MEDIA RELEASE 19.01.22: Alarming insights on racism and cultural incompetence in the Department of
Communities revealed

Aboriginal Family Legal Service WA (AFLS) and Southern Aboriginal Corporation (SAC), two key legal assistance providers delivering family violence and care and protection services to Aboriginal families across ten regional locations in Western Australia, have expressed significant concern over reports in the West Australian today that the Department of Communities is plagued by “wide scale and endemic racism within the organisation”.

The exposé by the West, based on leaked internal documents from the Department of Communities including reports by Dr Tracey Westerman and consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), revealed that:

• Of 295 child protection staff surveyed by Dr Westerman, not one of them believed the Department ensured a culturally safe work environment.
• There was a clear and strong perception that there was a lack of respect for the skills and clinical qualifications of Aboriginal workers.
• There was an overall perception that Aboriginal staff were of less value than non-Aboriginal staff, and this was most pronounced at management levels limiting the promotion of Aboriginal     people into those roles and in high-risk regions.
• There was a lack of cultural capability and competency within the Department which was impacting upon service delivery and ultimately outcomes for Aboriginal people.
• Outcomes for Aboriginal people in Western Australia were expected to remain the same, or worsen, should the Department continue to do things in the same way.

Most concerning for AFLS and SAC was the revelation that child protection workers said many child removals occurred in the absence of staff understanding kinship and consulting appropriately, and that child removals could be easily prevented if staff had proper understandings of Aboriginal cultural norms.

“The Department removes Aboriginal children from their families and their communities at appalling rates under the guise of protecting them, yet these findings show that inadequate effort is going into trying to keep children safe in their homes to start with,” AFLS CEO Corina Martin said. “AFLS staff are telling me that the Department either derides our clients and there are feelings of covert racism, or that caseworkers are politically correct about things like Aboriginal Placement Principles and On Country, but without any practicality or cultural knowledge behind it they just ignore what our clients and families want to or can do.”

SAC CEO Asha Bhat said that the same experiences were commonplace in the Southwest and Great Southern regions, where inadequate cultural training and a paternalistic ‘we know better’ approach by the Department was failing to contribute to improved outcomes for Aboriginal children and families.

“The PWC report has described the Department as being at a crisis point in relation to providing services, programs and initiatives to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people in Western Australia,
and this is something we are seeing and experiencing the impacts of everyday” Ms. Bhat said. “Aboriginal children and families are being left behind by a system that is supposed to be supporting
and strengthening them. How can this be an experience that is just accepted?” she continued.

Ms. Martin and Ms. Bhat expressed additional concern over their experiences of the State Government’s systemic discrimination against Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, emphasizing points from the PWC report that described the Department of Communities as extremely siloed, without an appetite to drive change:

“The three Aboriginal Community Controlled Family Violence Prevention Legal Services in Western Australia are in a particularly strong and unique position to drive systemic change and make a
significant impact for Aboriginal people, yet we have been consistently underfunded and under resourced by the State Government. The siloed nature of funding means we are provided with no sustainability for our services, yet they expect us to share our data, shape their strategies and engage in their reference groups. This is disheartening and shows just how committed the State Government is to achieving outcomes under Closing the Gap. It also represents an apparent distrust of Aboriginal organisations to manage services for Aboriginal people.”

Ms. Martin and Ms. Bhat urged the Department to take immediate action to address the findings of Dr Westerman and the PWC report. “We must ensure that we support our Aboriginal children and families who are among the highest need and most vulnerable in Western Australia, and our Aboriginal staff who are critical components of a safe service system.”

Media Contact – Laney Gould, 9355 1502