‘My identity is my being; it is my spirit, it connects me to my family and it empowers my culture. Not knowing who I am, where I come from and where I have been; I don’t know where I am going. My identity is the light that illuminates the path I choose to take in my life’.
 
Gina Milgate, Australian Citizen, Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri Daughter, Sister, Aunty, Educator and Researcher. 
 
Quoted in Winter, Will. The Minimbah Project: Facilitating Birth Registration and Birth Certificates in Rural and Regional Communities, Castan, M. and Gerber P. (Eds.) (2015) Proof of Birth, Future Leaders.

Preface Decorative image

In launching the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria (BDM) Coolamon Strategy, I acknowledge the Kulin Nation, on whose lands BDM is based. I acknowledge the efforts of many Koori Elders, both past and present, to secure the heritage and future of Victoria’s Koori community, and I extend BDM's hand of friendship in continuing that task.

Research in Victoria has demonstrated that Koori people experience barriers to registering births and applying for birth certificates. The level of non-registration of births has been identified as higher in the Koori community than among other Victorians. Yet the importance of preserving individual and family identity in Koori culture is integral to the work of BDM's mission, and an area in which BDM seeks to work collaboratively with Koori community members.

People whose births are not registered face barriers to services and opportunities that many of us take for granted.  Not having access to a birth certificate can have profound impacts for a person’s social participation and life chances. Specific impacts may include difficulties accessing education and training; obtaining tax file numbers, passports and learner driver permits; and, accessing government services and payments.

BDM has developed this Coolamon Strategy to document BDM's commitment to working to increase the Koori community’s access to the registration of key life events, particularly births, and the obtaining of related certificates. The Coolamon Strategy is a living document, and BDM welcomes suggestions from the Koori community of other initiatives for inclusion in the strategy.

Working together is a central principle of the Coolamon Strategy, to make sure that Koori access to the services of BDM is supported in the most respectful, culturally sensitive and effective way.

James Lawson
Director and Registrar
Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria

The significance of the coolamon

The name ‘coolamon’ was chosen for this strategy by BDM’s first Indigenous graduate, Cienan Muir, to symbolise the enduring and sometimes ceremonial services which BDM offers community members at key life stages. The coolamon has different symbolic meanings and uses in different groups around Victoria and creation stories regarding the coolamon may differ. We have used a broad definition of the coolamon.

A coolamon is a traditional Indigenous carrying vessel with curved sides. Their shape, similar to a canoe, suggests the journey of life, and they are traditionally used to support many points of that journey. Coolamons involve all members of the community: they are traditionally made by men and used by women. Their uses include cradling babies; carrying water, fruits or nuts; winnowing grains in the traditional bread-making process; even for protection from rain. Preserving the identity of individuals and their connections with each other is at the heart of BDM’s services. Similarly, coolamons are symbols of identity: they are often ornately decorated with totemic or other designs representing the extended family of the people using them. 

The coolamon is built to endure. It is typically made from hardwood, such as mallee, and tempered to withstand heat and stress. This quality represents BDM’s role of preserving Victorians’ life records in perpetuity. The use of coolamons in ceremonies resonates with the significance of the life events BDM records. Finally, the origins of the coolamon—wood removed from a part of the tree that will not harm the life of the tree—represents BDM’s mission of respecting the integrity of the life events it records, and the people involved in them.

The rounded sides of the coolamon echo the evolutions of community life, and are reminders of traditional sacred circles, where family disagreements and community issues are left outside, and the focus is on the business to be done. In a similar way, BDM seeks to work with Koori community members, organisations and other agencies, to get the business of registration completed, and extend the services of BDM to all Koori people.

Purpose

The purpose of the Coolamon Strategy is to increase access to services provided by BDM to members of Victoria’s Koori  community. (Throughout the Coolamon strategy the term ‘Koori’ is used to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.)

Background

BDM was established in 1853 as part of the Colony of Victoria. The mid-nineteenth century, the time BDM was established, was a period of significant destruction and dislocation for Koori communities.

BDM today

BDM is responsible for preserving the records of key life events which take place in Victoria, such as:

  • Births 
  • Marriages 
  • Changes of Name
  • Adoptions 
  • Domestic and caring relationships 
  • Deaths.

These records are the key source for proving individual identity and family relationships. They are also a rich resource for family history identity, genealogical studies and (in de-identified form) for government and for researchers to better understand community needs.

In 2013, the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) produced a report on the rate of birth registration across the Victorian community. In the report, the VLRC found that access to BDM's services, including birth registrations, tended to be lower among members of the Koori community than the Victorian population average. This observation is supported by BDM's experience that the number of outstanding hospital birth notifications (that is, those which have not been matched by subsequent birth registration statements from parents) tend to be highest in the Victorian regions with a high proportion of Koori community members.

The VLRC attributed the lack of access to BDM services to a range of factors, including lack of awareness of the benefits of registration, financial barriers, cultural unease with official registration of children, and familial dislocation (for example, family violence or factors such as substance abuse leading to disruption of family relationships).

