April Lawrie: The Voice of Change

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In her current role as Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, April Lawrie is calling for the children she advocates for, to be given a voice.

April is a proud Mirning and Kokatha woman. It’s always been this way. In a sense, the voice that April is trying to afford others is the same one given to April as a Mirning and Kokatha woman by her family, by the education system, and now, in government.

Growing up in Kimba, Whyalla and also on the Western Eyre Peninsula of South Australia on Wirangu country in Ceduna and Smoky Bay, a place her Lawrie family, along with Koonibba, call homebase. Living right next to their beloved Nullarbor, their traditional lands.

April recalls that her Australian history teacher in school would often ask her account of things in class as an Aboriginal person, while not feeling compromised, April did feel nervous, but eventually became accustomed to having a voice amongst her peers.

April also recounts that in 1985, when in year twelve, an Australian History teacher said, “April, you’d make a good social worker for your people”. While at the time, April did not understand what a social worker was, today, the irony of being told that she’d make a good social worker for ‘her people’ by an Australian history teacher in 1984 when in 2021 there are still arguments about teaching First Nations history in school was not lost on her.

But social work wasn’t on April’s agenda, to begin with.

April began to study social work at the South Australian Institute of Technology and became what is believed to be the first Aboriginal person enrolled in the social work degree program in Whyalla and graduated in 1990.

Social work was April’s third preference, saying, “My first choice was marine biology, because I was from the far West Coast, loved the coast and the ocean, but I was also a bit reluctant on that because I would have had to go to Queensland, but I got offered social work, and I’ve never looked back. I just wanted to get a job. It was hard for blackfellas to get a job.”

April then began social work in the nineties with one of her first roles being for the Department of Community Welfare. Before that, April says, “I’ve done some youth work and mentoring work with young, troubled people, all young people at risk. “I did that while I lived in Whyalla and was at Uni. I worked at the five-per cent supermarket, pizza hut, and the side-track youth centre. I was a workaholic, very driven, and very determined.”

However, April soon left the Department of Community Welfare, which is the equivalent of today’s Department of Child Protection, and went to work for ACCA (Aboriginal Child Care Agency) saying “That was fantastic, I always tell everybody, working at ACCA was the best Aboriginal History learning I had, three years of intensive Aboriginal history education from Aboriginal people, Aboriginal families, Aboriginal leaders, Aboriginal people statewide and nationally, with the work that that agency was doing with sister organisations in every state and territory, to counter and combat the legacy of the protection era of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.”

Through these positions, April was able to learn about advocacy, project management, policy writing, administration, governance and more.

“Governance was really important, it put me in good stead to be on Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation boards” April recalls, continuing to say, “I had to think laterally, how do we work to meet the organisations objectives but how do you work within the constitution but also meet the needs of the Aboriginal community. I got my best lessons there, and it was there I learnt to follow before I could lead.”

Fast forward to 2018 and April has become a leader herself and was announced as the inaugural South Australian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People. But the role was without statutory powers. “I was established under the constitution act of South Australia, section 68. So, an independent officer, but with no statutes. But the other entities in the Children and Young People’s Oversight and Advocacy Bodies Act, is where the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Guardian for Children and Young People, the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee and the Child Development Council were all established in that act, but I wasn’t in that act”, April explains.

But this all changed on October 21, 2021, when it was proclaimed that the position of Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young people be legislated with equal power in the Oversight and Advocacy Bodies Legislation for children and young people.

April says, however, “I know for a fact that this fight for an Aboriginal advocate for Aboriginal children, young people, has been going on for years to combat the Stolen Generations.” April continues, “But we’re here now, and we still have alarming rates of Aboriginal children going into care and into non-Aboriginal care.”

Shortly after the legislation of her powers which grant her the powers of a Royal Commission to conduct formal inquiries and to advise government ministers, April announced that she would investigate the issues facing First Nations children.

As April explains, “When I was appointed back in 2018, I made it quite clear that should I be in the role when it receives statutory power, that I have a commitment to interrogating the systemic issues on the legislation, policy and practice level. My role is to uphold and promote the rights of children and young people is to uphold and promote the rights of children and young people in regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child but as Aboriginal Commissioner for Children and Young People, it intersects with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people.”

April also expressed that there is research that proves that placing children away from their families and/or culture and community have the worst outcomes, saying “I’m glad we have the Close the Gap Agreement and that targets to do with Child Protection, youth justice, and criminal justice are embedded in the Closing the Gap Agreement to hold governments to account but to also hold our community control services to account and to have them participate in supporting keeping our children young people connected to their families and communities”.

While April aims to change the systemic issues that affect First Nations children and young people, there are still restrictions, and her role limitations are not well understood by the community. April cannot run a formal inquiry into an individual child’s matter nor can her role stop an investigation from the Department of Child Protection and is unable to stop the removal of a child. April's role is to advocate, not interfere. What can be achieved, is identifying issues affecting the population of Aboriginal children and young people and listening to what they have to say and working to make better policies and processes to get better outcomes.

“We had great programs here in South Australia”, April says, “but when there’s reforms and restructures, fantastic programs that are effective in the Aboriginal community were the lowest hanging fruit. They were picked off and gone. That is just fact. We need more levers to unravel more resources into early intervention, prevention, early help for families and community education.”

April emphasis that it is critical that there's local-level decision making, local level family involvement, local level involvement from Aboriginal community-controlled organisations supporting and engaging with families or a family advocacy panel. “A service in Adelaide isn’t going to be able to effect an issue in Ceduna, but an ACCO (Aboriginal community-controlled organisation) in Ceduna can make an impact.” April points out.

April's mission is clear; ensure that the voices of Aboriginal children and young people are heard and listened to. That their families, communities, and culture are not left behind, and for no other reason than because it gives the child, and the family the best chance of a positive outcome in life.