By Julie Power
High rates of Indigenous suicide, and the over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and adults in prison, have worsened in what a senior Indigenous leader calls a “strong indictment on the nation”.
The federal government is not on track to meet targets to improve outcomes under the new Closing the Gap agreement in these three key areas, according to updated data to be released today by the Productivity Commission.
The results should not come as any surprise, said James Christian, the chief executive of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
“This is basic human rights. If children can’t be kept in a safe and nurturing home, they find themselves in the criminal justice system. All these things are interrelated. It is a pretty strong indictment on the nation that we still can’t get these fundamental human rights in balance,” he said.
Although the updated statistics come only 11 months after the new Closing the Gap Agreement, Mr Christian said it was time the Australian public woke up to the fact that successive governments had failed to make a change despite the significant human and financial cost.
“There is a very strong economic argument to do better in these areas,” he said.
But it was on track to reach its goals of lifting the number of Indigenous young children in early childhood education before school to 95 per cent by 2025 and increasing the number of babies being born with a healthy birth weight to 91 per cent by 2031.
Indigenous life expectancy from birth also continues to be lower than non-Indigenous Australians by about eight years.
The data is the first to be released in a new information hub to track progress on the new national Closing the Gap agreement last July. The first annual report will be released next month.
For the first time, the agreement measures progress on new priority reforms to involve Aboriginal organisations in decision making and the delivery of programs and the reduction of entrenched racism in government organisations.
Here is what the report found:
Not on target: Indigenous children in out-of-home care
The latest data: About 56.3 Indigenous children in every 1000 were in out-of-home care in 2020, an increase from 54.2 children per 1000 children.
At this rate, it won’t make its target of reducing the number of children in care by 45 per cent by 2031 to 29.8 per 1000.
The new target was added to the new Closing the Gap Agreement, which replaced the 2008 National Indigenous Reform Agreement. Other new goals included reducing the incarceration rate of adults and youths in juvenile justice.
The current rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care is about 11 times greater than the rate for non-Indigenous children at 5.1 per 1000.
While the new data showed an increase in the number of Aboriginal children from zero to 17 years of age removed from their families, the rate stayed the same for non-Indigenous children between 2019 and 2020.
Background: University of New South Wales professor of law Megan Davis attributes the disproportionately large numbers of Aboriginal children in care to the lack of Indigenous self-determination and the failure of states and territories to place Aboriginal children with family or relatives.
She said the high rates of children in out-of-home care tied directly to the continuing high rates of Aboriginal children in the juvenile justice system.
A NSW review of out-of-home care of Aboriginal children chaired by Professor Davis found the proportion of Aboriginal children placed with relatives had dropped from 68.7 per cent to 57.6 per cent in the past 10 years.
The Grandmothers Against Removal told a review by Professor Davis that placing Aboriginal children with non-Indigenous carers, even for short periods, resulted in them being cut off from their families. This amounted to “active, state sanctioned cultural genocide”.
Getting worse: Indigenous deaths from suicide
The latest data: Indigenous deaths from suicide rose sharply to 27.1 per 100,000 according to the latest data from 2019. That compared to the baseline of 24.9 per 100,000 in 2018 and 16.7 per 100,000 people in 2009.
Under the agreement, no figure or percentage improvement was set as a goal because there is no acceptable rate of suicide.
To reach parity with the current rate of suicides among non-Indigenous Australians, the rate would need to be halved by 2031.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average rate of suicide in the five years to 2019 was 24.6 per 100,000 people for Indigenous people, nearly twice the rate as non-Indigenous Australians in the same period.
Background: The last federal budget included $79 million to develop culturally sensitive services by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. This includes a 24/7 crisis hotline.
Mr Christian said a key part of the agreement was the structural reforms promised by the government. The Coalition of Peaks, representing 50 Aboriginal organisations, will work in partnership to hold the government to account for structural reforms, reduce racism and strengthen Aboriginal community organisations to deliver culturally appropriate programs.
“We know what works,” he said.
Not on track: Indigenous incarceration
The latest data: The number of Aboriginal people in custody rose to 2081 per 100,000 adult population in 2020 from 2077 per 100,000 in 2019.
At the current rate, the government will not meet its target of reducing the rate to 1765 per 100,000 - a 15 per cent cut - by 2031. Even then, it will be about 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians in custody.
Background: Since 2009, the number of Indigenous people behind bars has been trending upwards. While the rate of non-Indigenous people in custody has also increased since 2009, it dropped in 2020 to 156 people in jail out of every 100,000 population compared with 173 per 100,000 the year before.
On target, but still high: Youth detention
The latest data: In a sharp improvement, the new data showed a fall in the number of youths aged 10 to 17 years in detention across Australia to 31.1 per 10,000 compared with 1.4 per 10,000 for non-Indigenous.
At this rate, it will meet the goal of reducing the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander youth in detention to by 30 per cent by 2031 if the current trend continued. Even then, there would still be more than 20 times the number of Aboriginal youths in detention in 2031 than non-Indigenous youths.
Background: Children who started life in out-of-home care are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The Australian Law Reform Commission reported in 2018 that they were 16 times more like to be in the juvenile justice system. More than 90 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths who appeared in a children’s court went on to appear in an adult court within eight years—with 36 per cent of these receiving a prison sentence later in life.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.