State government. Credit: Supplied

The Children’s Commissioner has warned our most vulnerable kids are falling through the cracks between State and Federal responsibilities after the suicide death of a 10-year-old Indigenous boy in State care.

It came as senator Lidia Thorpe accused the Government of failing to protect Indigenous children, saying they should be “deeply ashamed”.

Commissioner Anne Hollonds called for child safety to be made a national priority to better co-ordinate services and end the “postcode lottery” of what was on offer.

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the boy’s death was a tragedy and his thoughts were with his family and the community.

“I am shocked and deeply saddened to hear the news of a young person taking their own life,” he said.

But Senator Thorpe pointed to the 1997 Bringing Them Home report and called on the Government to urgently implement its remaining recommendations.

“Minister (Linda) Burney and the Prime Minister are failing to protect First Nations children. They should be deeply ashamed of the news of this young boy’s death,” the Indigenous, independent senator said.

On Wednesday, The Nightly revealed the death in Perth’s northern suburbs of the 10-year-old boy, who had been living with relatives approved by authorities.

The boy’s mother said the youngster “loved to play soccer” and “loved Skittles”.

“He was such a handsome young man,” she said.

Politicians from all sides have offered their condolences to the family, friends and community grieving the loss.

Ms Burney, the Federal Indigenous Australians Minister, said the death was “shocking, heartbreaking and demands deep reflection”.

“My heart goes out to the family and community in WA that has lost a son so young,” she said.

Ms Burney was expecting to be briefed by the WA Government about the case.

WA Premier Roger Cook has backed an expedited inquest into the boy’s death, although that decision ultimately rests with the coroner.

Ms Hollonds was a frontline child protection worker at the start of her career.

She said little had changed in the many years since to address the under-resourcing and undervalued work of people in the sector.

“I think in Australia, we do really poorly when it comes to our most vulnerable children,” she told The Nightly.

“We make it really hard for people to get the help they need. That’s the truth of it.

“Some states struggle more than others. It doesn’t make sense to me why even the child protection acts in each state are so incredibly different.”

In 2021, the rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care was more than 11 times higher than for non-Indigenous children, and had risen from two years earlier.

Action plans launched last year under the “Safe and Supported” national framework on child safety commit governments to take a national approach to improving outcomes and explicitly aim to “lay the foundations for systemic change”.

Senator Thorpe said the recommendations from the Stolen Generation inquiry had sat on the shelves of many Indigenous affairs ministers and clearly pointed to the need for federal leadership.

“Today kids learn about the stolen generation in school, but what they’re not taught is that these policies never ended. The removal of First Nations children is an ongoing genocidal project being perpetrated through government policy every day,” she said.

“The Closing the Gap report showed that Labor is subjecting a whole new stolen generation of children to the trauma of removal.

“We know what Burney and Albanese will say — they’ll throw up their hands and say this is a state responsibility. But this is a national atrocity that is unfolding in every state; they need to show some leadership.”

She and Ms Hollonds both pointed to individual examples of community-controlled, wrap-around services that were working well, but said they were too few and patchy.

Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said the Federal Government was “deeply committed to working with community” and States to jointly implement the action plans and improve outcomes.

“Statutory child protection remains a state and territory responsibility, but the Commonwealth is part of the solution in preventing families from coming into contact with child protection,” she said.

“Our Government is continuing to work closely with First Nations leaders, the non-government sector and state and territory governments to reduce the over-representation of First Nations children in out-of-home care.”

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said the “completely, unspeakably tragic circumstance” underscored the enormous challenges to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage and that governments “really need to be looking at ways in which we can do business in a different way” to do so.

Mr Cook said any death of a young person “makes you wonder what else we can do to make sure that we keep young people safe”.

In 2016, the death of a 10-year-old girl who took her own life in WA’s north-west shocked the nation and formed part of a major coronial inquiry.

The WA Premier insisted child protection practices had improved since then but that “demands on the services are getting greater”.

Suicide prevention advocates Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos are representing the family.

They say the lack of transparency from the department has been deplorable.

“Many of these families don’t have the support or a voice,” Ms Krakouer, who heads the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, said.

Mr Georgatos said the lack of investment in suicide prevention was “abominable”.

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