You are here

Brahminy Foundation Program

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Tags: Brahminy, Child Safety

Brahminy Foundation Program, Cassy O'Connor MP, 14 October 2020


Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens - Motion) - Madam Speaker, I move -

That the House -

(1) Notes Tasmania is the only State still sending children on care and protection orders to the Brahminy program, at a cost of $5000 per week.

(2) Recognises that reliable witnesses have produced compelling evidence that Allan Brahminy has fabricated a background story.

(3) Further notes that participants in the program have alleged mistreatment, and it is alleged that communications with families are monitored to deter raising complaints.

(4) Further recognises this style of 'tough love' program is decades out of date and not conducive to current understanding of behavioural therapy.

(5) Acknowledges that section 10G of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 requires the placement of an Aboriginal child, as far as practicable, with a member of the child's family or in accordance with local community practice.

(6) Further recognises with concern that the Commissioner for Children and Young People has no jurisdiction to monitor out-of-state programs.

(7) Agrees there is no justification for sending children and young people to the Brahminy program.

(8) Calls on the Minister for Human Services, Hon. Roger Jaensch MP to bring these children home, and to investigate any and all allegations of misconduct or maltreatment by this program.

(9) Further calls on the Gutwein Government to establish and fund a culturally appropriate bush therapy program based in Tasmania for at risk young people in the out of home care system

A vote will be required.

The Many Colours 1 Direction program in the Northern Territory has been in the news a lot lately and it has certainly dominated debate in this House. I recall what my colleague, the member for Clark, Ms Ogilvie said this morning, when she truthfully stated that there is not a member in this place who is not concerned about the wellbeing of children and young people. That is the overriding principle here.

Whether you are in government and the minister, or the Labor Opposition or the Greens, we are having this debate because of our sense of responsibility towards Tasmanian children and young people.

We had a briefing at lunch time from the secretary of Communities Tasmania as well as the deputy secretary who is in the Northern Territory at the moment, as well as the Child Advocate and I am thankful for that briefing. I understand there is a level of reassurance in the department that the children are safe and a belief that the children are progressing well. This is what we have heard from the minister and indeed, the Premier.

However, there are some bedrock principles here. We are failing at-risk and troubled young people when the only apparent option for them is to send them to a remote facility 3000 kilometres away in the Northern Territory. The Greens believe very strongly, Madam Speaker, that we need a local, therapeutic bush therapy alternative, and the delivery of that service should be prioritised by the Tasmanian Government and the minister in his portfolio. I take on board what the minister has said about media coverage and that message was reinforced at the briefing - the young people at Many Colours 1 Direction are aware of the debate down here and of the media coverage. There is a concern that that ongoing media debate will impact on those young people.

Of course, we are very mindful of those concerns and that is why, from the Greens' point of view, we have tried to deal with this issue as thoughtfully and as sensitively as is politically possible. However, in a democracy, a free press is sunlight. It is often the best way of understanding the true nature of a situation.

If the allegations that have been made in the media are in any way true, then it is deeply concerning. I recognise that there is a review under way and that review will report at the end of October. We look forward to the outcome of that review, and I am concerned that it has already been predetermined by the minister.

We are the only jurisdiction in Australia sending at-risk young people to the Many Colours 1 Direction program, and that raises questions. Why have other states and territories not also sent their at-risk young people to this facility. Madam Speaker, I think it is about political will and I believe the reason young Tasmanians are being sent to this facility is because there has not been the political will to establish a local provider. We can do that here. We can provide a pathway for these young people into adulthood and into a good life.

It is very important that we remember what kind of young people we are dealing with here. These are not hoons, as the Mercury newspaper would have it in its coverage - the young bloke who borrowed that car is not a hoon. He is a teenager who has had a really hard life and that hard life began probably before birth. These kids were in many ways born right behind the eight ball and they probably have attachment disorders; they were not held enough as babies, a number of them; they did not feel safe, loved and wanted; their nutritional needs were not always met; their emotional needs certainly were not always met.

These are kids who have crashed into adolescence without some of that solidifying foundation most of us have had. They have entered adolescence not feeling particularly loved or safe or wanted, and in those circumstances some young people will resort to extreme behaviours, they will be a danger to themselves and to others. Responding to their needs requires a very sensitive and compassionate clinical and therapeutic approach. It requires us to have faith and a belief in the capacity of people to recover from trauma, and it requires us to appropriately fund real trauma-informed responses right through our community and society from pre-birth until the end of life.

