Victoria Legal Aid

First Nations kids need more than apologies – now more than ever

We are calling on leaders to not let this National Sorry Day be yet another example of vague apologies without genuine efforts to act on their words.

Thursday 23 May 2024 12:00am

Written by Director Ashley Morris and Associate Director Courtney McGann from First Nations Services.

Every year on National Sorry Day, we hear statements and speeches which reflect on the harms caused to First Nations peoples over generations.

Leaders of governments and organisations issue apologies, acknowledge disadvantage, and convey their ongoing commitment to reconciliation and ‘closing the gap’.

These are important sentiments that should be shared, but without meaningful action they can ring hollow to First Nations people who have been let down time and time again.

We are calling on leaders to not let this National Sorry Day be yet another example of vague apologies without genuine efforts to act on their words.

National Sorry Day was first held on 26 May 1998, one year after the landmark Bringing Them HomeExternal Link report was tabled in federal parliament. It is a time to acknowledge and never forget the First Nations children forcibly removed from their families and communities under past government policies.

It is also an opportunity to reckon with the realities of today’s child protection system, which still sees our children taken away from their families at alarmingly high rates.

In Victoria, First Nations kids are 22 times more likely than non-Indigenous kids to be placed in out-of-home care – the highest rate in the country. The ‘pipeline’ from the child protection system into the criminal legal system is well established, with many First Nations young people being pushed into the youth and then adult criminal legal systems.

The risks they face in the criminal legal system can be devastating and often have lifelong consequences to their families and community. More than 30 years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the number of First Nations deaths in custody continues to climb.

566 First Nations people have lost their lives in custodial settings since the royal commission. This includes 21 in 2023 alone – 26 per cent of all deaths in custody that year. We are five months into 2024, and five more First Nations people have inexcusably and needlessly died in custody.

The fact that laws and systems fail our communities disproportionately is the consequence of entrenched structural racism rooted in colonisation.

Now more than ever, First Nations kids need more than mere apologies.

The Yoorrook Justice Commission has heard harrowing stories of ongoing and intergenerational suffering from First Nations families, many with close connections to the Stolen Generations. The commission has called for transformational reformsExternal Link towards a self-determined child protection system to support families to stay together and thrive, and to keep kids out of custody.

We were deeply disappointed when the Victorian Government chose to reject three of the commission's key recommendations and failed to give a more comprehensive response to others. We note that the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service described the government's response as ‘unworthy of the heart wrenching truths that were told’ at the inquiry.

At the Yoorrook Justice Commission in April, Commission Chair Aunty Eleanor Bourke AM called on the government to live up to its words. ‘Unless accompanied by a genuine and lasting change, acknowledgements and apologies mean little,’ she said. ‘Worse, they give the impression that action is coming while maintaining the status quo.’

First Nations people have the solutions to these issues. As the Productivity Commission’s first reviewExternal Link on the progress of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap said, ‘disparate actions and ad hoc changes’ by successive governments over decades haven’t led to any noticeable or meaningful changes for First Nations peoples.

What we need instead is transformational change that addresses power imbalances and enlivens First Nations peoples’ inherent right to self-determination.

At Victoria Legal Aid, we are taking steps to enhance our accountability to First Nations peoples across the state through the development of a self-determination framework. As a mainstream government organisation, we have a shared responsibility to improve outcomes for First Nations people in the legal system and to be led by the expertise of our partners at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and Djirra in doing so.

As Victoria progresses in its truth-telling journey towards Treaty with Traditional Owners, we hope to see more institutional accountability and action.

If governments are genuinely sorry, they need to meet their promises so First Nations children can have a brighter future ahead of them.

Reviewed 23 May 2024