An Indigenous girl asked to reconnect with her culture. In a ‘racist’ child protection system, her pleas were ignored

<span>Coroner Simon McGregor found that the girl’s human rights were breached while under the care of Victoria’s Department of Fairness, Families and Housing. </span><span>Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Coroner Simon McGregor found that the girl’s human rights were breached while under the care of Victoria’s Department of Fairness, Families and Housing. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

It was a simple letter with a basic request, handwritten by a teenage girl taken from her family and placed into a child protection system that a coroner says is struggling with systemic racism.

“I identify as a proud Wemba Wemba women [sic] and would like the accociated [sic] support that a young Aboriginal female should be provided with further care. This is a human right,” she wrote in December 2020.

“I would like support with connecting with my aboriginal heritage, elders and community, and I would like the aboriginal community to support me.”

Instead, the request – one of a series she had made to child protection services to reconnect with her culture – was ignored. Seven months later, at age 17, she took her own life while living in residential care in regional Victoria.

Related: First Nations people should have power over child protection decisions in Victoria, truth-telling inquiry says

The Victorian coroner’s court on Wednesday found the teenager, known by the pseudonym XY, had been removed from her family, separated from her eight siblings and had her requests to reconnect with culture ignored in what coroner Simon McGregor said was a breach of her human rights.

According to the findings, the 17-year-old was under the care of Victoria’s Department of Fairness, Families and Housing (DFFH), living in a residential unit run by Anglicare in Bendigo, when she took her life in July 2021.

McGregor said the December 2020 letter was the “starkest example” of the teenager’s “lack of voice” while in institutional care. XY also wrote that she wanted support to be connected with her Aboriginal heritage and community and raised concerns about being moved from a residential unit, which she said was “the most supportive and place of least risk”, amid her deteriorating mental health.

In response, DFFH reminded her of the importance of attending their care team meeting but made no system or organisational changes. McGregor said it failed to take her views into account.

He concluded that XY was disconnected from her Aboriginal culture while in care and had no contact with her eight siblings, despite expressing a desire to do so.

“The cumulative effect of the DFFH’s lack of action in pursuit of, and lack of documented consideration of XY’s voiced care goals, unjustifiably breached her human right to such protection from her legal guardian as was in her best interests whilst she was still a child,” McGregor said.

XY had been removed from her family home at the age of 13 and had seven different out-of-home care placements, including in kinship care and residential units, according to the findings. She did not have a relationship with her mother due to her not believing XY’s allegations that she had suffered sexual abuse by her stepfather, McGregor said.

While in out-of-home-care, she disclosed allegations of physical and sexual abuse at home which were reported to police, McGregor said.

The coroner found that while in out-of-home care XY suffered from disordered eating, self-harm, substance misuse and chronic suicidal ideation.

The court heard from an Aboriginal independent expert panel that said XY’s care provided by DFFH and contracted providers had failed to recognise culture as a protective factor against suicide, McGregor said.

Related: The staggering suicide crisis billows unabated through our First Nations communities | Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos

DFFH’s submission to the inquest said it would be ‘“overly simplistic to characterise the actions of Child Protection as devoid of awareness of the importance of culture” but acknowledged the need to pay attention to shortcomings.

McGregor said the drug and alcohol services available to XY were not tailored to the needs of Indigenous people. He also found the people able to monitor her declining mental health were non-medically trained child protection staff. His investigation found there was no Aboriginal liaison officer present with XY during the police’s investigation into her abuse allegations.

‘Systemic racism and paternalism’

After an inquest into XY’s death, McGregor made 17 recommendations that focus on increasing cultural safety and connection for First Nations children in the state’s out-of-home care system. This includes reviewing training for workers about “the continuing systemic racism and paternalism inherent in child protection work today that must be identified, acknowledged and resisted”.

McGregor’s recommendations include that DFFH work towards transitioning all Indigenous children in Victoria’s child protection system to the care of an Aboriginal community-controlled organisations – a recommendation from the state’s Indigenous truth-telling commission.

Guardian Australia reported last week that DFFH was preparing for a “likely transfer” of powers to First Nations groups as a result of treaties that will soon be negotiated with the government.

Other recommendations include that DFFH and other organisations that provide out-of-home-care to Indigenous children review their practices to ensure they provide culturally connected care and boosted support for kinship carers of vulnerable children.

Related: Child protection department preparing for ‘likely transfer’ of powers to Indigenous Victorians under treaty

“The death of any young person is a tragedy and our thoughts are with the family and friends of the young person,” a DFFH spokesperson said in a statement to the Guardian.

“There have been significant changes to the Child Protection and Family Services system since 2021, and we will carefully consider the coroner’s recommendations in this case.”

Victoria police said it would consider the coroner’s recommendations.

•In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14 and the Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counsellor. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

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