Too rarely, I believe, is trauma understood as a causative factor of abhorrent or extreme behaviours in people. Mental illness, addiction, self-harming behaviours, much of it has its foundation in trauma. The children who have been sent to Many Colours 1 Direction will invariably have trauma in their background. A number of them will have come from violent homes. For some of these kids, Brahminy will have been a first place where they have had some constancy and stability in their lives. I acknowledge that and in acknowledging that, I acknowledge that in almost every step of the way these kids have been let down. So they require us to pay attention to their needs very carefully.

The Greens will always believe the best place for us to respond to these needs, the needs of these particular young people, is on this island, close enough to community and kin; 3000 kilometres away, as I said before, feels like banishment.

Apart from anything else, the cost to Tasmanians of each child sent to the Brahminy program is around $5000 a week. Although this is not a major concern of the minister, it still rings alarm bells with us that reliable witnesses have produced compelling evidence that Allan Brahminy has fabricated a background story about being abandoned or found on a riverbank as a baby and adopted by an Aboriginal family. It would certainly help Mr Brahminy's reputation, and the reputation of the facility that he is running, for him to make a statement clarifying why he changed his identity, or why he created that background story. People who are looking after at-risk young people should tell the truth about who they are and where they came from. It should be a fundamental.

We know from the media reports that there are allegations of mistreatment at that facility. We also know that communications, telephone calls between residents and their families back in Tasmania or other significant people in their lives are monitored. I asked about that today in the briefing. I understand there are at times good reasons to protect the young person themselves by making sure you have some sort of monitoring capacity or a person there who is able to help that young person should the phone call go pear-shaped.

We are disturbed by the philosophy of tough love. You either love someone or you do not love them. I know that there is a view that in order to regulate the behaviour of young people in this situation that timeout might work for them, or denying them certain food privileges may work to change their behaviours, but tough love is not an evidence-based approach. An allegation has been made about a young person who was punished for a behavioural issue by being made to sit outside in the heat on a milk crate. That must have been an awful experience. That allegation needs to be examined in the department's review..

I am still concerned that the terms of reference in the department's review process are too narrow. The terms of reference say -

The review will respond and provide information on the following matters -

(1) The safety and wellbeing of young people currently placed at MC1D.

(2) The allegations and matters raised by, and following the ABC reports, the effectiveness of current oversight and due diligence mechanisms in place at Many Colours 1 Direction.

(3) The overall effectiveness and outcomes of the program, including the therapeutic benefits for young people.

We believe those terms of reference are inadequate is in their ability to invite input from people who have previously been in the program - or their families.

I understand that there will be some people connected to that program who are angry about it for a range of reasons. Some of those responses will be visceral, emotional responses. Some people will not always have their facts right. But a number of really serious allegations have been made about this program by young people who have previously been resident there and their families, and the review should be able to capture that testimony. It is not good enough to say that we will only look at the cohort of young people who are in there now. We will only ask that bunch of half-a dozen young people what their thoughts are on the program when, as we know, the sending of young people there started some five years ago.

There will be, if you like, an alumni of Many Colours 1 Direction and young people who have been through there. It would serve the review very well if those young people were also invited to tell their story about their experience at Many Colours 1 Direction.

I also know that the scope of the review precludes any investigation of Mr Brahminy's background. As the minister says in his response to the letter I wrote querying the deficiencies in the terms of reference: 'It is primarily a matter for Mr Brahminy to answer questions regarding his identity as they relate to him and not the program …'. Well, he is the principal -

Mr Jaensch - And.

Ms O'CONNOR - Oh, okay, sorry - '… the department will, however, consider how concerns raised regarding Mr Brahminy's identity impact on the program and the safety and wellbeing of the young people involved. This is our key consideration and responsibility'.

It is good to have that clarified, minister, but it certainly was not in the terms of reference, which is why we raised it as an issue.

Mr Jaensch - We answered it in your question.

Ms O'CONNOR - Let us go now to the Children and Young Persons and Their Families Act. Section 10G of the act is quite prescriptive about young Aboriginal children. I acknowledge not all the children at Many Colours 1 Direction right now identify as Tasmanian Aboriginal but, as I understand it, four out of the six children there do. Section10G of the Children and Young Persons and Their Families Act as it relates to Aboriginal children is very clear -

(1) Aboriginal families, kinship groups, Aboriginal communities and organisations representing the Aboriginal people have a major, self-determining role in promoting the wellbeing of Aboriginal children.

