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New report on the experiences of Aboriginal young people in Victoria’s youth justice system

The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare (the Centre) welcomes the Our Youth Our Way report tabled last week in the Victorian Parliament by the Commission for Children and Young People (CCYP). The report is a detailed examination of the experiences of Aboriginal young people in Victoria’s youth justice system, many of whom have also been involved with child protection.

In 2019-20, 15 per cent of children and young people under youth justice supervision in Victoria were Aboriginal, although they only comprise 1.5 per cent of the Victorian population aged 10 to 23 years. The Commission found that the continuing legacy of colonisation, the stolen generation and structural and institutional racism play a significant role in this over-representation.

The Centre supports the Commission’s findings about the importance of early intervention and prevention and working together to support families to keep children safe. For children who do come into contact with police it is important that this first contact is also the last, and that the appropriate supports for family are put in place to prevent escalation.

The Commission found that many of the Aboriginal children and young people in contact with the youth justice system are likely to have experienced chronic absenteeism, periods of disengagement and low educational attainment prior to this contact. A further 39 per cent of children and young people had cognitive or learning disabilities. The Commission found that educational reform is needed to create culturally safe schooling options for Aboriginal students, to allow them to thrive academically and to protect them from contact with the youth justice system.

The Inquiry has made 41 findings and 75 recommendations to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people in our justice system. These include recommendations on ways to improve health, education and housing outcomes, as well as ways intersecting service systems can work better to reduce duplication, establish clear accountabilities, and act in the best interests and ‘as a good parent’ as required by legislation.

The Commission recommends raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 in Victoria. The report highlights the devastating impact that criminalising children under 14 years has on Aboriginal children and young people. The Centre also supports amendment to Victorian legislation that would raise the age of responsibility for children to 14 years.

The Inquiry puts forward a vision for reimagining the youth justice system for Aboriginal children, based on a series of foundational principles. These include a focus on education and learning, wellbeing, connection to family community and culture, a child centred age-appropriate response where no child under the age of 14 is incarcerated, and pathways into and out of the justice system, as well as improvements to detention environments.

Central to this vision is that Aboriginal communities have the ability to determine and influence how their children and young people are treated in the youth justice system. Aboriginal community-led, holistic and therapeutic responses support Aboriginal children and young people to stay in their communities and out of the youth justice system.

The Centre urges the Victorian Government to consider the recommendations and reverse the over- representation of Aboriginal children and young people in our justice system. This intergenerational cycle must be broken. We must listen to the voices of Aboriginal children and young people and the wider Aboriginal community and make the necessary changes.

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