A proud Gamilaraay woman, Queensland’s Family and Child Commissioner (QFCC), Natalie Lewis, has dedicated her life work to upholding and protecting the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Growing up on Jagera and Turrbal land, where she has raised her two children, she is particularly passionate about upholding the rights of children whose agency has been stripped by child protection and youth justice systems.

Starting out as a researcher in the Aboriginal deaths in custody monitoring unit after the Royal Commission and leading the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak (QATSICPP) as the CEO, Natalie’s work has been distinguished by a commitment to dignity, freedom and justice for all: “I’ve never strayed far from the space of pursuing justice, and I think that in working in that space, a rights-based approach has been the only thing that made sense to me.”

“I’ve been fortunate that there’s not been too much distance between what matters in your soul and what I get to do every day.”

QCOSS sat down with Commissioner Lewis to ask her about children’s rights, the Queensland Human Rights Act review, and the 75th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Something that Natalie reiterated throughout the interview was that the most crucial way to uphold children’s rights is to recognise that, first and foremost, children are full rights holders.

“That lack of recognition or reluctance to embrace children as rights holders in Queensland has come about because there’s been a distinct absence of consideration and priority given to children beyond some programmatic responses and announcements from government every now and then,” she says.

“A real mark of progress would be to move children towards the centre of decision making in how we design policy and how we set budgets.”

Children’s rights in Queensland commonly only come up in the context of a crisis, as we have seen with the recent focus on youth justice. This, as Natalie aptly puts it, inevitably “finds us in a place where we get tangled up in an argument about children’s rights versus someone else’s rights and that’s so incredibly unhelpful because they’re not mutually exclusive or incompatible”.

Twice we have seen the Queensland Human Rights Act (the Act) suspended to override the rights of children involved with the justice system. The problem with the Act is that it is often “engaged in the context of adult issues or a problem in our society… which is being experienced by or advocated by adults,” Natalie says.

“In doing that we de-prioritise kids, we remove them from the discourse.”

Despite this Natalie has faith that Queenslanders would “not contest that kids have a right to access quality education or that they should live free from violence or that they should be able to go to a doctor if they need care”, and if we chipped away the sometimes confusing legal language of the Act, we could find the “fierce point of agreement that we have in this state” – that all Queenslanders should have access to equal rights.

The key to respecting children’s rights in the Act, Natalie says, is in the implementation of equal participatory rights, as specified in one of the four general principles of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (Article 12). Tired of hearing about First Nations children only being characterised by dysfunction, Natalie is driven to “promote children and young people and their perspectives, especially those who don’t typically get to participate in the discourse, such as children and young people involved with the youth justice system”.

For example, the QFCC’s Yarning for Change report was built from interviews with children and young people about their experiences with the youth justice system. Natalie notes the Commission’s obligation to not simply accept the stories of overrepresentation in the child protection and youth justice systems. She says those systems “problematise our children, our families and our communities”.

“At the Commission we have the opportunity to present a different vantage point – one that is much closer to the truth of who we are.

“We need to acknowledge the harm, absolutely, but we need to seize control of that characterisation of us going forward. The more that we can position our young people to do that, the closer we are to that point of truth.

“That’s why the rights of children are so incredibly important.”

While Natalie feels the Commission is getting better at positioning the perspectives of children and young people in participating in their rights, the responsibility to uphold children’s rights belongs to all public entities.

“There’s nothing stopping organisations, whether that’s small service providers or big systems, like the education system, from applying an interpretation of the human rights act as it exists… making changes within those systems or organisations to give practical effect to the UNCRC. That can be done.”

Natalie would like to see the Queensland Human Rights Act more explicitly protecting the rights of children in line with the UNCRC and embedding the principles of the UNCRC in “our domestic law so there’s not the capacity for people to overlook the fact that children are humans and that they also have the same rights”. Natalie reminds us that the age of a rights holder does not limit our obligations as duty bearers, and we should “position our systems (to) provide remedies for children and young people that specifically take into account not just their need for guidance as they grow up but their evolving capacities”.

There is enough ambiguity around Queensland’s Human Rights laws to have enabled a complacency by duty bearers of children’s rights. Natalie sees that this lack of accountability has enabled the Queensland government to neglect children’s rights. As Natalie points out, the sector does not need the permission of the government to use the UNCRC as a tool in our advocacy to uphold the rights of children.

“It’s really just about saying: let’s just not lose kids in the blind spot… we need to take that extra moment and say where are the children and young people in this picture of what I do or how I do it? And really think about, are there additional things we can do to better respect, promote and protect the rights of children.”

Natalie believes that the invisibility of children in the way we discuss children’s rights and plan for the future in Queensland is why we, as the sector “need to be very loud, be very vocal and be very focussed in our advocacy in making sure that in our pursuit of particular reforms – whether housing or domestic violence – that we don’t inadvertently render children invisible because then we’re playing the same game and we’re producing the same poor outcomes”.

Change the Record and QCOSS are currently partnering on a campaign that explicitly and loudly champions the rights of younger children in connection with the youth justice system. To join the campaign, sign up here.

7 December 2023
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