Permanent care orders and ‘racist’ carers cut some Aboriginal children’s cultural links, inquiry told

One of Australia’s leading Indigenous child welfare advocates has told a Victorian truth-telling inquiry that permanent care orders and “racist” carers are severing links between some First Nations children and their culture.

Prof Muriel Bamblett, the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (Vacca), told the state’s Yoorrook Justice Commission that permanent care orders were “not worth the paper they’re written on” due to little oversight of cultural plans.

“Some of the foster carers we get are racist, they want the child but they don’t want an Aboriginal child,” Bamblett told the commission on Tuesday. “They don’t want anything to do with the Aboriginal family.

Related: Victoria vows to overhaul child protection as Yoorrook Justice Commission begins public hearings

“Some families want to change the name of the child and [have] fought us in court to change the child’s identity.

“They have brainwashed the child to say the child is not Aboriginal.”

Children are placed in permanent care, under legal orders, when they are no longer deemed able to safely live with their birth parents or other relatives.

Unlike adoption, permanent care orders are not voluntary and the decision to pursue an order is made by Victoria’s Department of Families, Fairness and Housing.

On Monday Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, vowed to overhaul the state’s child protection system, saying too many First Nations children were being taken away from their families by the state.

Bamblett, a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, told the commission about a case in which the carers of a First Nations child were moving to South Australia and had argued in a court report that trips to the museum were part of “exposure to culture”.

“White Australia doesn’t have an understanding of cultural obligations and what they mean for young people,” she said.

Bamblett said that in another case a carer changed an Aboriginal girl’s name and described her as Torres Strait Islander.

She said connection to culture, including links with their Aboriginal family and exposure to Indigenous languages, was vital for children’s wellbeing.

“We want to create children who are proud to be Aboriginal,” she said.

Vacca has also called for an Indigenous-led standalone Aboriginal child protection plan, describing it as the only way to support children after “centuries of racist policies, legislation and reinforced discriminatory practice”.

Bamblett said state government funding for Indigenous-led early parenting centres would also help prevent children being removed in the first place.

Related: Victoria’s child protection system is creating ‘new stolen generation’, Aboriginal leader says

Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Commission – Australia’s first Indigenous truth-telling inquiry – is this week holding hearings into the state’s child protection system and the impact on First Nations children.

Victoria has the highest rate of Indigenous children removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care in the country.

Despite numerous reports and inquiries, the number of Victorian Indigenous children in care has continued to grow year on year, going from a rate of 91 per 1,000 children in 2019 to 103 per 1,000 in 2021, according to the latest Closing the Gap data.

Bamblett told the commission there were 379 Indigenous children in the out-of-home-care system when 1997’s Bringing Them Home report – a landmark national inquiry into the stolen generations – was launched. Almost 2,600 were now in the system, she said.

Jill Gallagher, the head of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said the current system was making “no difference” to reducing the number of children in care and described the sector as “riddled with racism”.