The focus of the Coolamon Strategy is to make the services offered by BDM more accessible to members of Victoria’s Koori community. Each of the four areas of focus for BDM are set out below. The Coolamon Strategy will be underpinned by an action plan which will detail how BDM intends to implement the Strategy.

Focus of the Coolamon Strategy

Increasing awareness of BDM's services

BDM will work with the Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee executive officers to find the most effective way to communicate BDM's services to regional communities. BDM is keen to travel to regional areas and engage with local Koori communities and organisations, to raise awareness of the services that BDM provides and also assist with birth registrations, as it is never too late to register a birth.

BDM will also work with local Aboriginal community organisations which engage with Koori community members when a child is born, so that parents have access to the right information at the right time, in a culturally sensitive format.

Working with government and community agencies to support Koori community members

BDM is building relationships with other government and community agencies so that Koori community members affected by social dislocation can access BDM services despite their lives being interrupted.

Some initiatives currently being progressed or planned by BDM include:

  • BDM is working with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services to establish a pilot for undertaking checks on birth registration for children in out of home care, so that a child can obtain a birth certificate enabling them to access other community services. 
  • BDM is working with maternity hospitals to improve the information received on the birth of a child in Victoria, including the Indigenous status of the mother, as well as a phone number for the mother, allowing BDM to follow up outstanding birth notifications.
  • BDM is working with Mission Australia’s Social Enterprise’s Charcoal Lane and Synergy Auto Repairs to find ways to reduce barriers for young people in these programs to obtain birth certificates, which will assist the young people to obtain other key documents, such as a tax file number, and achieve independence and stability.  
  • BDM will work with the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) to develop frequently asked questions in regards to completing a birth registration form to make it easier for Koori parents to register the birth of their child.
  • BDM will work with Corrections Victoria to explore ways to ensure that Koori community members who enter the prison system receive a birth certificate before their release, to support their integration into society after they leave prison. 
  • BDM will partner with the Dispute Settlement Centre Victoria to deliver information sessions on BDM services to Koori communities in regional Victoria.
  • BDM will work to build relationships with key community agencies providing family violence services so that women affected by family violence can be given the information and support they need to complete their child’s birth registration in a safe way. 

Ensuring that the services of BDM are delivered in a culturally sensitive way

BDM is working on ensuring that its services are delivered in a culturally sensitive way, and that Koori people feel welcome and supported when accessing BDM’s services. While this is the responsibility of all BDM staff, BDM’s Koori Relationships Officer, Kristen Bell, is available however, if customers require assistance.

BDM has already taken a number of steps towards providing a more welcoming service for Koori people, including the installation of Aboriginal, Australian and Torres Strait Islander flags in BDM Service Centre (the Centre), the unveiling of a plaque in the Centre acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which BDM sits, and bringing together BDM staff to acknowledge and celebrate key events such as Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week. Importantly, the Koori Relationships Officer will be available to assist Koori people who encounter difficulties in accessing BDM’ services.

BDM recognises that the standard official certificates may have limited cultural resonance for some community members. BDM offers a commemorative certificate with artwork by three acclaimed Victorian Koori artists but recognises that this needs to be better promoted. 
BDM will also be developing a Koori Inclusion Action Plan (KIAP) that formalises priorities and actions for BDM to ensure it provides a sustainable and safe environment for all staff and citizens, that is respectful and inclusive of the perspectives, experiences and needs of Koori people.

Improving the cultural sensitivity of BDM's services

BDM is aware that some members of the Koori community, particularly young people, can find accessing BDM's services quite intimidating, and have to be encouraged by community members and outreach workers to attend BDM to apply for birth certificates.  Such uncertainty can prevent members of the Koori community from obtaining the certificates they need to access services and opportunities in the community. These stories compel BDM to reflect deeply on the impressions that it can create for Koori people.

BDM has listened to the feedback from the Koori community and has responded with several actions, including the employment of a Koori Relationships Officer (initially for a period of 12 months), the installation of  the Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags in BDM and by celebrating important occasions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We look forward to building on these actions by increasing community engagement and working to foster relationships and trust between the Koori community and BDM.

Reducing financial barriers to access certificates

Where members of the Koori community demonstrate that their financial position is a barrier to their application for a standard certificate, including a birth certificate, BDM waives the standard certificate fee.

Review

The Coolamon Strategy is a living document, which is amended as it operates to ensure it remains effective and capable of responding flexibly to changing needs.

Contacting BDM

BDM is committed to providing culturally sensitive services to Koori people. 

The Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria
595 Collins Street Melbourne

1300 369 367 (within Australia) 
+61 3 9613 5111 (overseas callers)
8am - 4pm Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays) 

BDM has a Koori Relationships Officer to assist with enquiries. Email: BDMIndigenousAccess@justice.vic.gov.au (External link)

Download the Coolamon Strategy

You can download a copy of the Coolamon Strategy.