(2) A kinship group, Aboriginal community or organisation representing the Aboriginal people nominated by an Aboriginal child's family should be allowed to contribute to the making of a decision under this Act in relation to the child.

(3) An Aboriginal child, as far as is practicable, should be placed with a person in the following order of priority:

(a) a member of the child's family;

(b) an Aboriginal person in the child's community in accordance with local community practice;

(c) another Aboriginal person;

(d) a person who -

(i) is not an Aboriginal person; but

(ii) in the Secretary's opinion, is sensitive to the child's needs and capable of promoting the child's ongoing affiliation with the culture of the child's community and, if possible, the child's ongoing contact with his or her family.

(4) As far as is practicable, an Aboriginal child removed from his or her family and community, should be placed in close proximity to them.

Apart from the subclause in that provision of the act that allows the secretary to make an informed decision in the best interests of the child in relation to an Aboriginal child, that section of the act makes it really clear that when you are dealing with an at-risk child who identifies as Aboriginal, to the greatest extent possible they should be kept on island and have some connection to kin and to country. That is not what is happening 3000 kilometres away in the Northern Territory.

I accept that because the secretary of the department is in effect the parent of those children, that to the greatest extent it is possible from 3000 kilometres away, the department secretary is working to monitor the wellbeing of those children and provide a measure of oversight. However, the bottom line is that it is a very big ask from 3000 kilometres away. It is a particularly big ask during a global pandemic. There will be deficiencies in how the department is able to ensure that those children are flourishing, that they are safe. That brings home the need to have a Tasmanian-based bush therapy response for these young people, and it absolutely should be prioritised.

We recognise with something approaching alarm that the Commissioner for Children and Young People has no jurisdiction beyond this island's borders. None at all. The circumstances that those six young people are in are not under the scope of the commissioner's area of responsibility. We know that in the department there is a child advocate who has been working with those young people, and that is very positive. But if you have young people on care and protection orders with a range of behavioural challenges, and risks associated with those behaviours, they should be placed in facilities on the island where there is proper oversight from the Commissioner for Children and Young People.

It raises the need to amend the legislation that establishes the statutory office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, to ensure that no matter where they are in the country, young Tasmanians on care and protection orders and those representing them should be within the commissioner's statutory responsibilities, because at the moment her hands are tied.

As I said in the debate earlier today, I did have a conversation with the commissioner about what would need to be in place to establish a bush therapy program in Tasmania for young people on care and protection orders with particular behaviours. You need clinical and therapeutic support, you need to the greatest extent possible a connection to culture and kin, but you also need the remoteness of a wilderness or a bush facility. You need to have something that is at some distance from the potential for risky behaviours by the young people who are part of that program.

Certainly, this issue should bring home to the minister how important it is that the Commissioner for Children and Young People has at least a measure of oversight of young people who are sent beyond the state's borders.

Much better is that this Government prioritise the design of a program for this particular cohort of children that has all those elements that the commissioner for children raised with me, but perhaps takes the best of what we understand is part of the Many Colours 1 Direction model, where there is a measure of stability about who is working with these children, and that the department designs a program.

We know that in 2018 a request for proposal went out, and nothing that was fit for purpose came forward, and so that process was stalled. What the minister can do here is really clear. You do not wait for something that is fit for purpose to come to you, but you design the program - and I hope this is what is happening right now. So, they are your requirements, and if you go out for proposals as part of that - or you establish a consortium, which I understand is being considered - you make it really clear that it is going to look like this, and it is going to have these clinical and therapeutic approaches, and you make sure that is what is delivered.

If necessary, the Government should deliver the program, rather than sending these kids 3000 kilometres away to the Northern Territory.

If we cannot find the service provider or providers, then we should go back and do what we were doing not much more than 10 years ago when these sorts of services were delivered by government.

I understand the not-for-profit sector has some real runs on the board in dealing with disadvantaged and vulnerable people, but there is a particular and elevated vulnerability among these young people. There are risks associated with working with them, risks to themselves, and risks to the people that they are working with.

