Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being removed from their families and traditional country by the statutory child protection authority Family and Community Services (FACS) in unprecedented numbers.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported a rise in the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged up to 17 in out of home care across all states and territories over the past decade.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are about nine times more likely to be in out of home care than non-Aboriginal children (44.8 in every 1000 compared with 4.9 in every 1000).
In NSW alone, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of Aboriginal children being removed since the Bringing Them Home report in 1997. These outcomes have been condemned by many, such as Yolgnu elder Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, as evidence of Australia’s ongoing stolen generations.
The Newtown Amnesty International Action group (AIA Newtown) recently collaborated with the Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR) campaign to host a forum, “Still Stolen”, about the issue.
The forum, held at the Yaama Dhiyaan hospitality Training Centre, was chaired by Aunty Deb Swan (GMAR), and Ken Walsh (AIA Newtown). Walsh said AIA Newtown planned to make it a central campaign.
Gemma Unwin, manager of the Family Matters program, said Aboriginal people were not more likely than non-Aboriginal people to physically abuse their children, but Aboriginal children were more likely to be removed for substantiated cases of neglect and emotional abuse than non-Aboriginal people.
Unwin said the increased rate of removals may be partially explained by child protection workers who are not trained to adequately assess emotional neglect and differentiate neglect from the effects of living in poverty.
Greens MLC David Shoebridge recently visited Aboriginal communities with GMAR activists. He said many “Aboriginal women are too afraid to give birth in the local hospitals, anticipating welfare workers would be waiting to take children”.
Shoebridge said families lived in “genuine fear” of the power that FACs has over their lives. This fear is also amplified alongside emerging accounts of Aboriginal children being removed from families by riot police. Riot police used a sledge hammer to enter a home in Moree to forcibly remove eight Aboriginal children last month.
Shoebridge said many safe non-offending family and community members are often denied kinship care.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to have a criminal record, due to systemic racism, including high police surveillance and racial profiling. This prohibits many from becoming kinship carers.
Shoebridge said some child protection workers were invasive and culturally insensitive: “Child protection workers are walking into a house and seeing if there is food in the cupboards … while there may not be food in the house, aunties and grandmothers may be feeding the family at their house.”
He said Cultural Care plans are often not meaningfully enacted, and implied many non-Aboriginal carers are failing to involve and connect Aboriginal children and young people with their Aboriginal cultures.
“Taking an Aboriginal child to NAIDOC week events once a year is not a Cultural Care plan,” he said.
For the forum speakers, these stories highlight the failure of FACS to meaningfully engage Aboriginal families and communities in planning and decision-making and are indicative of endemic organisational “cultural blindness” and blatant racism.
Violence against children should never be minimised and the safety and wellbeing of all children must be central to any discussion regarding child protection. There are certainly situations where removing children either temporarily or permanently is necessary for the safety of the child.
However, it was clear from the forum speakers that the government continues to fail Aboriginal children, families and communities.
The federal government’s budget plans to cut millions from Aboriginal services, which will greatly reduce the already limited number and capacity of Aboriginal controlled services. With even less culturally safe support services for Aboriginal families, the rate of child removal from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is likely to increase.
In the words GMAR’s Aunty Hazel: “Aboriginal people want power and control as communities to make decisions about caring for children.”