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Australian child protection system failing migrant and refugee children

By Jatinder Kaur - posted Thursday, 8 August 2013

Australia is multicultural society with one in four Australians born overseas and speaking more than 200 languages. Migrating to a new country can be stressful and research has shown that many migrants and newly arrived refugee’s face many challenges in their settlement. These include: trying to understand the Australian government system, language barriers, limited awareness of Australian laws and expectations, loss of family support system and social isolation.

One area of social policy, where the need of migrant and refugee children and families has been neglected is in the child protection system. According to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2013) there are nearly 39,000 children and young people on care and protection orders. Indigenous children and young people are over-represented in the system, with nearly 13,268 Indigenous children and young people on care and protection orders.

However, the number of migrant or refugee children on care and protection orders is currently unknown. So why is this an issue? data collection is critical for child protection authorities to be able to identify trends, and issues and then develop policies and programs to address these. When there is no data on certain population groups, they become invisible in the system and their needs are not recognised. Research conducted in both Queensland and NSW identified that child protection workers would benefit from cultural competence training and cultural awareness when working with families and children from culturally diverse backgrounds in the child protection system.


Australia is signatory to the UN Conventions of the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) and Article 30 stipulates that all children will have the ‘Right to practice own religion and culture for Indigenous and minority children’. The fact that across Australia no child protection authority has been able to identify the number of CALD children and young people coming to the attention and entering the care system, would indicate that there is very limited or/no service provision to meet the cultural identity needs of culturally diverse children. In 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its concluding observations on Australia made a number of recommendations including the: need for the Australian Government to improve its data collection (recommendation 21) and include data relating to ethnicity, language and country of origin of children and young people and those who come into OOHC (recommendation 50). The National Child Protection Framework has also committed to an undertaking to address this issue in the second Action plan.

Research studies have highlighted that many migrant and refugee families are not aware of child protection laws and the accepted parenting practices, particularly around physical discipline or neglect in Australia.  Most recently, there have been a number of cases highlighted in the Australian media, for example:  an Indonesian man was accused of whipping his son with an electrical cable and forcing him to eat a hot chilli and this matter was heard before the Brisbane Magistrate court. A Saudi Arabian woman was given a suspended 6 month sentence for leaving her four had half month old baby in the car unsupervised. Last week we heard about the young Samoan newborn baby being abandoned at the doorstep of community elders in Logan, QueenslandResearch has found that many culturally diverse families who hold traditional cultural values will not access formal supports and are afraid of ‘bringing shame’ to their family and community. We don’t know what this young Samoan woman’s story is and her circumstance and why she felt compelled to abandon her newborn baby.

What we do need is more support for vulnerable families and information for newly arrived communities about the accepted parenting practices in Australia. The pendulum must shift now towards more early intervention and prevention, which has been identified by QC Tim Carmody in the Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry: Taking responsibility a Roadmap for Qld Child Protection, where he found that the needs of culturally diverse families were not being addressed and has proposed Recommendation 7.6:

Recommendation 7.6

The Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services include in the local family support needs plans information on the different cultural and linguistic groups in their local communities, engage in consultation with those communities to determine what cultural support they can provide to children in care and ensure that their frontline workers, foster and kinship carers and non-government service providers are given appropriate cultural training, and that the cultural support plans specify arrangements for regular contact with at least one person who shares the child's cultural background.

Currently the Queensland Government is reviewing the 121 recommendations put forward by QC Tim Carmody it is hoped that the needs of families from culturally diverse backgrounds will finally be addressed as part of this reform.

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About the Author

Jatinder Kaur is the director of JK Diversity Consultants, epxerienced advocate, researcher and social worker for culturally diverse communities.

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