West Australian Department of Communities fail First Nations child with disabilities

Last Updated on 24/09/2021 by National Justice Project

The State body responsible for caring for children in Western Australia has been caught out failing to follow medical advice and provide adequate care to a First Nations child with disabilities. According to testimony at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability yesterday, doctors’ recommendations for assessment and treatment were not followed by the Department, leading to delays in diagnosis and access to treatment.

‘Leah’*, the legal guardian of a 7-year-old Aboriginal child ‘Connor’*, who has multiple disabilities, exposed the failures when she gave evidence on Tuesday, 21 September:

“When I found out about Connor’s hearing loss, I was angry that I hadn’t been told and that more wasn’t being done to connect him with services. Connor was due to start kindergarten in February 2018, it didn’t seem to me that there had been any planning for his needs at school. Connor could also have been attending speech therapy and other support services for two years but instead he missed out on that early development support.”

Connor was first identified by doctors as being at risk of hearing loss before the age of one. However, this was not brought to Leah’s attention until 2 months before he was due to start school. When he was finally assessed in line with medical recommendations, he was later diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) and Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD), Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), Auditory Processing Disorder in addition to his hearing impairment.

Leah’s requests for assessments and treatments were ignored, critical information was not shared with her, and inefficiency in communications meant that the opportunity for early intervention was missed, which could have lifelong consequences for Connor.

“The delay has meant that Connor didn’t have access to vital supports in his first years of education. He will never get those years back,” said Leah. “It was clear to me that there was more going on for Connor than hearing loss, but I couldn’t get approval for the tests that the doctors said he needed and that would give Connor access to supports he desperately needed for his development.”

National Justice Project Principal Solicitor and CEO, George Newhouse was concerned that the Department was failing to meet its obligations to children in care:

“Strong and committed carers like Leah need support from an independent authority. Leah was seen as a troublemaker by the Department for doing what any loving carer or parent would do. The Department has a duty to care for children like Connor, ignoring the pleas of doctors and his carer fails to meet that standard.”

A lack of cultural support for the carer and child was also explored in the hearing. Leah explained:

“When Connor came into my care, I didn’t receive a cultural support plan for him although I asked for one. I didn’t receive any information about how to maintain Connor’s connection with his Aboriginality and family. I first received a cultural support plan only after Connor had been in my foster care for more than two years after I made a special guardianship application for him.”

According to Australian Government’s Child Protection (AIHW) Report, From 30 June 2020, 38% of children on care and protection orders in Australia were First Nations, despite making up around 6% of the total number of children in Australia. First Nations children were also more likely to be in out-of-home care then non-First Nations children.

First Nations people with disability are over-represented in out-of-home care settings and this includes First Nations children who are in foster care, kinship care, or in residential care. The Royal Commission continues till 24, September, 2021.

Leah has called for an up to date document detailing all of a child’s medical conditions being provided to carers and an independent body that carers can access if they are having difficulty with the Department:

“The current situation means that the organisation I was in contact for Connor’s day to day needs was dependent on the Department’s funding. That is an inherent conflict, and in Connor’s case it has meant that he has lost access to services that could have made huge differences for him.”