A Queensland Indigenous woman sacked two days after filing an official complaint about racism is taking a government-funded domestic violence organisation to the workplace watchdog.
Case managerSamantha Cooper had worked for the Centre Against Domestic Abuse in the Moreton Bay region, north of Brisbane, since March, running a pilot program aimed at helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
After six months of alleged racial discrimination, and several stated attempts to deal with the issues more informally, she filed an official complaint on November 27 outlining a long list of alleged incidents.
The 25-year-old had been described as going “walkabout”, told she was “quite pretty for an Aboriginal” and asked if she had ever met a “real” Aboriginal person, she claimed.
Two days later she was fired, effective immediately, leaving her “gutted” and worried about what would happen to the 12 families she said she was working with.
“I’m really concerned that that was the reaction to raising a formal complaint,” the third-year law student said.
“If they’ve got other reasons, I’d welcome that and I’d much prefer that for that community, because it would be really horrific to think that raising a formal complaint about racism would result in me being terminated.”
A little less than a month earlier, on November 2, a letter from the organisation’s manager, seen by Fairfax Media, confirmed Ms Cooper had been employed on a “fix term” contract until September 2018.
In Ms Cooper’s termination letter, CADA blamed the state government reallocating funding.
“Whilst negotiations were ongoing with the funding body, we extended your contract,” CADA wrote.
“We have now been informed that due to funds being made available in the region for another position, the project is no longer required.”
A Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women spokesman denied funding had been cut to Ms Cooper’s Breaking Down the Barriers program, which he described as a 12-month project having started in March.
He said a new allocation of $120,000 had been granted in October for a full-time Indigenous worker starting January 1.
“Any decision around staffing is a matter for the organisation,” he said in a statement.
CADA is a registered charity, funded by the Department of Communities to the tune of $2.7 million in 2016-2017, an increase of $400,000 from the year before. CADA rejects complaints as ‘without substance’
A CADA spokesman told Fairfax Media Breaking Down The Barriers was only a six-month project and the organisation had extended Ms Cooper’s employment by a month in the hope the funding would be extended.
He said Ms Cooper had asked for the letter confirming her employment to be written and that an independent investigator had looked into her complaints and found they were “without substance”.
Calling the claims a “beat-up”, he refused to share the results of the report or anything from the department relating to a funding cut.
“The bottom line is none of these allegations started until she started hearing rumours that the money wasn’t going to continue and all of a sudden there’s a claim that all this kind of stuff’s happened,” he said, labelling the complaints “quite disturbing slander”.
“The two things are totally separate as far as we’re concerned.
“One is a claim of certain behaviour and the other one is, the project’s finished. The work that needs to be continued, if it’s going to continue, doesn’t require the skill set, or requires a different skill set, which that person doesn’t necessarily have.” Breaking Down the Barriers program ‘vital’
Caboolture Indigenous elder Aunty Lynne Matsen described the work Ms Cooper had been doing as “vital”.
She said there were problems with the design of the program but: “Sam did an excellent job. She made that project work.”
Indigenous women are up to 35 times more likely to experience domestic and family violence than non-Indigenous women, according to the The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022.
Aunty Lynne said the service provided “tokenism” rather than acceptance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and she was yet to hear anything from the centre in regards to a new Indigenous worker.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women did not like going to the police and there was a “big hole” in support for those suffering domestic violence in the Caboolture area, she said.
Ms Cooper’s grievance report form alleged discrimination and breach of duty of care and called for an email to be sent addressing issues, a formal apology and supervision for her role.
She claimed to have spoken to her team leader following most incidents, recorded notes of them to ensure accuracy and had a meeting with her manager on November 20 and her team leader the following day.
In an email sent along with the form, she complained that a number of issues raised in that meeting had not been acted on.
Those included comments made in the past six months relating to her Aboriginality, including that she did not look like an Aboriginal person and was prevented from meeting with elders.
The matter is listed for a Fair Work Commission hearing on January 24.
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