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Commentary August 17th, 2021
Delivery • Justice • Legitimacy
Filiz Casey Communications Manager, Children's Court of Victoria
Ashley Morris Koori Services Coordinator, Children's Court of Victoria

Marram-Ngala Ganbu: a community-led approach to child protection in Victoria

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"Marram-Ngala Ganbu is a Koori Family Hearing day which seeks to provide more effective, culturally appropriate & just response to Koori families" Learn more in this @CPI_foundation piece from @VicGovDFFH

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"It's really important that they have the opportunity now to come into court and express what their issues are and have the children there too because we want our children to stay with the parents" @PamelaPederse16

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The Marram-Ngala Ganbu model promotes therapeutic judicial practice that is less adversarial & Koori-centred, by enabling children & families to engage with the court process.

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For the Koori people living in the Australian state of Victoria, the child protection system has long been seen as a source of friction. From 2014-16, Aboriginal children were 16 times more likely than other children to be involved in both the child protection system and youth justice system. With increasing numbers of Koori children in care, the Children’s Court of Victoria realised there was a better way to enable Koori children, parents, and others to participate in child protection proceedings in a way that is respectful to their cultural identity and needs.

So in 2016, the court launched Marram-Ngala Ganbu (meaning ‘we are one’ in Woiwurrung language): a Koori Family Hearing day which seeks to provide a more effective, culturally appropriate, and just response for Koori families through a court process that enables greater participation by family members and culturally informed decision-making. 

"It's really important that they have the opportunity now to come into court and express what their issues are and have the children there too because we want our children to stay with the parents," explains Yorta Yorta Elder Aunty Pam Pedersen.

Yorta Yorta Elder Aunty Pam Pedersen at the opening ceremony for Marram-Ngala Ganbu at the Shepparton Children’s Court Yorta Yorta Elder Aunty Pam Pedersen at the opening ceremony for Marram-Ngala Ganbu at the Shepparton Children’s Court

Since commencing operations at Broadmeadows, the program expanded to Shepparton Children’s Court in Victoria in 2021 and has supported more than 500 Koori families to date. Funding for the expansion of the program to Shepparton was provided under Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja, the fourth phase of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement. The Marram-Ngala Ganbu model promotes therapeutic judicial practice that is less adversarial and Koori-centred, by enabling children and families to engage productively with the court process and provide an opportunity to have their say and be heard.

Key adaptations

Adapted Court Setting

A core feature of the Marram-Ngala Ganbu model is the adapted courtroom setting. Marram-Ngala Ganbu operates differently from the mainstream Children’s Court by providing a culturally safe courtroom setting and using communication styles that make court a more welcoming place for Koori families. The hearings are less formal than regular Children’s Court sittings, using plain English rather than legal terminology. The parties sit around an oval table and directly talk with the magistrate to ensure children and their families feel more comfortable and less intimidated by the court process. Extended family members are invited to attend the hearing. The caseload is limited to 10 cases per day to allow more time and flexibility for each matter. 

Case Management 

A case management approach led through a partnership of the Koori Services Coordinator, Koori Family Support Officer and the Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing (Child Protection) Practice Leader provides oversight on each court case to ensure they continue to progress. This includes ensuring families and DFFH are prepared for cases to be heard on court hearing days, and that court orders are followed-up. The use of case docketing also ensures that magistrates are familiar with the details of each case, and court orders are managed consistently by one magistrate as they progress. 

The Koori Services Coordinator is the key liaison with services and judicial staff and has general oversight of the day-to-day operations of Marram-Ngala Ganbu. The role is supported by the Koori Family Support Officers who build relationships with Koori families and provide support before, during and after a hearing day. Koori Family Support Officers also support Magistrates, court staff, lawyers, and service providers to better understand families’ circumstances to ensure court-orders are fulfilled and to improve their cultural competency. These roles are held by Koori people who are respected members of the local Koori community.

Elements for success

The Marram-Ngala Ganbu has highlighted a number of lessons that could be applied more broadly across the court system and public sector to improve outcomes for Koori families. 

Enabling innovation in the justice system

The challenge of enabling innovation within the public sector has been widely acknowledged and discussed over recent decades with the Victorian Government releasing a Public Sector Innovation Strategy in April 2019. This strategy highlights the role of leadership, employee empowerment and collaborative partnership to making change that is valuable to people and communities -- all of which are reflected in the Marram-Ngala Ganbu model. 

Marram-Ngala Ganbu’s implementation is a success story of innovation in the public sector, made possible by the Koori Services Coordinator being granted sufficient flexibility to push the accepted norms and the authorising environment by the magistrates who provided legitimacy for the model. This demonstrates a deep commitment to Aboriginal self-determination through changes to the traditional court set-up and functioning and allows for these innovative approaches to make the court a more welcoming and culturally safe place for Koori families.

“I have a case where the mother was getting holistic supports, which wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t linked in [with Koori services]. With this family, they had a higher level of trust with Koori service workers than with department workers, for them to move forward with the case that was very important to have them work with those services.” - Lawyer

Koori-led design and services

The process of designing and implementing Marram-Ngala Ganbu is an example of co-design in the justice system which provides valuable lessons for innovation in the public sector. Often design thinking can be hampered by bureaucracy, administrative processes, and the political nature of decision-making. By co-creating the program and solutions for Koori children by involving the Aboriginal community, the process aims to circumvent these hurdles to collaboration by collectively  identifying cultural needs, encouraging greater participation, and determining the measures of success.  

Marram-Ngala Ganbu meets the needs of the Koori community because its design was led by, and for, Koori people. This culturally centred approach has led to substantial improvements in the experience of Koori families, which in turn leads to more families staying together. Often families being referred to Aboriginal community-controlled services felt those services better met their needs and were leading to better outcomes in the courtroom. Additionally, there are tangible benefits of having Koori staff working in the courts as it removes unconscious bias and creates a culturally safe environment for Koori children and their families. 

I feel confident every single time I walk in there. I can say what I feel in Koori Court (Marram Ngala Ganbu). You have an opportunity to sit around and get a chance to get to the bottom of what is the problem” - Koori father

Coordination and integration

It is widely recognised that the child protection system in Victoria is strained with increasing numbers of Koori children in care and a constrained funding environment. The functions of Marram-Ngala Ganbu have highlighted how a case management approach can be an effective means of coordinating and providing accountability, thereby ensuring the multitude of services targeted for Koori families are working together effectively to improve outcomes.     

The program also connects with the local community to leverage the power of connectedness and belonging. A sense of connection to culture and kinship is paramount for many Koori families. This work includes integration and referrals to local Aboriginal support services to ensure a more coordinated approach.  It was found that Koori families involved with Marram-Ngala have discovered their Koori identity and family connections through the court system. This highlights that the courts have had, and can play, a role in establishing this connection.

The most important part is, with Aboriginal people we’re always being put down. Going into Marram-Ngala Ganbu it makes you feel at ease because you aren’t being judged for what you are. You are being just as a parent only, when you are at the table and being able to talk about things you are treated as an equal as well. - Grandfather (Koori)

Outcomes for court users

Marram-Ngala Ganbu has been successful in encouraging Koori children and families involved in the child protection system to actively participate in decision-making and support families to stay together. The program has enabled greater participation by family members and more culturally informed decisions. This reflects an ongoing commitment to Aboriginal self-determination and innovative approaches that accommodate the needs of Koori families.

Written by:

Filiz Casey Communications Manager, Children's Court of Victoria
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Ashley Morris Koori Services Coordinator, Children's Court of Victoria
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