This is one instance where government setting itself up as the service provider may well be the right approach, just as government runs the Ashley Youth Detention Centre - which is not a therapeutic facility, mind you, and not particularly fit for purpose, and too often a one-way ticket to Risdon. It is provided for by government. The Government runs that correctional facility, and in our view, if it cannot find the right mix of providers, the Government should establish and run a locally based bush therapy program for young Tasmanians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, on care and protection orders, or not on care and protection orders but dealing with particular traumas or difficulty in their life. That should be a home-grown solution.

We should be able to work with the Aboriginal communities in order to deliver something that connects young people back to culture, whether they are Aboriginal or not. The richness of that culture can teach all of us something. Connection to culture, and working with young people on country, could get some fantastic outcomes for young Tasmanians. It could really instil in young people that the state, the minister, the secretary, the department, this parliament, has their back and cares about them, and cares about them enough to find an alternative to shipping them off the Northern Territory.

Point 7 in this Notice of Motion states -

agrees there is no justification for sending children and young people to the Brahminy program.

On reflection, and following the briefing, I understand that the primary justification for sending children and young people to the Brahminy program is because there is nothing here. At one level that is a justification, because if we did not have the capacity to banish these children to the Northern Territory, it is not clear how the state would respond to them here, and that does reinforce the need to get cracking on a local program as the responsibility of the state and nourished here so they can flourish here.

I hope the review investigates any and all allegations of misconduct or maltreatment by this program, whether they be current or historical. That is essential. We want this Government to establish and fund a culturally appropriate bush therapy program based in Tasmania for at risk young people in the out-of-home care system.

I have raised it in debate, but it is of particular concern that we are dealing with guidelines to staff in Communities Tasmania which have not been updated for more than a decade. The Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, which I understand is being reworked as we speak, was last updated in February 2006, so that Placement Principle is 14 years old. That is manifestly out-of-date and deficient for dealing with our palawa pakana young people.

Almost more damming, is that the guide for Adolescent Risk of Suicide Assessment was last updated in the year 2000. The key guiding documents in Communities Tasmania on how to respond to suicidal adolescents and at-risk Aboriginal kids are respectively 20 years and 14 years out of date. It is important to remember that staff in the agency, when they are presented with a particular set of circumstances, and are looking for some guidance from the department, will be looking at documents that are scientifically out-of-date, if nothing else.

I have held my tongue a couple of times over the course of today when accusations have been thrown across the Chamber about the risk to young people of the media reporting on what is happening at Brahminy. There is no escaping the fact that we live in a dynamic, information-rich age, and not only can you watch something as it is happening, you can watch it on play-back. I know, because we were told in the briefing, that young people at Brahminy, at Many Colours 1 Direction are aware of the debate that is happening here.

We cannot, however allow ourselves as political representatives, to shy away from asking questions when there have been serious allegations made about a facility that is looking after at-risk children and young people. It was hard to stomach this morning, listening to the Premier and the minister have a crack at us for raising these matters so they end up in the media, when I remember 19 September 2013 very clearly. I was sitting on the government side of the Chamber. It was only a little over two months after my sister took her life, and at the time when there were tragedies unfolding at a local high school and a spate of young people had taken their lives. The Liberal Opposition, four members of the shadow cabinet, stood up that day and they were prepared to use suicide as a political weapon. At least some of them knew that two months previously, my sister took her life.

I am not going to accept the kind of accusation or the attempt to shut down debate on the basis of worrying about media reporting from that group of people, because I will never forget 19 September 2013 question time. I will never forget it. It was scarring and it was base and worse, not for me, but for young people. We had a Liberal Opposition that was prepared to politicise tragedy and families' losses - they were prepared to use it as a political weapon in question time.

Then we had Coroner Olivia McTaggart's coronial report into the cluster of five suicides that precipitated those questions, and she made the necessary and obvious conclusion that media reporting had harmed young people and increased the risk.

I say to the Premier and the minister - spare us the hypocrisy. We are adults here, and we can take on this issue and raise necessary questions in a sensitive and thoughtful manner, about how at-risk children and young people are being cared for at a facility 3000 kilometres away. It is our duty, as elected representatives, to speak for Tasmania's children and young people every day of the week.

From the Greens' point of view, we will not be cowed into not raising these issues by the Premier and the minister, who are looking for a way to shut down criticism and concern. I commend this motion to the House. I hope it has a measure of support. If the minister wants to amend it to take out those parts he does not agree with, he should certainly feel free to do so.