Indigenous | Childcare

Coroner finds Aboriginal teenager who died in care had her human rights breached

The teenager was removed from her family at 13, and passed away four years later. Source: Moment RF / Elva Etienne/Getty Images

WARNING: This story contains references to an Aboriginal person who has died and distressing elements, including references to suicide and self-harm.

A coroner has found Victoria’s Department of Families, Fairness and Housing breached the human rights of an Aboriginal teenager who later died in care.

The 17-year-old Wemba Wemba girl took her own life in July 2021 while living in state care at an Anglicare residential unit in Bendigo.

Multiple reports were made to child protection services about her wellbeing, beginning at the age of 22 months.

At 13, she was removed from her family by the state.

She disclosed experiences of physical and sexual abuse, which were reported to the police.

From 2017 to 2021, the girl known as XY was placed in seven different care placements, staying for periods ranging from two weeks to a year.

It was recorded that she experienced disordered eating, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and self-harm.

The Coroner, who investigated whether XY had received culturally competent care and the role of housing instability, case management and risk assessment in her death, handed down his findings on Wednesday.

Victorian Coroner Simon McGregor found that the teenager was disconnected from her culture and community support while in state care.

XY had expressed the need for a healthy relationship with her mother and contact with her siblings, however, this was denied.

McGregor said the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) had breached the teenager’s human rights by not considering her wishes.

“The department had a procedural obligation to properly consider XY’s human rights, which involved hearing her voice and properly considering her views,” he wrote in the report.

“Without these obligations, her charter right would be empty.”

He emphasised the importance of listening to and providing autonomy and choice to children in care.

He referenced a letter XY wrote to DFFH in December, 2020.

“I am writing this letter out of frustration as I do not feel I am being validated, supported or cared for properly by your services,” the 16-year-old wrote.

“I identify as a proud Wemba Wemba woman and would like the associated support that a young Aboriginal female should be provided with further care.

“This is a human right.”

XY expressed her feelings of isolation and disconnection from her community and requested the opportunity to connect to culture or spend time with her Elders.

The Coroner found that by ignoring her concerns, DFFH infringed on her human rights.

He went further identifying systemic issues, such as racism, which impact protection policies and so hinder the self-determination of Aboriginal children in care.

He said systemic issues, including racism and inadequate consideration of cultural safety, meant the policies for Aboriginal children in protection did not align with the principle of self-determination.

Mr McGregor also noted that the services provided to XY were not tailored to the needs and vulnerabilities of Aboriginal children.

The report issued 17 recommendations, several for the DFFH, including a recommendation to review policies on cultural care and connection for Indigenous children.

It also recommended that DFFH transition all Aboriginal children in care to Aboriginal Community-Controlled Organisations and all child protection workers receive cultural and anti-racism training.

Australia Helplines:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)

13YARN 13 92 76

New Zealand Helplines

0800 376 633 - Youthline

0800 543 354 - Lifeline Aotearoa

0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) - Suicide Crisis Helpline

0800 942 8787 - What’s Up Kids and Teens Helpline