Pro Bono – Reports on Pathfinders Birth Certificate Program

Program helping register First Nations births on last legs

With funding due to run out at the end of the month, Pathfinders Australia is pleading for external funds to keep their doors open.

In this day and age, having a birth certificate might seem like a given. But this isn’t necessarily the case across many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Many First Nations people face barriers to birth registration such as high costs, tracking down paperwork, and in some cases, a distrust of government agencies.

Not having a birth certificate also means not being able to get a drivers licence, vote, open a bank account, enrol in school or access government support.

Over the past few years, NSW-based organisation Pathfinders Australia has been working hard to turn the problem around, registering and providing more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with birth certificates nationally through its Pathfinders National Aboriginal Birth Certificate program.

The program was set up in 2015 by the federal government as part of its Closing the Gap commitments, and has so far been kept going by a mix of government and philanthropic funding.

But with the current round of philanthropic funding coming to a close at the end of this month, Alan Brennan, the CEO of Pathfinders Australia, said they won’t be able to continue to operate unless someone stepped in.

He said that having to work across all states who have differing requirements for birth registration was a complicated and expensive process.

“As an NGO we have limited internal resources to run a program on this scale. It has been life-changing for many people, including young Indigenous Australians who have found themselves imprisoned because they have been driving while unlicensed. Others can finally get a tax file number or an ABN so they can open their own business.”

More than just a certificate

Hilton Naden, Pathfinders senior manager of Aboriginal culture and connections, told Pro Bono Australia that seeing the program come to an end would be devastating.

“In the last week alone, we’ve taken out hundreds of certificates to people across NSW… so the need is still out there,” Naded said.

Over the years the organisation has worked closely with Land Councils, Justices of the Peace, Births, Deaths and Marriages, volunteers and Indigenous communities to hold sign-up days in communities (pre-COVID restrictions), which have seen great success.

Naden said that on one occasion, they were even able to trace an elderly woman’s daughter who was taken from her at 15 as part of the Stolen Generation.

“She said that nobody believed that she had a child… so we got all the information we could, went to Births, Deaths and Marriages and we were able to trace a young girl born at the same hospital at the same time as her daughter,” Naden said.

“When we provided the birth certificate… she just broke down and cried and said that that was the closest she would ever get to her daughter.”

He added that with the upcoming federal election, it was important that all First Nations people were able to vote and have their say.

“It’s more than a piece of paper, it’s documentation to say that they can participate in the community,” he said.

“The more the mob gets their birth registered, they can vote and they can make a difference.”

The organisation is now in the process of setting up a crowdfunding platform to save the program, and will in the meantime, do what they can to help people secure birth certificates.

“We’ll just keep knocking on doors and doing what we do best – provide people with birth certificates,” Naden said.

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