A culturally appropriate legal service specifically established to give Aboriginal children in Victoria a voice in their legal proceedings will be forced to close its doors on Friday 28 September 2018 after no ongoing funding has come forward from State or Commonwealth governments.
VALS understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children move in and out of the child protection and youth justice systems with patchy or little legal representation. These children often come into contact with these systems due to intergenerational trauma, substance misuse, family violence, grief and poverty. Once they become part of these system they often rapidly move down a path of disconnected care, separation from their community and culture and perpetuate the existing cycle of loss, trauma, intermittent incarceration and disadvantage. A VALS lawyer once heard a 16-year-old Aboriginal child in youth justice say “I’m a lost cause, aren’t I?”
That’s why in 2017 VALS launched Balit Ngulu (meaning strong voice) to ensure that no child would ever feel this way. The integrated and culturally appropriate services provided to over 100 Aboriginal ensured that issues of client conflict where addressed, which drive Aboriginal children to need representation by non-Aboriginal legal services and private practitioners who do not have the appropriate connection to community to support the essential kinship ties necessary for Aboriginal children to thrive, particularly in times of vulnerability,” said Nerita Waight. “Sadly, many of the children represented have fallen through the cracks of familial breakdown, disconnect with culture and home instability, and require frontline legal services to maintain their rights and ensure they have a future.”
VALS took a risk in establishing a service to address an emergent need, the lack of culturally appropriate legal services to children, because we couldn’t fathom why such a pivotal service would not receive funding from the State or Commonwealth government when the futures of vulnerable children were at stake. “Now with ever increasing rates of child removal and incarceration these vulnerable children need a voice, however the lack of funding for this service means I cannot promise that young person that they won’t be considered a lost cause and moved from service and service with little therapeutic support”, Nerita Waight, Acting Chief Executive Officer, of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service said. “Tragically whilst funding promised in the recently launched Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 4 addresses holistic responses to justice issues, it seems that the legal needs of Aboriginal children are being ignored.”
Where possible, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service is absorbing remaining clients and staff into its practice. Ms Waight said VALS would continue the fight to secure ongoing funding for an Aboriginal specific children’s legal service. “We know our children deserve legal services that respect their cultural needs as much as advocate for their legal rights. Children need to be nurtured and supported to reach their full potential, not punished for circumstances beyond their control.”
MEDIA CONTACT: Kirsten Stewart (03) 9418 5999