Supporting Aboriginal families to have a voice

Supporting Aboriginal families to have a voice

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Djirra lawyer, Kate Lightfoot
Kate Lightfoot, Djirra Bendigo

As regional child protection lawyers with Djirra, Kate Lightfoot and Sandy Clark share a passion for giving a voice to clients who often feel silenced and powerless.

'In child protection proceedings we work with families who can be in the worst moments of their lives, being advised that they are not caring appropriately for their family, and without sound advocacy and appropriate representation, it’s very easy for an individual to feel powerless and silenced,' said Kate, a senior lawyer in Djirra’s new office in Bendigo.

'Djirra provides a legal service for people who may otherwise be intimidated or shy about approaching lawyers,' said Sandy, a Djirra solicitor in Echuca.

'Clients can approach our service with confidence that they will be respected and listened to.'

As part of Victoria Legal Aid’s (VLA’s) Child Protection Transformation Project, we have provided additional funding to Djirra and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service to expand their child protection legal work across regional Victoria.

VLA has also established arrangements with both organisations to give Aboriginal clients the first choice of being assisted by an Aboriginal legal service, where available.

Kate and Sandy both agree it’s vitally important to give Aboriginal families the choice of accessing non-judgmental and culturally appropriate legal services.

'Given the disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in the child protection system and in out of home care, it is crucial that services like Djirra are available for our clients,' said Kate.

'The child protection process can be overwhelming, with strangers making judgements on your life, including your home and how you are raising your children. It’s therefore necessary to have services available which are respected and trusted so that parents going through this process can know that they have an advocate on their side.'

'Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) like Djirra place a very high value on keeping children connected with community, family and culture,' said Sandy.

'ACCOs working in the child protection sector keep issues about Aboriginal culture and experience alive. They ensure that policies and practices that are relevant to Aboriginal children are put into practice in the day to day work of the department and the courts.'

Over five years of child protection work in the Northern Territory and Victoria, Kate describes her clients as 'incredible'.

'(They are) people who have faced everything you could imagine, and many things you can’t, experience ongoing trauma, and still come out fighting,' said Kate.

'The women I have worked with over the years are the strongest, most resilient people you could ever meet. I am proud to be able to advocate for these women, support them, and in the end help them towards a life where they have autonomy for themselves and their families. The joy of this work is when a client tells you they felt like their voice was being heard in the court room.'

Djirra lawyer, Sandy Clark and paralegal Sheadeen Hearn
Djirra Echuca solicitor, Sandy Clark and paralegal support worker, Sheadeen Hearn

Both Kate and Sandy also nominate working for Djirra as another joy of their work. Sandy joined Djirra in November 2018 from a community legal centre in regional South Australia.

'It has been a challenge working in a new branch office in a country town,' said Sandy.

'One of the great joys in working for Djirra is the training and education I am receiving about the history and culture of Aboriginal people.'

Both lawyers say they are also strongly supported by their “phenomenal” paralegal support workers, Sheadeen Hearn in Echuca and Rebecca Kelly in Bendigo, who are often the first point of call for clients.

'Sheadeen assists with safety planning, accessing other services such as housing, court support, support in reporting family violence to police, flexible support packages and much more – she is a truly multi-skilled worker,' said Sandy.

Victoria Legal Aid is pleased to support Djirra and VALS with this additional funding to help ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have access to culturally safe legal services.

More information

Read more on the Djirra website.

Read more about our Child Protection Legal Aid Services Review.

Read more about our Reconciliation Action Plan.

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