Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — My question is for the Minister for Corrections, and it is with regard to the November 2017 Ombudsman's report Implementing OPCAT in Victoria: Report and Inspection of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. Concerns were raised by the inspection team about the access of Aboriginal women to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre's mothers and children program, and the information provided by Corrections Victoria confirmed that the last successful application to the program by an Aboriginal woman was in 2014. Between 2015 and 2017, 12 applications were made but did not proceed for various reasons. The inspection team heard concerns that the process for assessing the applications may be culturally inappropriate but was not in a position to determine that. It made recommendations regarding the departments — that they identify barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women participating in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre's mothers and children program. My question is: what progress is the department making on that?
Ms TIERNEY (Minister for Corrections) — I thank Ms Pennicuik for her question. She touches on an issue that I am very committed to in terms of understanding that there is an over-representation of Indigenous people in our corrections system. Indeed there is an over-representation of women with an Indigenous background. As a result of that interest in this particular area I have had a close look at a number of things, and indeed my ministerial women's advisory committee has been undertaking a number of activities in the area of women who are incarcerated and the unique barriers and additional difficulties that they face as a result of being women, and also of course of some being mothers. I have asked for a report to give me an overall view of what is available and what in practice occurs. I also am looking forward to working with the new commissioner for corrections, Dr Emma Cassar, who I also note has got a particular interest in this area. Together with the department and the general managers of Dame Phyllis Frost and Tarrengower Prison, I am sure that we will be able to work through issues that have been there for some time and bring about some positive change.
Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — Thank you, Minister, for your answer. The recommendation was that the Department of Justice and Regulation (DJR) work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the commissioner for children and young people and the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency to identify the barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women participating in the mothers and children program and to develop strategies and programs to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women's participation in the program, and the department accepted that. You have given me some information as to your interest in the area and calling for a report. I wonder if these specific recommendations about the working together of those departments and agencies have been put in place, because it is now coming up to a year since this was identified, and whether any Aboriginal women have been able to access the program in that time.
Ms TIERNEY (Minister for Corrections) — Again I thank Ms Pennicuik for her question and her interest in this area. This work is being done with other work. It is not just the program, so it is taking a little bit longer, but there is definitely dialogue occurring between the relevant departments. It is not just DJR; it is justice, health and a range of other agencies and divisions.
RESPONSE TO SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTION on 9 August 2018:
To date in 2018 there have been six applications from Aboriginal or Tones Strait Islander women to participate in the Mothers and Children's program. Two women have been considered by the committee, with four women released prior to their application being finalised.
In one of those two cases, an Aboriginal woman who was recently in custody with her child had a wrap-around support service model developed for her in-prison and to support her post-release. Upon release, the mother and her baby were living together and continuing to engage with Cradle to Kinder, Elizabeth Morgan House, Djirra, and Corrections Victoria's post-release service, ReConnect. In the other case, the applicant was assessed as ineligible due to the specific circumstances.
Cradle to Kinder is a statewide program funded by the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) that is delivered by a number of agencies, as well as an Aboriginal-specific program delivered by the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA). The priority cohort is vulnerable mothers aged under 25.
The Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC) has supported extra services to work with Aboriginal mothers to enhance family and community connectedness whilst in custody and there has been a number of initiatives to provide additional support for Aboriginal women.
The Aboriginal Wellbeing Officer (AWO) is the first person consulted by the Mother and Child Support worker when an Aboriginal woman applies to have their child(ren) in custody. This provides the Mother and Child Support Worker with relevant family and services linkage information to build the application and contact relevant support services, including the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) midwife to provide cultural support for pregnant Aboriginal women when required.
Work has also occurred to increase support from and build engagement with the following services to provide wrap-around responses for Aboriginal women:
– Ngwala Willumbong (a drug and alcohol service provider) — the pilot program is engaged where possible to provide insight to the woman's support network and needs and, if eligible, for referral to the Continuity of Health Program for release planning.
– Djirra provides family violence support, advocacy, or general civil legal support.
– Koori CROP (bail program) promotes family and community connectedness via linkages to community cooperatives.
– Odyssey House — drug and alcohol referrals are conducted weekly by an Aboriginal drug and alcohol worker.
– Child Protection (DHHS) and Lakidjeka (the Aboriginal Child Specialist Advice and Support Service run from VACCA) have increased engagement and transparency with regards to case planning and engagement with the prison and the mother (to be).
– VACCA, Cradle to Kinder and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) are contacted as important service links for Aboriginal women who apply for the program to try to provide adequate support for existing and unborn children.
An interdepartmental Mother and Child Project Control Group was established in October 2017, with membership from the Departments of Health& Human Services and Education & Training to provide expertise in the areas of maternal health, infant and child health, child protection, early childhood education, and foster and kinship care. The cultural needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander mothers and children are paramount to this work, including developing strategies and programs to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women's participation in the program.
A representative from the Aboriginal Commission for Children and Young People was actively involved in consultations around enhancements to the Mothers and Children's program, and VACCA has been invited to provide comment on a number of key documents.
There are a number of considerations that occur when determining whether a mother is eligible to have her child reside in prison, with the best interests of the child paramount in the decision-making.